Cultural Transmission After Catastrophe: Yiddish in Canada after the Holocaust

Project: Research

Project Details

Project Description

How do civilizations respond to catastrophe? They can heal, memorialize and commemorate. They also can salvage and rebuild, or build anew. The proposed research illuminates a highly instructive case of an ethnic/religious group that continues to revitalize and renew its cultural legacy after massive upheaval. Specifically, it examines how Canadian Jews have engaged with the Yiddish cultural heritage of Eastern Europe following the devastation of the Nazi Holocaust. The findings will offer new sites for exploring the role of culture as a collective response to experiences of loss.

The heartland of a multifaceted diasporic Yiddish civilization, with its thousand year-old roots in Europe, was decimated in the Nazi Holocaust. In contrast to a pre-War transnational network of Jewish cultural centres in which Yiddish served as lingua franca as well as vehicle of revitalization in forums ranging from the political arena to the arts, Yiddish after the Holocaust faced worldwide displacement. However, due to the particular dynamics of Jewish integration within a multicultural Canada, Yiddish has continued to offer a viable usable past as well as a strong basis for cultural innovation in the shift from immigrant to ethnic or heritage language, even as it faced decline as a spoken language within the Jewish mainstream. Rather than jettison Yiddish as it faced attrition or relegate it to the realm of memorialization, purveyors of secular Yiddish culture across Canada voiced a deliberate commitment to the language and generated multiple ways to promote the language and its creative output within a community that increasingly did not speak it, notably through translation and performance. Further, Ultra Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish enclaves have revitalized Yiddish as a daily, spoken language in their communities. While a core component of the Canadian Jewish experience, Yiddish culture after the Holocaust has not been analyzed in any comprehensive fashion.

The proposed historical study offers a broad and nuanced analysis of Yiddish culture in Canada after the Holocaust in four areas: education, literature, theatre, and music. It considers different manifestations of Yiddish usage over a period of six decades across Canada, notably in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, which have been the sites of innovative and varied developments in Yiddish cultural life. Artifacts of study will include the creative output of Canadian Yiddish writers, both native speakers and Canadian-born or raised; translation projects; the archives of communal organizations such as schools and community theatres; and oral histories with producers and consumers of Yiddish culture from multiple generations of the Jewish community, ranging from the secular through the Ultra Orthodox ends of the spectrum. This data will be employed to discuss how Yiddish has been transmitted intergenerationally as well as cross-culturally, the ways in which Yiddish culture offers a site of continuity as well as discontinuity, and the roles that Holocaust discourse has played in this transmission.

The proposed research examines how a community has developed resilient mechanisms of cultural transmission to ensure its ongoing vitality in the wake of massive upheaval. It will generate a point of engagement for wider discussion about the place of culture in creating and transmitting collective identity among groups in Canada and abroad who have experienced mass violence or genocide; these groups include new refugees to Canada, Armenians, and First Nations peoples. It will gather and analyze concrete examples of how one ethnic group has generated innovative strategies for cultural transmission, many of which can be adapted for other communities in policy as well as on a grassroots level.
Effective start/end date1/04/1330/03/18