Remembering Yiddishist Mordkhe Schaechter

ZUMHAGEN: You’re listening to Weekend Edition on WNYC. I’m Brian Zumhagen.

The Yiddish language, spoken by Jews of Eastern European origin, has lost one of its most passionate advocates. Philologist Mordkhe Schaechter -- whose voice you’re hearing now -- died in the Bronx last month at age 79, after a long illness.

I had the pleasure of studying with Dr. Schaechter at Columbia University’s Yiddish summer program. But he wasn’t just a great teacher. He also wrote textbooks, worked on dictionaries, and promoted the standardization of the language. He also founded organizations like the Yidish-Lige, or League for Yiddish, which is now directed by Sheva Zucker:

ZUCKER: What motivated him was the desire that Yiddish should receive the respect of any other language.

ZUMHAGEN: By the time Mordkhe Schaechter arrived in the US in 1951, modern Israeli Hebrew was ascendant, and American Jews were leaving Yiddish behind in droves. But Dr. Schaechter was determined to carve out a space for his beloved mame-loshn, or mother tongue. He and two other Yiddish-speaking families with small children moved together to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx... where it was all Yiddish all the time, according to Schaechter’s son Binyumen.

BINYUMEN SCHAECHTER: For him it was a full-time job. There was no listening to Mets games on the radio, or anything like that.

ZUMHAGEN: Binyumen and his three sisters had to put money in a jar every time they uttered a word in English. But Dr. Schaechter also used games to win the kids over to the cause:

SCHAECHTER: My father created a children’s group called "Engeh-Bengeh," and very often, maybe every Saturday, we "shpatsir’d," we took a walk to "Engeh-Bengeh Land," which is also known as Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and we would sing Yiddish songs on the way over there, and when we were there we would play khapelakh, un baheltelakh un blinde kih, which are Yiddish equivalents for tag, hide-and-seek and blind man’s bluff.

ZUMHAGEN: Binyumen, who now uses Yiddish regularly in his work as a composer and as conductor of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, cites his father’s singing as an influence -- particularly this lullabye about a white goat:

SCHAECHTER SINGS: Ikh vil dir dertseylen a mayse...

ZUMHAGEN: Mordkhe Schaechter’s dedication paid off; he’s survived by sixteen Yiddish-speaking grandchildren. Binyumen says family continuity was an important factor in the decision to donate Dr. Schaechter’s collection of 10-thousand Yiddish books to Johns-Hopkins University. He says the family was impressed by the school’s growing Yiddish-studies program and its commitment to keep the library intact:

SCHAECHTER: But what mattered as much, if not more, was the fact that two of the people who are most important in that department are two of my father’s former students, each of whom are speaking Yiddish with their children.

ZUMHAGEN: One of those two professors, Marc Caplan, showed me the carriage house where there are boxes and boxes of books from the Schaechter collection:

CAPLAN: “Di balade fun nekhtikn vald,” published in 1948 by Chava Rosenfarb, one of the leading Yiddish novelists still around. And here you have a personal inscription to Dr. Schaechter in 1956. This is really good stuff.

ZUMHAGEN: Mordkhe Schaechter also published books of his own; he spent his last years on his unfinished opus, a Yiddish dictionary for the 21st Century. Schaechter worked tirelessly to research and develop terminology for everything from plants and computers to pregnancy and childbirth -- and, while we’re on that subject, Marc Caplan says Dr. Schaechter’s hunt for authentic vocabulary took him to places where most philologists fear to tread:

CAPLAN: He had card after card after card, full file cabinets, of the terminology of sexual practices used by students in rabbinic Yeshivas in Europe and the United States. Not because he had a dirty mind, not because he was prurient, but because he had a passion to know how the language was used in all its aspects.

ZUMHAGEN: Caplan is part of a group of younger scholars Mordkhe Schaechter groomed to continue his work. Another is Paul Glasser, Associate Dean of the YIVO Institute’s Max Weinreich Center. He says there’s no one out there with the depth and breadth of Dr. Schaechter’s knowledge:

GLASSER: He was very interested in everything that came to Yiddish, every type of terminology, every dialect, every historical period. And if he had lived a few hundred more years, he might have had a chance to publish his findings on all of those subjects.

ZUMHAGEN: Mordkhe Schaechter toiled without sentimentality on behalf of a language that’s been embattled on many fronts: decimated in Europe, dismissed in Israel as a relic of diaspora life, and finally, treated all too often as a vulgar joke or an object of nostalgia here in America. But while others mourned Yiddish as a dying or even a dead language, Dr. Schaechter proved that Yiddish will live as long as people bring life to it.

Mordkhe Schaechter will be remembered next Sunday March 18th at a ceremony to mark the traditional Jewish milestone of 30 days following his death. It’ll be held at 5:30pm at the Workmen’s Circle Building, 45 East 33rd St.

This is WNYC New York. I’m Brian Zumhagen.