A group of 150 Canadians gathered earlier this month to wish their country a freylekhn geburtstog (happy birthday) by singing the country’s national anthem in Yiddish. Canada marks its sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, this year.
As far as they know, these multiculturally diverse singers are the first Canadians to ever sing ‘O Canada’ in Yiddish. Members of the group ranged from world-famous classical guitarist Liona Boyd to Ontario Black History Society president Nikke Clarke, to 98-year-old Holocaust survivor Mary Schlanger.
Toronto writer Hindy Nosek-Abelson translated the anthem for the occasion.
“I’ve done a lot of translations in my life, and I always choose them carefully. There were so many wonderful Yiddish writers, but they have mostly been silenced by either the Holocaust or the decline in the use of Yiddish,” she told The Globe and Mail.
“There are challenges that happen with every song or poetry translation. You want to get the words to fit the music like fingers in a glove,” she said.
This might explain why Nosek-Abelson curiously chose to translate the thrice-repeated phrase “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee” as “O Canada we stand by your side” (“O Kaneda mir shteyen bay dayn zayt”).
This project came about after it was suggested, discussed and developed by a number of prominent Canadians, including celebrated author Margaret Atwood. Jewish artist Charles Pachter got involved, as did Jewish actress Marilyn Lightstone, who brought her life partner media mogul Moses Znaimer in as producer. Znaimer, who provided recording space at Zoomerplex in Toronto’s Liberty Village, spent his early childhood in a post-WWII Displaced Persons camp in Germany before immigrating with his Eastern European Jewish family to Canada.
According to the 2011 census, only 15,205 Canadians speak Yiddish as their mother tongue. These are mainly very elderly European-born Jews and members of insular Hasidic communities. The situation was very different eight decades earlier when 1.4 percent of the country’s population (150,000 people) spoke Yiddish as their first language, a proportion similar to Canada’s largest non-official language today (Punjabi).
This is not to say that Yiddish is a dead language in contemporary Canada. As in the United States and Israel, Yiddish is studied by university students, supervised by scholars like University of Ottawa professor Rebecca Margolis, author of “Jewish Roots, Canadian Soil: Yiddish Culture in Montreal, 1905-45.”
Unlike in major Jewish communities south of the border, Montreal and Toronto are home to non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools that still include Yiddish in their curriculums. The Jewish People’s & Peretz Schools-Bialik High School in Montreal is the only school in North America that has a compulsory Yiddish program running from first grade through the end of high school. Students at Toronto’s Bialik Hebrew Day School also learn Yiddish.
However, Yiddish instruction in these schools isn’t what it once was. Fewer hours are devoted to instruction of the language, and the lessons are more culturally oriented and less grammatically rigorous.
Sheila Witt, a Yiddish teacher who has been at JPPS-Bialik for several decades, told The Forward she attributed the reduction in teaching hours at her school not only to the French language instruction mandated by Quebec’s government, but also to the change in the culture of the local Jewish community over time and to the lack of Yiddish reinforcement in the students’ homes.
Yiddish is unquestionably flourishing in Canada is in the arts. Montreal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, founded in 1958, is still going strong. Singers like Canadian Folk Music Award winner Lenka Lichtenberg are gaining notice for their recordings and performances of old and new Yiddish compositions. And Yiddish music lovers gather annually at the KlezKanada and the Ashkenaz Festival, which draw participants not only from around the country, but also from around the world.
The relatively recent return of young Jews to the gentrifying old Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, like Kensington Market and The Annex in Toronto, and Mile End in Montreal, has paralleled an uptick in the mammeloshen’s hipness quotient. More than a decade ago, Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) was already rapping in Yiddish in now-classics like “(Rock the) Belz.”
And of course, two of the hardest working ambassadors for Yiddish and Yiddishkayt these days are Montrealers Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman, the creative mavens behind YidLife Crisis. Their web series and related projects are bringing Jews together both virtually and in real life to explore Jewish identity — and learn a bisl mammeloshen.
The two, who have worked hard to make the language relevant for today, must be excited to know that when it comes to celebrating Yiddish in 2017, their fellow Canadians “stand by their side.”