Yiddish culture takes center stage on student trip to Old Country

Outside of the Vilna Yiddish Institute in Lithuania, an excited 90-year-old woman was speaking animatedly about life in her country and the Jewish culture that used to thrive around her.

Fania Brantsovskaya was telling her visitors that nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Vilna before World War II, that the city was home to more than 100 synagogues, and that Yiddish was taught to schoolchildren and spoken almost everywhere.

But was the group — which included eight U.C. Berkeley and UCLA students — understanding her?

After all, she was speaking in Yiddish.

Students on the Yiddishkayt trip found a way to get inside this synagogue in Belarus.

Ana Cottle, a student of Yiddish literature and Jewish studies at U.C. Berkeley, not only understood, but was deeply moved by Brantsovskaya’s stories.

“For me, personally, it was amazing to speak with someone in Yiddish,” said Cottle, who speaks the old Jewish language fluently. “It was definitely exciting and inspiring to be able to use Yiddish as a necessary medium of communication. It also gave me the chance to place my studies in the context of their origins, connecting them to a real place with real people.”

Cottle was part of a pilot trip for the Helix Project, an initiative started by Yiddishkayt, a Yiddish cultural and educational center in Los Angeles that works to connect Jews to their cultural heritage.

The all-expenses-paid trip took six undergrads — including Cottle, Hannah Efron and Tommy Kedar of U.C. Berkeley — on a 10-day Jewish roots tour of Eastern Europe. Two graduate students, including Mandy Cohen of U.C. Berkeley, helped plan the trip and also taught (and translated, when necessary) along the way.

The project began June 14 with a series of seminars in Los Angeles. For four days, students took part in language boot camps — crash courses in Slavic, Yiddish, Lithuanian, Russian and Polish along with tips on how to read Belarusian. Equipped with a basic understanding of the languages, the students then set off for Lithuania, Poland and Belarus.

The leader of the trip was Yiddishkayt’s executive director, Robert Adler Peckerar, who earned an undergraduate degree in Near Eastern languages from Brandeis in 1996 and then a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in comparative literature. He taught Jewish literature and culture for a few years at the University of Colorado, then left to join Yiddishkayt.

There he decided to start the Helix Project because of a trend he had noticed in many Jewish studies programs — that they teach mainly about the Holocaust, and include history classes that tend to focus on the past 70 years.

U.C. Berkeley undergraduate Ana Cottle and UCLA graduate student Michael Casper at the Jewish Museum in Minsk, Belarus

Adler Peckerar wants students to think beyond the concentration camps when thinking about European Jewry. He would prefer the focus be on the vibrant Jewish centers of culture, and on the Yiddish writers and artists, that existed prior to the genocide.

“I felt as though we needed to fundamentally shift the way we present Jewish culture and history to students,” Adler Peckerar said.

He told the Los Angeles Times that he’d like to see the Helix Project grow into a popular, free-of-charge summer trip for college students, a viable alternative to Birthright Israel, although not on the same huge scale.

Adler Peckerar said he chose the name Helix Project because of the double helix in a DNA strand, and how that relates to Jewish culture: “a constant spiral that circles around from place to place … a physical connection of touching the past where people’s families came from but also how it brings generations together.”

When it was time to create the itinerary, he got together with graduate students and used historical maps, focusing on Jewish enclaves. They made a point to include cities where family members of Helix participants once resided.

“We wanted to show many aspects of the Jewish life, from a yeshiva to radical culture in Bialystok, where writers lived and worked,” Adler Peckerar said. “So we picked cities and towns where we could find history, poetry and visual arts that we could explore.”

In Poland, the group stopped in the town where Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld was born; Rosenfeld went on to write about the living conditions of Eastern European immigrants in New York in the early 20th century.

In Belarus, the Helix students went to Minsk and learned about Moyshe Kulbak, another Yiddish writer and poet. There, they also met with Aleksander Astraukh, the editor of a Belarusian-Yiddish dictionary, who spoke to the group in four different languages: Yiddish, Russian, Belarusian and English. Each student was given a copy of the dictionary.

Also in Belarus, students saw a boarded-up synagogue in the town of Indura, which used to be Amdur, an important seat of Lithuanian Jewry. After finding a way inside, the students explored the interior ruins of the old building, which had been transformed into a music school during the Soviet era. But signs of a shul were still there.

“It was huge and beautiful,” said Efron, one of the U.C. Berkeley students on the trip. Her ancestors lived in Amdur for 300 years. “It was easy to get a sense of what it would have been like when it was full on a holiday.”

Upon the group’s return to Los Angeles, a reception was held where students spoke about their experiences and displayed photographs from the trip.

Eventually, Adler Peckerar hopes the Helix Project will be an annual summer trip for 36 students who will be divided into three groups of 12 and tour the countries where their family roots lie.

“One hundred years ago, radicals and traditionalist and Zionists and anti-Zionists all lived in a language that has disappeared from our ears,” Adler Peckerar said. “Seeing students recognize that and watch as their view of the subject expanded for me, as an educator, was the best part of this trip.”

For more information on the Helix Project, visit www.yiddishkayt.org/helix-project or call (213) 389-8880.