Backstory: Last of the Yiddish Mohicans

Simonas Gurevicius has serious shtick. Blue eyes gleaming, he talks fast and animatedly. His accent, inflection, and shoulder shrugs – like a young Jackie Mason – makes him a throwback to the "Borscht Belt" and the dozens of famed, Yiddish-influenced comics who honed their acts in the upstate New York resorts that once catered to Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

But Simonas is no comic and he's never been in the Catskills. He's a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Lithuania, the Baltic region of northeastern Europe.

"Have a seat there," Simonas says in English, motioning a visitor to a chair. As the visitor bends to sit, he adds: "The chair's broken."

"And this, this is a nice guy," he deadpans, introducing a young colleague.

Beat.

"But he's got major psychological problems."

Simonas's corny shtick is no gimmick; its rhythm and accent ring with authenticity. He's a rare breed: a young, native speaker of Yiddish, the historic language of Eastern European Jews. And his perseverance makes him something of a hero here.

"Simonas is the last of the Mohicans," says DovidKatz, the Brooklyn-born director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. "He's the last of his generation here to have learned Yiddish in the home."

The Holocaust erased 5 million of the world's 11 million Yiddish-speakers. In Lithuania, 220,000 of 250,000 Jews died.

But Simonas and other Jews here in Vilnius – the cobblestoned cradle of Yiddish life and culture, or Yiddishkeit; a city Napoleon reportedly dubbed "the Jerusalem of the East" – are today working to revive the language. While some suggest that the boom in Yiddish courses, clubs, and klezmer music in the West signal a renaissance, Jews here have embarked on a minirevival to preserve their mother tongue, or mame loshen, in lands where it flourished for more than six centuries.

"The thing about Yiddish, it's not only a tool of communication, but one of the strongest parts of my identity," says Simonas, who as executive director of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, tends to the cultural and welfare needs of the less than 5,000 Jews here.

From cultural performances and reading clubs to personal commitments to converse only in Yiddish, Lithuanian Jews are reclaiming their heritage. Most significant, the lone Jewish secondary school in Vilnius launched its first Yiddish-language class in January. And a Jewish kindergarten has begun teaching an hour of Yiddish per week.

Yet revival of the language – derived mostly from medieval German, with a dash of Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages – won't be easy. After the Holocaust, Soviet rule nearly extinguished what was left of Jewish life, as Moscow repressed all national, ethnic, and religious identity. And Zionism made Hebrew the lingua franca among Jews.

Essentially three categories of Yiddish-speakers survive – remnants of Old Europe now scattered about the globe; Hasidic enclaves of ultra-Orthodox Jews; and scholars like Mr. Katz. But then there are "Litvaks" – Lithuanian Jews, like the Gurevicius family, who trace their roots here to the 14th century.

One recent afternoon, the family gathered in the apartment of Simonas's parents, in a typically nondescript tenement house, to explain how they kept the Yiddish flame flickering. Over tea and Lithuanian chocolates, they point to the driving force behind their commitment: Simonas's maternal grandfather, Mordechai Rostovsky, who lost three dozen relatives in his home village during the Holocaust.

Asked how many Jews lived in the family's shtetl, Plunge, on the Baltic Sea, before the war, Simonas phones Mordechai. Rather than toss out the figure immediately – of 2,000 to 3,000 – Mordechai jokes with his grandson by naming the Jewish families, home by home, ticking off the streets from memory. When Simonas thanks him, Mordechai volunteers: "Wait, I can tell you more!"

Only 100 Jews survived. Yet, the tragedy that befell this family, followed by Sovietization and Russification, triggered Mordechai's rebellion. While many Jews embraced Russian or Lithuanian to assimilate, he refused.

"For my father, it was like a spiritual fight," says Simonas's mother, Soramina Gurevicius. "A big part of the family was lost, so he thought, for the part that survived, at least we should keep the language."

With the strong Yiddish roots in Vilnius, far from Moscow, Jews had more latitude. Some felt confident enough to speak Yiddish in certain company. Mordechai, openly Jewish, rose to a high rank: coordinator of food distribution for Vilnius. When meeting in his office with Jews, he'd speak Yiddish.

Still, says Soramina, she knew that speaking Yiddish was unusual. In 1980, while visiting Leningrad with her mother, they were chatting in Yiddish on the street. An older Jewish woman overheard, and asked in Russian, "You're speaking Yiddish? You're not afraid?"

"We told her, 'Look around. There are German tourists speaking German, British tourists, speaking English ... so why shouldn't we speak our language?' " says Soramina.

When Soramina had children, Mordechai insisted they speak Yiddish. "If you want your child to be a Jew, you speak Yiddish to him," she says. And her husband, Chaim Gurevicius, adds: "We transmit to our children all of our traditions and culture through our language. So we were never ashamed to speak it."

Early on, though, Simonas and his younger brother, Julijus, encountered difficulties. Their playmates spoke Lithuanian, Russian, or Polish, so they quickly became multilingual. They admit they sometimes drew strange looks when speaking Yiddish. "[When] I was maybe five, [my grandmother and I] were on a trolley bus, and she kept telling me to sit still in Yiddish ... 'zitz, zitz!' " Simonas recalls. "But in Lithuanian, the word for 'Jew' – 'zhyds' – sounds like it. So an elderly woman came up and said, 'Why are you yelling at the boy? It's not his fault he's a Jew!' She was trying to defend me!"

Yet just as his parents never disguised their roots, neither does Simonas. For example, once, a job application asked for his native language. Entering "Yiddish" would have identified him as Jewish. "It was a dilemma," he says. "But I came up with a solution. If they're going to have a problem in the future with me being a Jew, they should reject me now."

Today, elderly Jews at the community center delight in Simonas's mastery of the language and approach to kiss his cheek and chat. One man teases about Simonas about his countrified Yiddish, versus his own urban pronunciation.

Meanwhile, Julijus also carries the torch. Though already fluent, he's one of 11 teens enrolled in the new Yiddish class at the Jewish school.

But students at the Jewish school are already expected to be fluent in four languages by graduation. How to motivate them to learn a fifth for the sake of communal identity? The demographics don't look good, as elderly Yiddish speakers die off. Katz says the real future of Yiddish lies with the Hasidim, who boast a high birthrate, and with Yiddishists, like himself. He's captured oral histories from 1,000 native Yiddish-speakers in Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

"A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken," says Katz. "So we have to be careful not to hype this, that there's a great revival of Yiddish. If we're going to seriously preserve Yiddish, it requires the training of masters who can speak, read, and indeed write the language, not just someone who can sing a song and run around and say a few words of it."

Nevertheless, the Gurevicius family says they're optimistic. Simonas is teaching his young wife "10 new Yiddish words a night," he says, "because I can't imagine my children not speaking Yiddish."

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