With a foot in the past, Yiddish club founder looks to future

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In 1938, the Jews of Bolgrad built a beautiful new synagogue. Just a few years later, many of the Romanian hamlet’s 9,000 or so Jews were herded inside. The doors were barricaded and the house of God was lit ablaze. No one walked out.

Young Joseph Greenberg was miles away. His family was one of just a few to flee the town to Uzbekistan.

When asked how his family survived the war, the 79-year-old flashes a pained little smile and stares at the table: “It was better to die than to live, but by chance we remained alive. I have no words to explain it.”

In Greenberg’s case, that’s saying a lot. He is fluent in five languages. And while he survived the war, his mother tongue did not.

The Holocaust culled perhaps half of the Yiddish-speakers in the world. And for many of those blessed enough to survive, the language was no longer seen as a warm and earthy “Mamaloshen.”

For Greenberg, who became a medical doctor in Ukraine, speaking his native tongue was elevated to a crime — Yiddish was deemed “counter-revolutionary.” Even just a bissel of Yiddish could get him sent to the gulag.

The desire to speak the language of his youth — without fearing a 3 a.m. knock on the door — weighed on Greenberg. He arrived in San Francisco in the 1990s and, finally, in 2006, he founded the JCC of San Francisco’s Yiddish club. Forty nostalgic speakers showed up at his first meeting; today more than 80 show up for the monthly get-togethers.

For Michael Petrakovsky, the club filled a void that had been gaping for more than half a century. The 70-year-old Ukraine-born San Franciscan grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household — and, like Greenberg, he knew enough to never utter a word of it outside.

“If you would speak Yiddish, all your life in Soviet Union you would be a scapegoat, you understand?” Petrakovsky notes. “One has to remember what it meant at that time in the Soviet Union. This was not the United States.

“Now, my wife doesn’t know Yiddish. I can talk Yiddish to a wall. Nobody knows. But it is the language of my parents. And the language of all my relatives,” he continues.

Going to the Yiddish club “brings the good memories. I recall my childhood and all the relatives who used to talk with me.”

Greenberg has observed that his club’s membership skews a bit older and is largely drawn from the former Soviet Union. Younger, American-born Jews do show up, though — and, notes Greenberg, those who are less-than-fluent are helped along by the class’ more proficient speakers.

“When I first started the club, my friends told me, ‘Who will come to this?'” he recalls with a grin, this time a joyous one.

“But they are coming — can you imagine? So I am proud, yeah.”

Yet while successfully launching a Yiddish program for older folks with a background in the language is difficult enough, Greenberg has decided to take on a new challenge. He’s going to start a Yiddish club for kids (or adults with no history of the language).

He’s spoken with Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of San Francisco’s Congregation Chevra Thilim, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Brooklyn. Zarchi has agreed to teach the class at his Outer Richmond district synagogue, but he and Greenberg haven’t yet decided when to start.

Greenberg said he’d be happy if even just a handful of kids showed up at first (and Zarchi has said he’ll enroll a few of his own progenies in the class). But whatever happens, Greenberg is at peace: “I know I am doing the right thing.”

Born Iosef Grinberg, Greenberg is a short, dark-skinned man with piercing brown eyes and more than a passing resemblance to the comic actor Jerry Stiller. Yet while Stiller’s calling card of late has been an ear-piercing shout, Greenberg often speaks at barely a whisper — in whatever language.

That only makes his words all the more powerful.

“You know, I’ve said again and again, we have no right to let this language disappear.”

He closes his eyes. Now the words are coming a little louder.

“It is a call from the heart. I tell you, I love it with my heart. I can’t do without Yiddish. Even in the ‘Paradise,’ so to speak, in Russia, we were forbidden to speak Yiddish and it was impossible to go to synagogue or keep my religion. You know it was impossible. But at the same time, I had to speak Yiddish. So I would speak it to myself, in my head, just so I would not forget. Just so I would never forget.”

For more information about the JCCSF Yiddish club and forthcoming classes for youngsters, contact Joseph Greenberg at [email protected] or (415) 387-4742.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.