‘Somehow Yiddish still lives’

‘Somehow Yiddish still lives’

Iroim Katz Handler will present a program on "Yiddish Theater From Purim to Broadway" at the convention of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs in Teaneck on Saturday, July 8. A native of Passaic and a Yiddish scholar on three continents, she’s often back in the metropolitan area, in person or in print.

The IAYC conference will be Handler’s eighth. Each time she’s been asked to make a presentation, and her subjects are diverse. For example, she’s tackled "Judaism and Sex" and "How Jewish Was Sholem Asch?," (who wrote "The Nazarene").

Handler has been the IAYC’s educational director for five years. "Three times a year I send out materials to the 90 clubs in the association," she said. "I keep my eyes and ears open for resources they can use to help plan programs." (See related stories.)

Handler’s father was the renowned Yiddish poet Menke Katz. ("Menke; the complete Yiddish poems of Menke Katz," was published in ‘005. The hefty volume was prepared by two Yale linguistics professors, Barbara and Benjamin Harshav.)

In addition to the Yiddish she heard and read at home, young Troim (Troim means "dream of hope" in Yiddish) learned to type and take shorthand in Yiddish at her first job after high school. She was secretary to Itche Goldberg, who, at age 10′ is still struggling to find backing for his "Yidishe Kultur" journal.

"He was my university of one," she recalls. "I learned Yiddish grammar from him. In those days there was no white-out. One error and the page had to be done over. I learned not to make any errors!" She still uses her two manual Yiddish typewriters; one each in her central New Jersey home and West Palm Beach condo.

Thirty years of teaching English and journalism at secondary schools on Long Island separated her two Yiddish "lives" — one as a teenager and the second as a retiree.

"I was extremely depressed and couldn’t bear retirement," she said. "Not until I happened upon a Hadassah Yiddish club did I find a new life." Since then she has presented dozens of programs a year and become a Yiddish writer, teacher, entertainer, and all-round resource at Elderhostels, synagogues, and myriad Jewish groups. Some programs are shared with her husband Frank, who repeats her Yiddish lines in English. He also conducts Jewish history programs.

Troim Katz Handler, the bard of Jewish love in the electronic age, never wrote a word of poetry until April ‘4, 1991, the night of her father’s funeral. The love poems she began on that fateful night in 1991 now number more than 500.

Amazingly, her brother Dovid Katz had a similar epiphany that night, and began writing Yiddish fiction. His latest book in English is "Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish" (‘004). He is professor of Yiddish Language and Literature at Vilnius University in Lithuania. His Website is www.judaicvilnius.com.

"Simkhe" is the title and the name of the hero of Troim’s volume of 73 love poems, the first ever published by the IAYC. It was launched at the group’s seventh conference in Milwaukee. Simkhe and his beloved are separated by great distance and conduct their love affair by letter and telephone.

A few lines from the first poem, "Within You I Find Myself":


You are my other self,

In you I find myself.

You are my Sabbath soul,

my sacred impropriety.

To Sabbath you bring bloom,

To weekdays you give glow.


Bist mayn tsveyter ikh,

In dir gefin ikh zikh.

Bist mayn neshome-yesire,

mayn heylike aveyre.

Tsu yedn Shabes gistu bli,

Tsu yedn Shabes gistu bli,

Tsu vokhedike teg brengstu gli.

"The more erotic ones are not in the book," the author noted of her self-censorship.

Handler’s presence in Asia is in Japan. Yiddish is taught at Fukuoka University in the city of the same name by Prof. Kazuo Ueda. Together, without ever meeting, through the magic of modern communications, the unlikely co-authors have published two Japanese-Yiddish phrase books. "We never spoke, even on the telephone," Handler said. "I wrote to him in Yiddish on my Yiddish typewriter."

In Europe, Handler taught Yiddish at Oxford in the summers of 1988 and 1989. She is also in frequent touch with her brother in Lithuania, as they both research traditions and the cutting edge of Yiddish.

The month of June found Handler presenting five programs to a group of Yiddish-loving campers at Circle Lodge in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. Another "gig" was before a secular Jewish group at Rutgers University.

Handler wrote recently of the Yiddish language:

"Hitler tried to eradicate it, and assimilation has taken its toll, but somehow it still lives. Today, it is being taught in universities that in former years would not even accept Jewish students; the old books are being preserved; and certain choice words have crept into the English language. But the greatest treat of all is to hear it spoken by those for whom it was mame-loshn — their mother tongue. Only then can their unique way of seeing the world and the overtones and undertones of its expression be fully appreciated."

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