Sunday, December 1, 2013

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman koved ir ondenk

Thursday night we lost a treasure of the Yiddish world, poet, artist, songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. She was 93.

Beyle survived the war in the Czernowitz ghetto and, a few years later, moved to New York City with her family.

(from Wikipedia) After the war, Schaechter-Gottesman lived several years in Vienna, where her husband had a chief position ("Chefarzt") in the DP camps in the area. Their daughter Taube was born there in 1950; the family moved to New York in 1951, where the Gottesmans had two other children, Hyam and Itzik. In New York the Gottesmans took part in an experimental Yiddish community in the Bronx, centered around Bainbridge Avenue. There a half-dozen Yiddish-speaking families bought adjacent houses and reinvigorated the existing Sholem Aleichem Yiddish School. Schaechter-Gottesman became an important member of this community, writing classroom materials, plays and songs for the school as well as editing a magazine for children ("Kinderzhurnal") and a magazine of children’s writings ("Enge-benge").

In 2007 I wrote about Enge-benge for Jewish Currents:

Back in the 1960s, a few dedicated families of Yiddishist activists were trying to figure out where to live and faced similar issues. Three families, the Schaechters, the Gottesmans and the Fishmans, made a decision to move to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. There was nothing particularly wonderful about Bainbridge Avenue; in fact, the families looked at other possible places for their Yiddishist colony, including Roosevelt, New Jersey. But on Bainbridge Avenue they could get spacious houses near parks and transportation, and the men could commute easily to their jobs in Manhattan.
These families made a conscious decision to provide a Yiddish infrastructure for their children. Producing the next generation of Yiddish speakers, in a country and a time where Yiddish was less than a minority language, would take planning, dedication, and the will to leave nothing to chance. Even if the parents spoke Yiddish at home, the children would need peers, activities, and a school — a Yiddish culture of their own.
Many Yiddish-speaking families from the surrounding neighborhood already sent their children to Shul 21 on Bainbridge Avenue, part of the Sholem Aleichem Folksinstitute (SAFI), one of the oldest Yiddish school systems and the one that was apolitical, focused on culture rather than on any particular ideology. But as a supplement to five days a week of Shul 21, poet and painter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman and her brother, Mordkhe Schaechter, a Yiddish linguist and scholar, decided to started a children’s svive -— an informal club that would give their kids more opportunities to speak Yiddish and do activities in Yiddish. The svive was called Enge Benge, after a counting rhyme made popular by Sholem Aleichem: Enge benge/stupe stenge/artse bartse/gele shvartse/eygele feygele khik. (The words are mostly nonsensical, to be used rythmically for choosing, like ‘eeny meeny miney moe.’)
Never more than a small, local playgroup for a handful of families (with names like Weinreich, Mlotek, Hoffman, Kramberg and others), Enge Benge was nevertheless politically and culturally influenced by the large, vibrant network of Yiddishist youth groups that flourished in interwar Poland. In the pages of the Enge Benge journal (1966-72), written by the kids and edited by Beyle Schaechter Gottesman, you can see traces of di bin (the Bee), a youth group founded in 1927 Vilna by Dr. Max Weinreich, the leader of Vilna’s YIVO. 

Though it seems like a quaint mimeographed relic, Enge-Benge represented a truly heroic task: the struggle for cultural continuity against the ravenous maw of American assimilation. 

With the loss of Chane Mlotek a few weeks ago, and now Beyle, the Yiddish world is that much poorer, that much further from the vibrant multi-lingual world of Jewish Eastern Europe. We are lucky, though, that both Chana and Beyle didn't just transmit that culture personally, but both worked to sustain the Yiddish institutional world in a multitude of ways. 

And as inadequate as I feel to carry on their work, I am inspired by my peers who have invested themselves in the project of Yiddish cultural continuity. They have worked closely with both Beyle and Chana and have taken inspiration, and spiritual nourishment, from both of them. I am hopeful that they can, and will, make Chana, and Beyle, and all our spiritual grandparents, proud.  

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