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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Esther Shumyatsher: Congratulations!

"Congratulations!" by Esther Shumyatsher
As appears in Khesbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 10-12.
Translated by Mark L. Smith.

We have built so many homes, and so many of our homes have been destroyed. Our dispersion is perhaps our strength -- not national, but physical strength - which has prevented the Jewish body from being wiped off the face of the earth. 
Our tradition holds that creation began with us. The song of creation wanders through our consciousness and demands to be a part of our life and soul. Just as love cannot live without freedom, freedom cannot live without love. So it is with a people that has already been torn from its roots for thousands of years; through thousands of years of exile we have wandered around like nightwalkers. Somewhere, we lost our soul. To this day, we seek a home for our tortured 248 limbs, to give healthy air to our disturbed spirit — an end to the people’s ceaseless suffering. We should be able to plant a tree with that divine quivering that binds the earth and heaven together.
The Jewish soul has already endured so many revolutions. The Jewish spirit extinguishes itself in one part of the world and another fire is born elsewhere. Saadia Gaon in Babylon — a fresh spirit arises in the figure of a poet in Spain. The poets give the people an outpouring of emotion: a new striving and new Jewish ascent. The Jewish exile-fate with its way of living, established for a thousand years, has been obliterated in such a painful and tragic way. Are we worthy of taking on the inheritance and making a new flame that will give the Jewish people spirit, courage, strength, joy and laughter? Jewish Lithuania, the land of Torah and poverty — there, in hunger and poverty, religious-ethical and revolutionary schools of thought were created. Just like Hasidism, the religious renaissance of the Jews, so also did the Lithuanian musar [Jewish ethical movement] bring a moral revolution to the life and striving of those people.
We steer our ship at times with a compass, but more often without a compass. Often it brings us to sandy shores and stormy waters. Often our ship is destroyed on rocky shores. We, the old and experienced people with such a frightful exilic past, through all the generations of being trampled and degraded — had to develop the ability to draw a drop of honey from the bitterness of life.
In the Talmud it says: “You should honor the poor because it is they who guard the Torah.” In the Talmud is also the saying: “Even the birds in the air hate the miser.”
In what connection do I cite the above-mentioned lines from the Talmud? With reference to the fact that our benefactors in America do not sense sufficiently their fateful obligation to the people. Without a doubt, we must issue a call to return to God, to the Torah, to social and cultural tolerance. In all generations we have carried the eternal flame for living, literally like a divine mission. We have found in ourselves the strength to overcome destructions and to go further. We have carried forth a flame hungry for life. Can such a demanding flame be born in such a satisfied life here in America?
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai did not believe in the sword. When Rome attacked Jerusalem and the end was already near — ben Zakkai rescued the Torah in a small town, Yavneh. When Jerusalem is under a mountain of ash, Yavneh becomes the spiritual soul of exile. He well understood that if he would guard Jewishness, the Jewish people would be eternal.
For us Jews in Los Angeles, life advances spontaneously. By all signs, it appears that life here is advancing so quickly that Los Angeles will become the second largest Jewish community for Yiddish creativity after New York. On the Atlantic Coast there is a great Jewish fortress of millions of Jews, who still do not comprehend their strength and the spirit that is waiting for that age-old flame to be summoned to life. In the meantime, there still exists there a sort of spiritual chaos. The gateway to the great world of the future — Asia — where hundreds of millions of people struggle in darkness and degradation, hundreds of millions of starving stomachs will demand bread and water and freedom of knowledge. The Pacific Coast will have the honor of building the bridge that ties the East with the West. We Jews, we can be useful, both for ourselves and for the world. But foremost comes the obligation to ourselves, our people. A Yavneh must be created here. A Yavneh which will, first of all, guard Jewishness and call to life creative forces so that we can carry on. As the yeshivah director in Khaym Grade’s “Musarnikes” says, “If one cannot get across — one must get across!”
The Talmud compares the achievement of Ezra to Moses’ achievement. Moses created the people; Ezra created its Torah.
Even our sadness is no sadness. At one time, sadness was purifying. Sadness led to an outpouring of the heart. Creative forces were brought to life. This, too, we have lost. Somewhere, we lost our way. The age-old hunger for knowledge, learning for the sake of learning; Torah for the sake of Torah, believing for the sake of believing — the three holy concepts no longer exist in our life. People come to a gathering and want the priestly benediction to go as quickly as possible, and then finished! Just as there are no half truths, there are no half or quarter deeds. The same is true for faith. We believe — we must believe with heart and soul. We dare not go the way of compromise. Therefore, our believers had in themselves the strength for self-sacrifice.
Elia Tenenholtz is taking us to show us the corner where the Culture Club of Los Angeles is nearing completion. The building — young, light — inside Jewish craftsmen are occupied with their work. Some are painting and fitting windows, others planing a board. Here a craftsman is busy with the bookshelves built into the walls. The eyes of the craftsmen are lit up. People are working on the building with love and devotion, and although the people doing the work are being paid, there is still the feeling that they are doing Jewish work for the sake of Jewish existence.
Let us regard our little property with respect and dignity, that here should be an open door for our movable culture — a home that will give knowledge, courage, strength, joy and laughter, hope and love.
Congratulations, Yiddish Culture Club of Los Angeles!
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