Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Recovering Yiddish Writing: Rhea Tregebov at the Ashkenaz Festival

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Recovering Yiddish Writing: Rhea Tregebov at the Ashkenaz Festival

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

The Ashkenaz Festival, Toronto’s biannual festival of Yiddish and Jewish culture, was celebrated at the Harbourfront from August 28 to September 1. The three days of programming featured craft, visual arts, musical concerts, dance, theatre and literature drawing upon the long Jewish cultural tradition of Eastern Europe.

Rhea Tregebov, as part of the festival’s literary programming on Sunday, read from her new anthology of Yiddish women’s writing, Arguing with the Storm (Sumach Press, 2007). Tregebov takes its title from a Yiddish poem where a mother passionately confronts a storm that is threatening to destroy her crops. This sentiment of courage and emotional strength in the face of adversity underlines the memoirs and fictional works chosen for the collection. Tregebov welcomed the small audience that had gathered for her reading in Miss Lou’s Room and recounted the very remarkable story of how the anthology came about — beginning with a small group of women in Winnipeg.

When a large public Jewish library was closed in Winnipeg, the project of preparing the extensive collection for transfer to various Jewish cultural centres, where it would still be accessible to the public, was undertaken. The volunteers assisting with the move came across a large number of uncatalogued works, some of which were by unknown female writers. A Yiddish women writers’ study group, consisting of eight dedicated seniors, decided to read and translate these works. Tregebov’s mother, a member of this reading circle, played a key role in researching the authors, a difficult task given the scarce biographical information available on the women. The women of the study group began reconnecting with Yiddish in a uniquely communal setting, supporting each other in their understanding and connecting with their ancestry through the stories of the women that they read.

Tregebov, who has published several books of poetry and teaches Creative Writing at University of British Columbia, grew inspired by the dedication of her mother and the study group. She took on the role of editing what would become the anthology, helping to bring the untold stories of these women writers to light. Working closely with a core group of translators, Tregebov selected fourteen works for inclusion in the anthology. The works appear in Arguing with the Storm in both English and Yiddish. Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn's humorous story, “No More Rabbi,” one of the two works chosen for the reading, was read at the festival first in its original Yiddish by a translator, and then in English by Tregebov. Listening to the rhythms of the Yiddish language for the ten minutes of the story was a unique experience. As I looked around, it was clear that the majority of people laughing and following the story were also the most senior people in the room. As many of the authors have passed away, the stories explored the traditions, racial tensions, poverty and immigrant experience of another time period, but one which the older members of the audience could still keenly recall.

UNESCO has pronounced Yiddish an endangered language, as the numbers of its speakers and users have decreased dramatically in younger generations. Efforts like Tregebov’s Arguing with the Storm and the larger Ashkenaz festival play an important role in the Yiddish renaissance, the recent movement to preserve and strengthen Yiddish culture. The benefits of honouring Ashkenaz culture could be seen plainly in the enthusiastic audience responses to the reading. One member of the audience remarked on the important role of tolerance that Canada plays in supporting Yiddish culture, while another stood up and expressed the joy that he felt on hearing the familiar sounds of Yiddish spoken during the reading. A woman in the audience shared the happy news of a Yiddish language course now being offered at the University of Winnipeg and another recommended additional anthologies of Yiddish writing for further reading. Tregebov’s reading and the discussion that ensued was heartening to witness. The Ashkenaz Festival functions as an excellent forum in which to both discover and re-invest in Jewish and Yiddish culture.

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