Yiddishist unearths Leonia’s history
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Yiddishist unearths Leonia’s history

David Braun, director of YIVO summer program, also is borough historian

David Braun discussing Leonia’s history of slavery with a group of Girl Scouts.
David Braun discussing Leonia’s history of slavery with a group of Girl Scouts.

Every now and then, we like to revisit a story this paper published a few years back and check in with its protagonist. 

As longtime Jewish Standard readers will well recall, we published a profile about a young Yiddishist from Leonia named David Braun. He was a high school student, the youngest member of the Teaneck Jewish Center’s Yiddish club, and was spending his summer as a research assistant in Columbia’s Yiddish program. He was photographed in front of a Yiddish-language IBM Selectric typewriter.

That was in 1985. Or maybe 1986 — 35 years later, Mr. Braun, now 51, isn’t quite sure.

He is, however, still a Yiddishist. And he treasures that summer working with Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter, one of the leading Yiddish linguists of his generation. (Dr. Schaechter’s descendants have forged their own Yiddish careers — Rukhl Schaechter edits the Yiddish Forverts; her sister Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath of Teaneck competed their father’s English-Yiddish dictionary; and Gitl’s son Arun Schaechter-Viswanath won fame for translating Harry Potter into Yiddish, to give an incomplete listing.)

In perhaps the surest sign of a summer internship gone right, Mr. Braun now has Mr. Schaechter’s old role leading YIVO’s annual summer Yiddish program. Back then, the program was given in conjunction with Columbia and offered Columbia credit; now YIVO hosts it and offers credit from Bard College to students who complete the intense, full-day, six-week program. This year, as last year, 120 students took part — an enrollment increase of 45 percent over 2019, thanks to going virtual. Students represented 25 states, 14 countries, and four time zones.

Mr. Braun grew up in a multigenerational, multilingual household that moved to Leonia from Washington Heights when he was 3 years old. “I was under the impression that to be Jewish was to be exposed to a lot of languages,” he said. “I had a Yiddish-speaking grandmother at home who had a subscription to the Forverts. It came to the house daily. She conversed with my mother in Yiddish. My father, who is Israeli, was reading his Yediot Achronot. My American mother was reading the Bergen Record or the Times.”

His maternal grandmother had left Suchowola, a small town between Bialystok and Grodno in what was Poland and is now Belarus, in the 1920s and settled in Philadelphia. Her daughter, Shirley Manuel, studied at the Philadelphia Music Academy and got a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. In New York, she met and married a student at the Juilliard School who had grown up in Jerusalem. That was Mati Braun.

“On the paternal side, my grandparents lived in Israel as of August 1939,” David Braun said. “They left Hungary right at the perfect time, and got illegally to Palestine and settled in Jerusalem. It was one of those last-ship-out stories.”

For nearly a century, this sign has marked the location of what was Leonia’s burying ground for enslaved Africans.

Those grandparents — whom Mr. Braun visited frequently in Israel — spoke Yiddish, “but there’s a but,” he said. “They were from Budapest. My grandmother was first generation in Budapest — her parents were from Galicia. She spoke Yiddish at home, and spoke Hungarian as the main language among the siblings. My grandfather’s family got to Budapest from Transylvania when he was one and a half. He knew Yiddish from the street, and picked up more in Israel than in his orphanage in Hungary, where he ended up after his mother died in a train accident.” (Though the orphanage didn’t teach Yiddish, it did provide violin lessons. “It was a snazzy institute,” Mr. Braun said.)

Young David started formal Yiddish instruction early. He went to the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish School nursery school in Bergenfield. After starting public school in Leonia, he went to the Yiddish School’s afterschool program, which met three days a week, “I think Monday and Thursday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

“The building was originally a Lutheran church. Now it’s a Pakistani mosque. We had it for a good twenty years.

“The parents were very engaged, unlike at many synagogue afterschool Hebrew schools where it’s the shul’s job to do the educating. The parents were the managers. They had shabbosim together. It was very grassroots, very self-determined, self-organized by the families along with the teachers.”

And the teachers, in Mr. Braun’s memory, were fantastic.

“They were really phenomenal and made a great impression on us kids,” he said.

After a few years at Leonia public schools and Workmen’s Circle, his parents transferred him for fifth grade to the nascent Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. “It was housed in whatever shul or JCC didn’t need that space. It was a wonderful school, though.” For high school, he went to Ramaz in Manhattan.

Actor Mike Burstyn (lower left) being interviewed via Zoom by (clockwise) Sholem Beinfeld, Mark David, and David Braun for a weekly Yiddish radio program, The Yiddish Voice.

By then, he had already fallen in love with Yiddish.

“Something clicked when I was 9 or 10 or 11,” he said. “I just fell in love with it. I dived in and became a linguist and a Yiddishist. I read everything I could get my hands on.”

As a teenager, he would cross the Hudson to take part in Yugntruf, the “Youth for Yiddish” group that Mordkhe Schaechter had founded back in 1964. Here too, as at the Teaneck Jewish Center group, he was the youngest Yiddishist in the room. 

“Everyone else was 23 and I was 15,” he said. He got to talking with Dr. Schaechter while standing in line at one Yugntruf and he told the professional Yiddish linguist of his love for Yiddish and for linguistics. The next spring, David got call from Dr. Schaechter. “Would I be interested in being his summer worker?

“It was a dream come true. I was his typist, his researcher at the library, his proofreader, his discussant. It was a very enriching summer in high school and it continued in college,” he said.

Among his assignments: Typing out the exercise book and accompanying answer key that went along with Dr. Schaechter’s Yiddish textbooks. In fact, “I wrote the answer key. I was doing the exercises of the book under his tutelage and getting credit as the author of the answer key. Whenever I got something wrong, we would discuss it. I had this private education. Every conversation was enlightening.”

One of Dr. Schaechter’s projects was interviewing Yiddish speakers for the Yiddish Language Atlas, a project started by Dr. Schaechter’s predecessor at Columbia, Dr. Uriel Weinreich who died in 1967 at 40. The project involved hundreds of structured interviews of Yiddish speakers, each lasting up to 12 hours, recorded on reel-to-reel tape; the goal was to record details of linguistic and cultural differences before they were forgotten.

David borrowed the project’s questionnaire and interviewed his grandmother.

David Braun (at right) with students at YIVO’s 2019 summer Yiddish program.

“It’s essentially a book. Imagine bringing a book to an interview with somebody, asking question after question about Yiddish pronunciation, grammar, and Jewish life.

“Boy, did I get lessons in what Jewish life was like. Not just pronunciation and grammar. In her dialect, you didn’t say ‘bar mitzvah.’ It was called a ‘ba’al mitzveh.’ ‘How did you prepare for Pesach?’ I found out that my grandmother dyed eggs for Pesach. That’s not just what goyim do. ‘What flowers did you pick in honor of Shavuos?’ ‘You go to the garden and you pick lilacs.’ ”

For college, David went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he double majored in linguistics and folklore — the latter being “the stuff that gets lived. I thought that was so underrepresented and so fascinating.”

By his third year on campus, he was teaching Yiddish courses. He went to MIT for graduate school, but before he could finish his doctorate the opportunity to teach Yiddish at Harvard pulled him away. He taught at Harvard for about a decade, while spending his summers teaching at the YIVO summer program.

Then he returned to New Jersey, as his mother dealt with lung cancer; she died of that disease in 2007. “When I inherited the home I grew up in, I had the question of whether I would stay or leave,” he said. “And being sibling-less, I wasn’t ready to leave. That physical place was where my memories were.”

But then, as an adult and as a teacher, he became curious about the history of his home town. “I already had this interest in Jewish history,” he said. “I wanted to know what my local history was about. All there was was this dry-as-dust booklet we were given by the League of Women Voters when we first moved into town. I could never get through it. I tried in middle school and then in high school.”

He started reading up on the town’s history and became chairman of the Leonia Historic Preservation Commission. “I look at Leonia with the type of perspective I have on Yiddish language and Yiddish civilization.”

So what is the history of Leonia?

David Braun dines with the Rotary Club of the Palisades last month, after receiving its Fellowship Award for his work as Leonia historian. (Supriya Shankar)

“Our signs say that Leonia was settled in 1668. The first deed that makes reference to the territory in modern-day Leonia comes from 1668. Our local Indians were the Lenni Lenapi tribe, just as in Teaneck and Hackensack and the whole neighborhood. 

“Leonia was named in 1865. It got its name because a number of people in the region along Grand Avenue felt they had bonded into a neighborhood that is different from Fort Lee and downtown Englewood. The Northern Railroad came in 1859. The train stop was at Degraw Avenue and Fort Lee Road, where those train signals are. The original name of that stop was Fort Lee Station. It was very confusing, because Fort Lee was that place up above, but it was Fort Lee in the sense that it was bringing the Fort Lee mail there.

“Local people said, ‘we’ll also honor General Lee’” — that’s General Charles Lee, George Washington’s second in command in the Revolutionary War, for whom Fort Lee is named, not the Confederate general — “so they named it Leonia.”

In the summer of 2020, “We a huge Black Lives Matters march through Leonia. A thousand, maybe two thousand people, marching. It was very impressive — even though the African American presence in town is not significant at all.”

One result: Mr. Braun, as town borough historian, gave a talk about the town’s history of enslaved Africans. “There’s a little-known burial site at the Leonia-Englewood border,” he said. “Since 1926 or so, there’s been a sign up, at Broad Avenue at the corner of Lakeview Avenue, that says that the site was a burial site of enslaved people. It’s just two or three sentences.” It’s not clear if there ever were any grave markers; none survive. 

Mr. Braun’s talk, delivered over Zoom, attracted 150 viewers.

In his research, he discovered a document in the Leonia history archives. It’s “the deed of sale of an enslaved woman. It’s a 1795 document. She was the property of the Zabriskies and was sold to the Rielands, who were the major landowners of the north end of Leonia and south end of Englewood. The Rielands had this burial site, probably for their slaves.

“That was probably the bill of sale for the woman, who was known to be one of the last slaves in Bergen County. Her name was Betty. She was called Old Betty because she lived so long. Our knowledge is so scant. She possibly died in 1857. She may still have been a slave — at least, emancipated but essentially a ward of the people who originally owned her, because she was an elder. She was buried in Leonia.”

David Braun teaches Girl Scouts about Leonia’s history.

The lecture “was an opportunity for me to put the few facts together, to make history local, to teach people about these racial concerns through talking about their own backyard,” he said. “The Lieland estate where the burial site is is almost my own back yard.”

So how does Mr. Braun connect his Yiddishist identity to his role as Leonia historian?

“Here I am being brought up in the shtetl of Leonia, which is really quite similar to my grandmother’s shtetl of Suchowola in the White Russian heartland. I’m fortunate to be brought up in Leonia — my grandmother’s sisters didn’t survive.

“At the same time, as a Leonian and New Jerseyian and American it’s my duty to think about what it means to be an American. It saved my family’s life, but people like Old Betty experienced their own misery, much like those people in Suchowola did.

“Coming from the background of Jewish history, it’s not hard to see someone else’s tragedy as tremendously meaningful and something to identify with. And this is my own stuff too. I live a block and a half from where Old Betty is buried. I can claim Suchowola, but only historically — I can’t go back and get anything there. The Jewish cemetery was uprooted in fact — it’s an open field now.”

Mr. Braun sees his Yiddish instruction as also resurrecting memory.

“If your roots are in Eastern Europe, it was not very long ago that your people were speaking Yiddish,” he said. “That’s often forgotten among American Jewish children. Jewish life as it was lived includes language.

“I’ll ask a parent of kids who are in day school education, what is their Jewish culture – and by culture I don’t mean the high culture, the religious, liturgical and legalistic culture, the high high-minded philosophical stuff. What are the lullabies you sang your kids that were Jewish? The answer is, oh, no we didn’t. What is the Jewish poetry your family is interacting with? The answer is ugh, Jewish poetry?

“I think that’s very much answered by Yiddish material. Who are the speakers of Yiddish? Yidden — Jews. They are expressing all of their cultural needs through the language — that’s their Jewish life.”

And one bit of good fall-out from the pandemic: YIVO’s experience in teaching the Summer Institute online worked out so well that it now offering online Yiddish language courses throughout the year, which Mr. Braun will be supervising. As to how those will work out — stay tuned for an update in 35 years or so.

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