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Recovering Yiddish Culture in Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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W. Ostrowski: Cultural Activity in Los Angeles

"Cultural Activity in Los Angeles" by W. (William) Ostrowski 
As appears in Khesbn (The Reckoning), vol. 1 (1946): 33-35.
Translated by Mark Smith.
[Translator's note: words underlined were written in English, but with Yiddish letters.]

From the first impression that a newcomer could have, it is apparent that Yiddish cultural life here is bubbling. There are lectures, concerts, Yiddish schools and reading circles. There is a [Yiddish] newspaper in the city and Yiddish books are published here more than in other larger Jewish cities throughout the country.
This demonstrates that the local Jews have a decided interest in the areas of Yiddish culture.
Yet many of these cultural undertakings are accidental occurrences. A lecture is scheduled when it can bring a larger number of visitors to one or another branch of an order. An organization opens a school when it can attract new members. Jewish art is utilized, or better, exploited, when one must have a “craft,” a horse, as someone here once said, to attract an audience in order to make a few dollars for the “holy cause” of a given movement. Yiddish drama, song, etc., are brought to support an undertaking, if one can get a Yiddish actor, singer, or orator without cost or for a small cost. When our community leaders get really ambitious, “big-city minded” as they put it, our “forces” are too weak for them, but being so close to Hollywood, the Hollywood stars help out.
In addition to all the societies, unions, and organizations that make use of Yiddish art and cultural events for their own purposes, from time to time there are and have been several societies among us here in the city that have purely cultural goals.
Already more than thirty years ago, a Jewish institute was active here, an independent Jewish cultural institute, with a significant scope, considering the small Jewish population of that time.
The Jewish folk-shul (elementary school) was founded as a nonpartisan institution in 1919.
A branch of the “Jewish Culture Society” was active here for some years.
The “Yiddish Culture Club” was founded in 1926 as a Yiddish cultural institution that would give its members an opportunity to continue living culturally Yiddish lives. There were many, attempts here in the area of theater. The actors Tenenholts, Baratov, and Goldfaden tried to establish an ongoing theater here at various times. The “Vilner trupe” guest starred here for a whole season at the time of their arrival in America, and the “Repertuar teater,” headed by Vinogradov, for a season.
The Yiddish theater society “Idteg” [Yiddish Days] was active here in the years 1929 – 1932. A studio for young people, led by the Tsemakh brothers, was one of the “Idteg” undertakings.
A drama studio for young people under the direction of E. Tenenholts was supported by the L.A. Yiddish Club — for many years.
The Yiddish Scientific Institute — “YIVO” — after its founding in Vilna, issued a request among its friends here to create an L.A. branch. But apart from a few weeks a year, during the time of the annual appeal for the institute, it did not function more broadly.
In 1937, “YKUF” [the Communist-led Yidisher kultur farband, Yiddish Culture Alliance] was founded in Paris, with Ben Adir as secretary. Organizations and important cultural leaders from the whole world of Yiddish culture joined this association. It looked as if a renaissance in Yiddish cultural life had begun. The time was not, however, favorable. The Second World War was in preparation. At that time, one could already smell the gunpowder in the air. The political divisiveness in Jewish life defeated every attempt at greater communal cultural activity.
The membership of the local branch of “YKUF” consisted exclusively of the elements who were associated with the culture society and other culture groups that were active in general cultural matters locally. The “leftists,” of course, had their representation. Their party members and adherents would appear only at larger events. So it was, until the [1939 Hitler-Stalin] “Pact,” when the “YKUF” was necessarily taken over by the avowed leftists.
The “Tsiko” [Tsentral idisher kultur organizatsye] was organized after the founding of “YKUF.” The Central Yiddish Culture Organization [Tsiko/CYCO], founded on American soil, was composed of those elements who did not want to join with the leftists. The YKUF, which was organized in Paris and which attracted much interest in the Yiddish world, threatened to swallow up the nonpartisan culture circles and even large sections of the right-leaning groups. As a result, the initiative for the Tsiko here, as across the country in general, was taken by the right-leaning party elements. When the YKUF was drained of its nonpartisan elements after the “Pact,” and the influence of the organization was weakened, the Tsiko also became superfluous for its initiators and has now disappeared almost without a trace.
However, the majority of the Yiddish cultural activity here in the city, as in other cities in our country, remains in large measure dependent on the various political groupings in Jewish life, such as those for care of the unwell and for illness benefits, our Yiddish culture and art also serves the interest of the well-organized parties and circles. This shows clearly that our fields of culture and art are, after all, useful, marketable, articles.
So why should it be only a “by-product” — an accidental activity?
An exception is the case of our L.A. Yiddish Culture Club. It is not dependent on any given political party or order and devotes itself principally to Yiddish cultural activity.
Therefore, I want to express here my warmest wish that, in its new building, the L.A. Yiddish Culture Club will occupy itself with a more multifaceted and well planned cultural work and truly raise itself to the level destined for it and at which it ought to be.
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