Celebrating a century of UW-Madison Yiddish

A century of Yiddish education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be celebrated with live and historic music, including the first event in an international Jewish performance series.

In the fall semester of 1916, UW-Madison became the nation’s first university to offer Yiddish language instruction. Yiddish is a language rooted in German with elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, along with Slavic elements in eastern Europe. More than 10 million Yiddish speakers lived in Europe prior to World War II, but five million of them were killed during the Holocaust.

UW-Madison is home to the Mayrent Institute, a leading center of Yiddish cultural literacy. It includes more than 9,000 historic Yiddish and Jewish sound recordings, which are being digitized and made available for free online streaming.

The institute is a world center for Yiddish research. “It represents all the geographic places where Yiddish culture moved and blossomed,” says director Henry Sapoznik. “Its stature challenges any other collection internationally.”

This first UW-Madison Yiddish course was taught by Louis Bernard Wolfenson, a native of La Crosse and an alumnus of the Madison campus. He served in the Department of Semitics and Hellenistic Greek, but his work went far beyond language. Wolfenson helped found the Jewish Students’ Association — the precursor of B’nai B’rith Hillel, founded in 1924 — and for years served on the executive committee of Madison’s Jewish Welfare Board.

“Occasionally a generation will produce someone who has a vision that transcends their moment,” says Sapoznik. “Wolfenson created an overview understanding of the diversity of Jewish life. He saw the unity of the recipients. He saw them not only as students but as people and members of the community, and carriers of the tradition as a culture.”

Wolfenson resigned his position in 1925, leaving academia to return to private scholarship and Jewish public service.

UW-Madison begins the year-long celebration of its Yiddish centenary with a variety of events this spring, including a World Records Symposium April 14 and 15, featuring historic and new performances of vernacular music. Yiddish culture will be represented with a presentation of early recording cylinders and a live performance of rural Polish-Yiddish music by renowned musicians Cookie Segelstein (fiddle) and Joshua Horowitz (accordion). All events are free and open to the public.

Then, the festival Out of the Shadows: Rediscovering Jewish Music, Literature and Theater, running May 1 to 5, will serve as the kickoff to an international series featuring performances of Jewish work. Madison’s is the first of four such festivals around the world, and the only U.S. location.

The full project, “Performing the Jewish Archive,” is a major international research effort led by the University of Leeds, in England, and including a multidisciplinary team assembled on four continents.

“We are a unique combination of scholars from a diverse range of subjects, crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries, (and) even integrating scientific research methodologies at the heart of an arts-led investigation,” says Dr. Stephen Muir, of the Leeds School of Music. “‘Performing the Jewish Archive’ will bring recently rediscovered musical, theatrical and literary works by Jewish artists back to the attention of scholars and the public, and stimulate the creation of new works.”

Muir’s team is exploring the years between 1880 and 1950 to discover the role of art during Jewish displacement and upheaval. “We seem to have caught the imagination of a huge range of organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, all interested in the Jewish artistic past and how it impinges on all of our futures,” he says.

The other festivals will be held in the Czech Republic, South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom. Wisconsin partners will include the UW-Madison School of Music, Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Madison Youth Choirs, and Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Tickets for most May events are $10 general admission, $5 students, and are available at the UW’s Union Theater, uniontheater.wisc.edu, and Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, overturecenter.org.

“Please join us to celebrate the 100th birthday of Yiddish at the UW Madison,” says Sapoznik. “Come and be part of the next 100 years.”

For more details on these events or other projects, go to mayrentinstitute.wisc.edu.