A Vanishing World: What Will Become of the Yung Yiddish Museum?

The “Yung Yiddish" museum, tucked away inside a massive bus station, is something in between a library and an underground club. Its collections have survived two world wars in Europe. Whether they can survive the disparaging attitude in Israel remains to be seen.

Amit Naor
The Yung Yiddish museum in the Tel Aviv New Central Bus Station. Photo: Amit Naor

“May your journey be as smooth as ice!” I imagined the fellow I bumped into on my way to the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv shout after me. With a tilt of the head and one eye closed, the huge station, with its eclectic mix of stores, hawkers, passers-by and a general ramshackle atmosphere, could perhaps pass for a bustling Polish shtetl from the early twentieth century. That kind of chilly greeting is exactly what one would expect to hear in such a shtetl, if one had bumped into a young fellow rushing to the market to sell his eggs.

With this thought in mind, I entered the bus station’s hulking edifice. I was there to visit a place known as “Yung Yiddish”, hidden somewhere on the fifth floor, in the abandoned artists’ complex. The institution styles itself as “A Lively Yiddish Museum”. The reason for my visit was the impending threat to its future, with plans being prepared for clearing out the entire building. While working on this article we were informed that, for the time being, the bus station structure had been saved from demolition, but the pressure to evacuate the tenants was still on. The media attention surrounding the building’s fate and the threat of eviction has led the association’s directors and the museum to consider relocating in any case.

Mendy Cahan, founder of the Yung Yiddish Association and the living spirit behind the museum, arrives a little late to our meeting. He pours me some Turkish coffee and tells me about this somewhat unconventional location for a museum-cum-archive-cum-Yiddish club. “We feel comfortable in the central station. Sure, there are some problems related to whether it’s going to shut down or not, but we would not have been able to function anywhere else. We have financial constraints and our work is based entirely on volunteering.”

Cahan with a theater costume and posters at the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

Beyond material concerns, do you feel that your presence at the central bus station has any added meaning?

Being in the central bus station also gives us a cultural context. We, after all, represent a culture in distress, like many other of the central bus station’s tenants [the station is home to dozens of businesses run by immigrants living in Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods – Ed.]. We also love the polyphonic surroundings. It’s a bit like the West End in London or Second Avenue. This is a port. There is a lot of traffic and immigrants here. And yet, it’s in the middle of Tel Aviv. Yiddish is also like that: something central and huge that has somehow been left crumpled on the sidelines.

Do you like being here?

Definitely. I love this place. We can reach all kinds of audiences this way. Although there are people who are less likely to come here because of the fact that it’s here, on the other hand a lot of young people come by, eclectic, special types who wouldn’t have found us anywhere else.

Will you be sad to leave?

There’s not really anywhere to go.  No one’s waiting to receive us. Our location is also important in terms of the ability to bring books from all over the country. This is a collection project that has expanded beyond its dimensions and become a cultural and research center.

Any thoughts about what will happen when everything has to be vacated? Where will you go?

There are plenty of thoughts. Thoughts and worries. Right now, there is no direction because we have nothing. We have no money. We can barely even afford this place. I can’t imagine what it would mean to move to Rothschild Boulevard and calculate how much the property tax will cost us there. On the other hand, all the talk about the possibility of vacating the station in recent weeks has made me realize that we are sustaining a very, very big project. We have grown over time and stretched out into different directions. We do events, collect books and also try to catalog and sort, as well as do projects and exhibitions. There are a lot of things to do and we constantly feel a little behind and unable to keep up. Because we’re always busy, it’s difficult for us to stop for a moment and find solutions. We may need outside help from the establishment for that.

And there’s no support? How about the Tel Aviv Municipality or the Ministry of Culture?

There’s nothing. The municipality only sends bills. We are a volunteer non-profit, no one receives a salary; there isn’t even a paid manager. Even taking care of the bureaucracy required for that kind of funding is difficult; even filling out a form and knowing which office to contact, and sending the form in on time—that’s already complicated for us.

The central space of the Yung Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor


The Wide World of Yiddish

Cahan came to Israel in 1980 and began studying at the Hebrew University. He studied philosophy, literature and other subjects in the humanities, until he decided to join the university’s Yiddish department. “Then the wide world of Yiddish opened up to me, in all its breadth and depth. I discovered how special this language is; how alive and connected it is to European cultures and also thriving in its own right. On the other hand, I thought to myself, here we are in the State of Israel and there is not even a whiff of this anywhere in the public space. I saw that there were no Yiddish books in stores, so I decided to collect them myself. I took up the responsibility.”

He started the book collection on his own, in the early 1990s. “At first it was in my house. I remember sitting in the sealed-off room [a protective measure meant to protect from potential chemical missile attacks during the first Gulf War – Ed.] with all the Yiddish materials around me. Then we moved to another place in Jerusalem, and slowly the collection grew. I collected fragments of dreams and memories.”

When you started, were you only thinking of collecting books, or were you already planning for a wider collection?

I collected everything. Anything that was in Yiddish. A book, a newspaper, anything printed. I also realized from the beginning that I wanted other people to be excited about it. I realized that I was collecting books, but that I also wanted to construct a huge tower made out of them – so that others would notice them. So very quickly, I took part in the Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Tens of thousands of books inside a relatively small space. Photo: Amit Naor

Did you set any guidelines for this collection process?

The only guideline was to be open to everything. I thought to myself: There’s the Bund, there’s Beit Sholem Aleichem, there’s the Kultur Lige, there’s YIVO [all of these are Yiddish cultural institutions – A.N.] There are all of these islands with their own traditions; each organization has its own respective emphasis and specialization. Then it happens, for example, that in one place they don’t want to store Hasidic melodies, and in another place they aren’t interested in housing something else. But we live in a postmodern, eclectic world, so I wanted to collect everything. And we don’t just collect, we also broadcast the collection outwards. From the first moment, I wanted people to take books, to come and talk to each other. The idea was to connect everyone.

Cahan is a native of Antwerp, Belgium, where he grew up speaking Yiddish. “Antwerp is an interesting Jewish city. The pre-war local Jewish community hardly survived the Holocaust. The Jewish population after World War II was composed of many Holocaust survivors who came from Poland and Moldavia. There are about 20,000 Jewish residents with 30 different synagogues. That’s why the Jewish community in Antwerp speaks Yiddish.”

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card in Yiddish. Photo courtesy of the Yung Yiddish Association

And you never felt any tension between European culture and Yiddish culture? Was Yiddish culture perhaps looked down upon?

I read Sartre and Camus in the original language. But studying in the Yiddish Department, I understood the depth of Yiddish and its culture. Even having learned French and German culture, I came to the realization that my culture is something else. It’s both European and something else. I dived into the history of Yiddish, into its power, its multifaceted dimensions.

And yet, in Israel this culture is almost forgotten.

Here, the vacuum surrounding Yiddish called on me to act. There’s a saying in Yiddish, “B’makom she’eyn ish, iz hering oykh a fish” (“Where there is no worthy man, even a herring is a fish.” – A.N.). Yiddish is still significant; people still speak this language. It’s not dead.

Have you felt a change in the attitude toward Yiddish in recent years?

Yes, young people are showing more interest. The creative space of the language has grown. The audience is expanding. There’s more research. It’s considered less exotic. You also see it in the visitors. There are 18-year-old boys who come here to visit or volunteer. There was even a class of fourth graders, ten-year-olds, who came to hear about Yiddish for half an hour. Besides that, there are more Hebrew translations of Yiddish literature. New works as well, not just the classics. And there’s poetry and klezmer bands. Interest in Yiddish is still alive in many forms.

How many Yiddish speakers are there in Israel?

The numbers vary. Some say that there are several hundred thousand Yiddish speakers here. There are about a million in the world. But even those who remain silent in Yiddish are important to me, and there are many of those. People aged 40, 50, and 60 come for tours of the museum. I talk with them a little, sing a little, say a couple of phrases in Yiddish, and suddenly they’re surprised to find out how much they understand. These people interest me as well. You know, Kafka gave only one lecture in his lifetime—a lecture on Yiddish. He said, “You’ll be surprised how much more Yiddish you understand than you think you do.” And he was right.

The jacket cover of a record by comedian Shimon Dzigan. Who else is on the cover? Photo: Amit Naor


A Creative Study House

So what exactly is the Yung Yiddish museum? Until further notice, it’s here, on the fifth floor of the New Central Bus Station. You’re welcome to visit. After you enter through the glass doors, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a kind of library-warehouse-pub-theater. Long rows of high shelves, filled to bursting with books, pamphlets and newspapers. There are other items as well. Posters of Yiddish cabaret performances, dresses and other costumes from the Yiddish theater, as well as a corner filled with records, CDs and sheet music. You can find memorial books here too, as Yiddish is the language of the destroyed communities of Eastern European Jewry, along with entertainment magazines, translations of literary masterpieces, science books and pamphlets of Hasidic tales that continue to be published in Yiddish in Israel. In another section are manuscripts by writers and artists. Somewhere among the shelves is a collection of thousands of jokes in Yiddish copied out in long hand—an item that no Yiddish collection would be complete without, naturally. There’s even a board game in Yiddish stashed somewhere in a closet if you feel like playing.

What do you do here besides collect books?

We hold cultural events here. We have sing-alongs, launch parties, holiday celebrations, exhibitions. We did a rave, cabarets, klezmer music performances, Hasidic melody performances, everything. The place is open. We don’t have money, so this is how we get by, by hosting all kinds of events. Besides that, there are a lot of groups that come to the central station for all sorts of reasons, and then the tours pass by here as well. Each visit, I reveal a little about Yiddish culture, the written culture, things that will soon be forgotten.

Books in the Yiddish museum. Photo: Amit Naor

“This place is a theater, a tavern, a synagogue, a study house, a yeshiva,” explains Eli Benedict, who serves as the association’s director—on a volunteer basis, of course. “When I first came here, as a young volunteer, it was a community place, a place of shared creativity and this has vanished. It is reminiscent of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, a glorious library that attracted people from all corners—secular, religious—they all met there. This is a study house for creation.”

And you continue to collect books. How do they get to you?

In most cases, people who want to bring books call us. We hardly look for them on our own anymore. Sometimes places refer people to us, the Yiddish department or a community center or libraries, where people are told “we don’t deal with books like this, go to Yung Yiddish.” Very high quality things come here. There are also collections, manuscripts and archives of intellectuals who want their archives preserved here and not elsewhere.

“Sometimes people call because they saw books on the sidewalk,” Benedict adds. “After you see that a couple of times, you feel as if our culture is going up in smoke. To go outside on Holocaust Memorial Day and see a mountain of Yiddish books dumped somewhere, to see the stamps in the books and realize that these books were saved from Hitler only to be thrown out on a curb in Israel. It leaves an impression on your soul. The Nazis burned books, the gentiles have always burned our books. And here in the Jewish state, books are tossed like so many pebbles in the street. Why did we build a state if not to preserve our culture?”

The entire system is run by the volunteers. Cahan estimates that there are currently dozens, of all ages: high schoolers, soldiers, retirees, all are welcome. “The volunteers did a phenomenal cataloging job here and it’s not done yet. I squeeze every last drop out of them. We have volunteers who got their first taste of Yiddish here and have gone on to study and research it.”

A Yiddish board game called Kfitzat Haderekh (a Kabbalistic concept with connotations of a miraculous leap to a distant location). Photo: Amit Naor

“Our volunteers collect books from all over the country,” says Benedict. “We once managed to stuff 700 books into a Toyota Corolla. We made 12 trips in private cars to transfer books, then we switched to trucks.”

“All the interviews and conversations I’ve had recently made me realize that the museum needs to be institutionalized,” says Cahan. “There also needs to be professional staff here who know what an archive is, and what a library is. Yes, we have good intuitions, but we’ve already grown above and beyond.”

What is your vision for this place?

“Something big, something international. It has to be institutionalized. But it can’t be too tidy,” laughs Cahan. “I want to keep the eclecticism and the ability to do things for free.”

And should it be in Tel Aviv?

“If they give us a place in the periphery, then we’ll go there,” says CEO Benedict. “We will of course also be happy to receive support from the Ministry of Culture. We see the preservation as a national goal. In time, we believe people will understand this collection better, and will give it more respect.”

“We may have to leave for a less central location,” Cahan admits with a smile. “But we want a permanent place. Just so we don’t have to leave town again.”


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