Latin America’s Yiddish festival is dream come true for organizer

(Jewish Telegraphic Agency)
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — When Abraham Lichtenbaum was a boy, he used to play card games in Yiddish with his Ukrainian grandmother, Elisa, sitting for hours around the kitchen table in their house here.

In his early teens, Lichtenbaum had long Yiddish conversations with his father Baruch — a graphic designer born in Warsaw — and with his high school teachers at a local Jewish school.

During his teenage years, Lichtenbaum’s family would spend Saturday or Sunday nights attending Yiddish plays at theaters.

Now 58, Litchenbaum is the general director of the Jewish Research Institute, known here as the IWO. He teaches Yiddish both at the IWO here and at a state university in Vilnius, Lithuania.

To further Yiddish awareness, the IWO is holding what is believed to be the first Yiddish symposium in Latin America, “Yiddish Faces the New Millennium.”

The symposium — which began Saturday and runs until Tuesday — is a series of open and free events here supported by the Israeli Embassy’s National Department for Yiddish Culture and the Buenos Aires municipality.

“In a present totally lacking in cultural values, this is the proper time to gather and give the younger generations all our Yiddish cultural knowledge, and let them decide what to do with it,” Lichtenbaum said in an interview.

Apart from conferences at IWO’s office, the symposium plans to showcase Yiddish culture around the city.

On Sunday, organizers unveiled a sculpture of author Sholem Aleichem in Palermos’ Rosedal Park, visited by an estimated 50,000 people every weekend.

On Thursday, the Golden Room at the impressive Colon Theater was flooded with Yiddish music as the symposium held a tribute to Jascha Galperin, a music teacher who trained a generation of Argentine singers.

The symposium expected some 5,000 visitors overall, mainly from Israel, the United States, Germany and Argentina. Audience members were expected to be mainly in their 50s, Lichtenbaum says.

“We want to show that Yiddish is much more than the language of the elderly,” he said.

Lichtenbaum’s academic goal is to see about 20 young local researchers concentrating on Yiddish at a high academic level.

There are now 120 people studying Yiddish at IWO, many of them younger than 25.

In order to preserve Ashkenazic culture, Lichtenbaum said, “sharing a Jewish song is more educational than playing tennis with Jewish friends.”

Lichtenbaum is just as proud of his personal achievements as his professional ones: His two sons — electrical engineers aged 25 and 29 — understand and speak some Yiddish, he says.

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