The back of the stage was piled high with old Yiddish books in worn out cloth covers. Every time he needed to catch his breath between songs, clarinetist Gal Klein would stride over and swipe a book from the pile.
“Should I read from this 500-page biography, or a children’s book?” he asked the crowd of 100 young people. As he proceeded to read aloud from the children’s book, in Yiddish, the entire room vibrated like a mini earthquake as buses rumbled overhead.
The YUNG YiDiSH Living Museum on the fifth floor of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, one of the building’s most beloved and quirkiest secrets, has become the final resting home for thousands of Yiddish books, recordings, movies and artifacts, as well as a place for cultural events and research.
To get there, you have to wander through deserted hallways, stepping over teenage boys who have sniffed glue and passed out. If you see Filipino preteens at a hip hop class sliding over the floor in baggy pants, you’re in the right place.
Step inside the exposed cement warehouse, with worn Oriental carpets on the floor, and it feels like you’ve gone back in time — yellowed Yiddish newspapers line the walls, old books are stacked up in every conceivable corner.
An unlikely place for a Yiddish book depository
Israelis tend to avoid the south Tel Aviv bus station and its environs like the plague, but poor migrant communities are concentrated in this area, where rents are more affordable. It’s an unlikely spot for a Jewish cultural museum.
“This building is a really strong metaphor, because Yiddish itself is about movement, about us going from land to land,” explained Mendy Cahan, the founder of YUNG YiDiSH.
“This is a place where so many cultures intersect. It’s interesting to be here because people think Yiddish is passé, but this shows that it’s the opposite. It’s the meshing of creativity, of so many things that aren’t mainstream. Here, you’ve got Hasids from Bnei Barak next to foreign workers. This polyphony of voices and cultures is an essential part of Yiddish.”
Cahan noted that Yiddish was closely intertwined with workers’ rights movements in many countries as Jewish workers fought for better conditions, a fact that resonates with the foreign workers in Israel who are vulnerable to exploitation.
So when Gal Klein lifted his clarinet high into the air on Tu Bishvat as more than 100 English-speaking Tel Avivians thronged the museum for an event organized by the Tel Aviv Arts Council, it was a strange marriage of the old Jewish culture with the new realities of the bus station.
“It’s a kind of wink about the reality where we live now,” Klein said, about playing old European niggunim (melodies) among the Eritrean CD stores and Filipino supermarkets.
“My mother always says that Yiddish is the music of the soul and language of the soul,” said Klein. “It’s burned into our tradition. It doesn’t matter who we are and how far away we get away from it, it’s always a part of us.”
But it’s a fading part. In the Diaspora, Yiddish was the glue that held communities together, a shared language and culture. In Israel, there’s no need for that shared identity.
“We’re at a point we have a country and a culture here, so the culture from long ago is a lot less important,” said Klein, who tours around the world with his band Ramzailech, a fusion of ecstatic rock and klezmer. On Tuesday, he played with his other band, the Di Gasn Trio, which means “The Streets” in Yiddish.
“It’s not just klezmer, but also North African traditions that we’re losing. It comes from the Ben Gurionistic perspective of becoming Israeli. We’re breaking through these barriers [of forsaking old culture], but now it’s too late for the mainstream.”
But maybe it’s not too late. Dozens of young people dressed in trendy boots and stylish jeans whirled in hora circles around Klein and Yanush Hurvitz on accordion. The buses continued rumbling overhead, but people were jumping so hard it was hard to tell what caused the room to shake more.
‘Yiddish is a tool of survival’
Gal Klein said that both of his klezmer fusion bands made the conscious decision to write their own music, which borrows heavily from the old traditions before flipping them on their head.
“This way, Yiddish won’t be a historical thing to search for once in a while, it’s a thing that all the time will have new roots and new branches,” he said.
After the last note echoed off the concrete ceiling, people began to file out of the museum into the deserted bus station, winding through corridors of empty stores and taking wrong turns before finally finding an exit.
It was a surreal transition from the familiar coziness of old European traditions to the harsh realities of modern Israel, especially the bus station, a less successful part of the Jewish homeland.
In Mendy Cahan’s office, a corner of the museum cluttered with Yiddish memorabilia, he reflected on running a museum about old Jewish culture in a bus station surrounded by non-Jewish foreigners.
“[The migrant community] are also the Diaspora,” he noted. “All of us are questing to feel at home. There was this dream of the new Jew, that we’ll just define ourselves as new and independent Jews once we have the State of Israel. Now we’re here, and we find that it’s not enough, we still have insecurities. Yiddish is a tool of survival and growth in a world that’s not ideal,” he said.
“Yiddish is a litmus test,” continued Cahan. “Sixty years ago, it was so strong, 15 million people spoke it and even Hebrew was afraid of it. No one could think about such a quick disappearance. It’s a lesson about how precious culture is, and also how fragile it is. We must take care of it, and the migrants feel this. You sit for one or two generations, and it’s gone. You think it’s so strong, but culture must be created and recreated constantly.”
Just two days after the event, Cahan hosted another gathering at the museum, another step in the struggle to breathe new life into Yiddish, to continue the search for identity and home in a sea of diverse faces.
As thousands of commuters streamed through the bus station and Russian stores marked down their Christmas Santa hats, in the museum, among yellowed relics from old Europe, Cahan and his family celebrated the brit, or circumcision, of his son. A new life celebrated in an old corner of the Central Bus Station.
This article is part of a series about the secret life of Tel Aviv’s most reviled building. Read a previous article about an urban gardening initiative at the Central Bus Station. Know an interesting hidden corner of the Central Bus Station? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.