Friday, February 16, 2007

The Tide Comes In And The Tide Goes Out

I have come to realize that the world is not such that people seem to be dying all the time. There is a tide. It comes in and sweeps up what looks to us as a random collection of souls. The tide goes back out again and the earthly voice of those souls is silenced forever from our ears. But in our hearts the light of our dear departed ones still radiates warmth and provides comfort in our dream world.

Last night I learned that the father of my friends Gitl and Binyumen (and their two siblings) had passed away after a lengthy decline. All told, there were sixteen grandchildren, most of whom are well on their way to adulthood. But still, at 79 years old in our modern world, Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter was still a kid.

I took the ride over to the Upper West Side for the funeral. The casket, draped in a stark black cloth with a large Jewish star, was at the front of the modest chapel. There was an aura of peace and tranquility that was not a good match for the lively character of the Departed.

I saw a throng of diverse kinds of people, from all walks of life and persuasions. There were intellectuals, musicians, academics, scholars and theatre people. There was even a newspaper publisher. As I looked around and listened to fragments of conversation, I had to remind myself that I was in New York City: Most of the people there were speaking Yiddish. Even the grandchildren were speaking Yiddish.

There were speakers who praised Dr. Schaechter. His grandson even read a poem he had written about him in fourth grade. By any standard, it was an amazing poem and there was not a dry eye.

But the highlight was Binyumen's hesped -- eulogy.

We were a bit surprised to hear my choir director deliver the speech in English, especially when I had anticipated the sweet chicken soup comfort of Yiddish. He described what life was like for the children of this towering giant. He recounted family ancedotes, he read clips from articles, and he recalled a certain nameless joke that his father loved.

He also sang a song, "Chupchik." And it was in that moment that I realized what this was all about. When Mordkhe Schaechter was a boy, his father went to Siberia, never to return. Mordkhe would spend his entire life devoted to his father's memory. Just as my mother, who was 79 when she died, searched the world over for her mother, whom Mum left behind in Poland once she went to Siberia. We had "Chupchik" on the turntable in our house, too.

For his whole life Mordkhe would walk along the shore of his childhood, dredging for what perhaps the tide had left behind. A memento. A hint. Some memory of his father.

With every verse of "Chupchik" Binyumen's gentle voice faltered a little bit. It was the most beautiful and perfect version -- a prayer: that his own children one day might give him an equally fitting hesped; that his children would not have to grow up devoid of a father; that he will have the strength of character to one day live up to his father's good name and leave a legacy that could "fill a stadium," as one friend put it.

For now Binyumen and his siblings must truly assume the yoke of their father: standing on the shore with shoeboxes that are filled with their father's index cards, each containing a hand-written word in Yiddish with meticulously codified pronunciations -- scrawlings of a man driven to preserve a fragile language; yearning for the voice to breathe life into those papers; and watching the tide.


Mordkhe Schaechter, 79, Leading Yiddish Linguist, Dies

The New York Times

February 16, 2007

Mordkhe Schaechter, a leading Yiddish linguist who spent a lifetime studying, standardizing and teaching the language, died yesterday in the Bronx. He was 79 and lived in Yonkers.
His death, at Montefiore Medical Center, followed a long illness, his daughter Rukhl Schaechter said.

Dr. Schaechter, whose passion for Yiddish dated to his boyhood in Romania, dedicated his life to reclaiming Yiddish as a living language for the descendants of its first speakers, the Ashkenazic Jewry of central and eastern Europe. Written in the Hebrew alphabet and containing Semitic, Germanic and other components, it is one of the three major literary languages in Jewish history, the others being Hebrew and Aramaic.

In addition to being a teacher, Dr. Schaechter was an author and promoter, founding organizations devoted to furthering the use of Yiddish. He wrote dictionaries intending to standardize it.

Dr. Schaechter was a senior lecturer in Yiddish studies at Columbia from 1981 to 1993. He also taught in the Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture from its beginning in 1968 until 2004; the program is a joint project of Columbia and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which is prominent in the study of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Dr. Schaechter started contributing to YIVO — then based in Poland — as an archival collector in Austria in 1947, four years before he came to the United States. Over the years he also gave Yiddish courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Jewish Teachers Seminary-Herzliah and Yeshiva University, all in New York.

In the 1980s, he was associate editor of The Great Dictionary of the Yiddish Language and, from 1961 to 1972, he was associate editor of The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry. From the 1970s until 1986 he was a bibliographer, proofreader and finally editor of YIVO’s Yiddishe Shprakh, a journal devoted to the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of standard Yiddish.

Itsye Mordkhe Schaechter was born on Dec. 1, 1927, in what was then the Romanian town of Cernauti but is now Chernivtsi in Ukraine, or Czernowitz to its Yiddish speakers. He became fascinated with Yiddish as a pupil and later studied linguistics at the University of Bucharest. He received his doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1951 with a dissertation in Yiddish.
Dr. Schaechter arrived in New York that year. After serving in military intelligence in the United States Army during the Korean War, he resumed his association with YIVO and began teaching and writing.

He founded the Committee for the Implementation of the Standardized Yiddish Orthography in 1958.

Six years later, with two students, he founded Yugntruf (“Call to Youth”), a worldwide organization devoted to teaching Yiddish to new generations. (It has a Web site at

Dr. Schaechter founded the Task Force for Yiddish Terminology in 1970 and the League for Yiddish, based in New York, in 1979. He served as its executive director until 2004.
In 1994, Dr. Schaechter received the Itzik Manger Prize, the most prestigious Yiddish literary award. His books, all in Yiddish, include “Authentic Yiddish” (1986), “Pregnancy, Childbirth and Early Childhood: An English-Yiddish Dictionary” (1991), “The History of the Standardized Yiddish Spelling” (1999), “Yiddish II: An Intermediate and Advanced Textbook” (2004), and “Plant Names in Yiddish: A Handbook of Botanical Terminology” (2005).

Dr. Schaechter is survived by his wife of 50 years, Charne Schaechter; three daughters, Rukhl Schaechter of Yonkers, Gitl Viswanath of Teaneck, N.J., and Eydl Reznik of Safed, or Tsfat, Israel; a son, Binyumen of Manhattan; a sister, Bella Schaechter-Gottesman of the Bronx; and 16 grandchildren, with whom he spoke only in Yiddish, his son said.

No comments: