The Spirit of Yiddish

"This was the mecca of Yiddish culture other than New York in this country," says David Weintraub, executive director of the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture, offering a surprising fact about Miami and explaining why Teitelboim -- a Yiddish poet, activist, and labor organizer, who lived from 1914 to 1992 -- visited sunny South Florida so often. An international spokesperson for Yiddish culture, the writer had twelve books of her poetry published. Many have considered Yiddish nearly obsolete owing to Jewish assimilation and the extermination of six million of its speakers in World War II. During her life and following her death, Teitelboim hoped to counteract that notion, leaving a legacy of appreciation for all aspects of the 1000-year-old language. That's why in 1998 a cultural and arts center bearing her name was established in the City of Coral Gables.

"Our efforts are to try to make the connection with those native Yiddish speakers who have grown up and the mamaloshen (mother tongue) was their heart and their love, and with younger people who are missing out on their heritage and who they are," Weintraub notes about the center's mission. Among the many ways they work toward that task: sponsoring regular art shows, lectures, poetry readings, and musical events; offering Yiddish classes; and, most important, translating and publishing the works of famous and lesser-known Yiddish writers.

Five years in the making one grand event the center dreamed up is Creative Defiance and the Holocaust, a multiday commemoration of the artistic efforts of those who lived through and died in the horrors of Nazi-driven genocide. Beginning this Thursday with a talk by noted author and Holocaust expert Yaffa Eliach and continuing with an exhibition displaying the art of resistance and a daylong seminar featuring poetry, music, lectures by distinguished scholars, and a talk by a Holocaust survivor, the happening boasts a non-Yiddish highlight: The Emperor of Atlantis. The one-act opera was written in German by composer Viktor Ullman and librettist Peter Kien while imprisoned in the Nazi's "model" concentration camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Its authors were eventually sent to Auschwitz, where they died, but the opera survived thanks to the composer's best friend, who lived through the experience. It only received its first English performance in 1977 and will be staged by the FIU Music Festival for the first time in South Florida.

Art's ability to nourish people's spirit, to impart comfort and hope for the future is especially important now, which makes this presentation particularly prescient. "It's also a celebration of all the culture that came before, because that 1000-year-old culture didn't die with the Holocaust," Weintraub says about the program. "It continued. It was in our blood. This isn't just a question of resistance but a question of connecting and continuance. We lose so much when we don't look at how important our heritage was."