In his mind’s eye, Rob Adler Peckerar is sitting with his students on a doorstep in the bustling heart of Eastern Europe. They are in a town, perhaps in Lithuania, perhaps Ukraine. It is summer, and a warm breeze rustles the trees.
The students listen, spellbound, to a story written on this spot a century or more ago in a language that is foreign and yet familiar. And before them, the pre-Holocaust world of Eastern European Jews flickers for a moment to life: rich, lusty, funny, sad and achingly poignant.
This is the idea behind the Helix project, which will begin in a very small way this summer when Adler Peckerar takes six students, three from UCLA and three from UC-Berkeley, on an all-expenses-paid Jewish roots tour of Eastern Europe. Eventually, he would like to see it grow and become an alternative to the Birthright program that sends tens of thousands of Jewish college students annually to Israel, also free of charge.
It is, in more than one way, a deeply subversive idea.
“You know, you do a quick survey of college classes and you see that more is being taught about the destruction of Jewish culture than about the culture,” said Adler Peck-erar, executive director of Yiddishkayt, an L.A.-based organization dedicated to celebrating and preserving the heritage of the Yiddish language and its culture.
“We have a whole postwar generation that has grown up knowing far more (about) Nazis and concentration camps than knowing Jewish writers and major Jewish centers of culture in Europe. And that’s terrible.”
Cultural identity is never simple. It is especially thorny for American Jews, whose heritage is cultural, national and religious, and whose “old country” no longer exists in most meaningful ways.
That leaves the definition of Jewish culture, and even the question of who is a Jew, open to debate.
Yiddish is a vernacular language that was the lingua franca of Eastern and Central European Jews for the better part of a millennium. At its peak before 1939, as many as 12 million people spoke Yiddish. Today, it is in daily use by at least half a million people internationally, most of them Orthodox Jews.
Adler Peckerar’s group is part of a postmodern movement that celebrates a largely secular Yiddish culture, one that produced an outpouring of literature, music, art and science in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before being all but silenced by Soviet repression and the Holocaust.
What Yiddishkayt doesn’t tend to celebrate is the Jewish religion, and many of its leading figures are atheists. They embrace a notion of Jewishness that is purely cultural.