by Rokhl Kafrissen
Conversations among New Yorkers, they say, focus on one topic only: real estate. Too true. Now more than ever, young people are looking at a city in which it is almost impossible to find an affordable home. If you’re single and willing to live in a sketchy neighborhood, maybe with a roommate, you might manage. What about if you have a partner and a kid or, kholile, kids? And what if you actually want to build communities of like-minded people?
At every one of my holiday meals during yontov, no matter who was talking, from flat-broke students to corporate lawyers, all were solving equations with the same variables: location, room, proximity, community, and an average New York apartment purchase price of over $1 million.
These are not new issues. 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 rhythmically 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.
The Bee was a politically unaffiliated group whose only allegiance was to the transmission of Yiddish culture and yidishkayt.
The group also emphasized, like many Jewish scouting groups, principles of self-reliance and appreciation for the natural world.
A craze for outdoor exploration groups had swept Europe in the interwar period. For Jews in Poland, the landkentenish movement (emphasizing the idea of being at home in one’s natural surroundings) was tied to the ideas of diaspora nationalism and Yiddishism. Members of these new groups believed that Jews should be at home in the countries where they lived. Becoming familiar with nature, and being able to talk in Yiddish about the natural world, became a large part of that.
In the Enge Benge magazine, we see that these traditions were alive with the kids of Bainbridge Avenue. In Issue 3, there’s a map of Enge Benge-land with the kids’ Yiddish nicknames for all the landmarks. In Issue 4, there’s another trip to Enge Benge-land (near the cemetery on Bainbridge Avenue), where the kids played ball and learned the names of flowers and leaves. The Enge Benge anthem, printed in Issue 7, is full of nature imagery:
Enge bengenikes mir, oyf zumerdikn valdshpatsir,
Grin un yung iz undzer velt…
Enge bengenikes we, on a summer forest-walk, green and young is our world…
Vi undzere zeydes oyfn shliakh, mit mameloshn undzer shprakh.
Like our grandfathers on unpaved roads, with mame-loshn as our tongue.
Those grandfathers of the Enge Benge anthem weren’t metaphorical. In Issue 5 (1970), Sore-Rokhl Schaechter wrote a memorial piece for Dr. Max Weinreich, who had passed away a few months before. She talked about his life and academic work, and his wife Regina’s involvement with Enge Benge. Although Sore-Rokhl, now an editor at the Yiddish Forverts, was all of 12 when she wrote her piece, she was quite serious about the larger intellectual project to which Weinreich devoted himself. It will be up to them, the Enge Bengenikes, to continue his work, she wrote. Pretty heavy stuff for little kids.
Also in Issue 5, Dovid Fishman (now a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary) interviewed Kadye Molodovsky, the acclaimed Yiddish poet. As it turns out, Molodovsky started writing poetry when she was 12, the same age as Fishman and the other Enge Bengenikes.
Enge Bengenikes were participants in their own Yiddish-based youth culture as well as in the larger Yiddish culture. Issue 7 (1970) has pages full of protestirn (protesting) that show awareness of anti-war and ecological issues. Young Eydele Schaechter has an article about the killings at Kent State; three of the four killed were Jews, she notes. These kids could synthesize the broader counterculture with their Yiddish-based culture and understand the Jewish continuities within that counterculture.
In 1970, Yiddish activists rallied to demand that major American Yiddish dailies improve their Yiddish. These oysleyg (spelling) protests targeted the abominable spelling used in Yiddish newspapers and their broad embrace of English words in Yiddish transliteration and daytshmerizms (Germanized expressions). At least in the case of the Forward, this was on purpose: Abraham Cahan’s express policy had been to ‘Americanize’ his readership and help wean them off Yiddish. For the children of Enge Benge, this was unacceptable, and for three days in April, they and their older associates picketed the Forverts and the Tog. Issue 7 of their journal features the text of the handbills handed out at the protests, demanding better Yiddish in the newspapers. The protestors were not well-received, and the Forverts staff was said to be particularly hostile, throwing garbage, including eggs. Dovid Fishman wrote a touchingly generous statement about the animosity: “[S]ome say that they threw stuff at us, but I know that it was the bird of progress dropping her blessing on us.” Underneath is a drawing of a bird dropping an egg. When I talked to Beyle recently about the protests, she told me that in fact, soon after the protests, the editor of the Tog called Dr. Schaechter to say that he had been moved by the protests and would work on reforming their orthography.
Enge Benge ceased publishing with Issue 10, 1972-1973. Many of the kids who had grown up in the svive had graduated to Yugntruf, a youth activist group.
The journal was read by other Yiddish-speaking kids around the world (there’s a greeting to the poet and scholar Dov-Ber Kerler in Jerusalem on the occasion of his bar mitsve), and also by Yiddish scholars, many of whom had themselves been involved in Yiddish youth movements. Issue 2 features, for example, a letter of congratulations from Avrom Golomb, who had been a leader of di bin back in Vilna and had gone on to be one of the most important theoreticians of Yiddish pedagogy.
On a recent Sunday, I attended the release party for Beyle Schaechter Gottesman’s new CD of Yiddish children’s songs, Fli Fli Mayn Flishlang, which includes the Enge Benge anthem (available at the Jewish Book Center). In the audience, and on the stage, were the grandchildren of Bainbridge Avenue, both real and spiritual, and we filled the house. With the Enge Benge anthem on my stereo, and just enough like-minded comrades by my side, I intend to continue the work that was begun a long time ago.
Rokhl Kafrissen conducts “The Rootless Cosmopolitan” column for Jewish Currents, writes a blog by the same name and has been researching the experiences of Jewish radicals during the McCarthy period. She thanks Itzik and Esther Gottesman for providing research assistance for this article.