An interview with Barry Davis, our Yiddish language teacher

“Barry Davis studied history at LSE, in Vienna, and at the Hebrew University, and Yiddish in Columbia, New York. He has lectured in Modern European History focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. He has also taught Yiddish language and literature for many years. He has written widely on Yiddish literature. He works with Holocaust survivors in Yiddish, and has worked on films and in the theatre in English and Yiddish” [from the Danube Programme booklet]

Could you tell us the story of your father? How did he move from Poland to the UK?

I am not quite sure where my father was born because many people at that time never registered accurately. That is quite a common characteristic. I think he made himself younger in order not to join the Russian army, so I do not also know when he was actually born. He must have been born in Russia, a Polish part of Russia as then it was, before the First World War. He did not serve in the army but his brother did as he was older.

Germans came shortly after the beginning of the war and occupied the area where my father was living. They were short of labour in Germany and they needed bakers. In Germany women did most things but I do not know how many women in Germany became bakers because it is a kind of sweaty work. My father was recruited as a baker and came to live and work in Berlin during the First World War.

He found himself there at the end of the war. He remembered the revolution: Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and all the stories. Poland was established roughly at the same time in November 1918. Poles did not allow Jews that were at that time living outside Poland to become Polish citizens. As my father was living in Germany, he lost any his claim to Polish citizenship. He could not go back to Poland, he just went on a visit but that is all. He was stateless.

He stayed in Germany. There was an inflation and all things got bad. He met his brother who was in a prisoner-of-war camp and then released. They both went to Paris and lived there for some time. It turned out that three of his sisters had come to this country [the UK] before the First World War, probably in the early 1900. I knew two of them as the third one died before I was born.

Under pretext that his sisters were in Britain and he was coming to visit them, he came to London. And of course he stayed, illegally. He somehow managed to get some papers from a police person in East End, you know, corruption and so on, and so forth. He stayed and became a baker in London, in East End. When I was a very young child he was a baker in Brick Lane, which is the heart of East End. Obviously that was a great influence on me.

My mother was born in this country in 1908. Her father came to the UK in 1900. He had had enough of serving in the Russian army as well. They settled in East End. My mother, even though she was not born in the Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish very well. She was very fluent and she could read and write in Yiddish. She and my father spoke Yiddish all the time. My aunts also spoke Yiddish, so when I was a child I used to hear Yiddish all the time. The whole family atmosphere was Yiddish. Of course we knew English, we spoke English as well and I went to an English school obviously. But Yiddish was there all the time.

Here is a photo of my father Oscar Davis (originally Usher Dawicki) with his nephew Bert, probably in the late 1920s.

Here is a photo of my father Oscar Davis (originally Usher Dawicki) with his nephew Bert, probably in the late 1920s.

Did your father speak Polish at all?

He knew Polish. When I lived in Hackney there was a neighbour opposite to our house, a Polish man, non-Jewish and my father used to speak Polish with him. My father knew Polish quite well but at that time there were many people who did not know how to read and write in Polish but they knew it to speak.

He also knew Russian of course because Russian was the language in the country where he was born. When he went to Germany he learnt German. He acquired a bit of French when he was in France. Finally he learnt English.

However, people of that generation never really had the formal education but they picked up languages very easily. We may say that they were quite good and adaptable at picking up languages. But my father did not really read and write in any of those languages very well, my mother was much better at it.

Why did you become a Yiddish teacher? Is it your first profession?

No, it is not my first profession.

When I was much younger, you certainly could not earn a living as a Yiddish teacher, not in this country, maybe in America, or somewhere else where there was a large infrastructure at Yiddish. In this country not many people studied Yiddish, so it did not really occur to me to become a Yiddish teacher. I became a historian, I studied History at LSE. I became a lecturer in history at a university.

At some point in my life I decided I needed to go and study the language properly because my Yiddish was vernacular as I never really went to a Yiddish school. After my father and my mother died I thought there was nobody left and I said that now it is the time to carry on myself. I also had this strong love of Yiddish. In America there was an opportunity to study Yiddish, so I went to New York, studied Yiddish and started teaching it part time as well as being a lecturer in history.

Then when our department closed down and I was close to retirement, I went more and more into teaching Yiddish. But I do not think you could ever make a big living out of teaching Yiddish in the UK. Maybe in America, or maybe if you get a university position. However, in a university position you do not teach Yiddish all the time. You are a lecturer and you teach in English. I ended up teaching quite a lot of students Yiddish, it suited me and I enjoyed it. I did not stop being a historian though.

Why do you think that singing is a good pedagogical method?

I think when you are teaching a song and you teach the words, they stick much better when they are associated with a tune. People also enjoy it. My view is that if people enjoy studying they learn more without realizing it. If I can put it like that. When people think “I am studying, oh, isn’t it boring? This is academic…” you have to make people enjoy what they do and they learn more. The more methods you can use, the more interesting the lectures get. This can be visual materials such as the ones I have used today or songs which I have also used today.

A song, especially a Yiddish song, has a sort of powerful force in it and somehow a Yiddish song brings out things in people, their emotions, their feelings and then they mix it with learning of the language. So I think it is really important. If you noticed, when I teach and explain a song I would refer to what the meaning of the word is and maybe a grammatical point. The grammatical point sticks with a song because you learn the song.

You seem to know a lot about different variations and dialects of Yiddish. Could you tell us more about it? Why did they evolve the way they did? What are the most interesting differences between them?

I think the most interesting is the feeling each dialect of Yiddish brings. The way that some sound more formal and more polite, for example Lithuanian, which is the standard Yiddish. Let me give you an example. You say dus iz mayn vayb, which is a sentence “This is my wife”. That is standard Yiddish, Lithuanian Yiddish. In Polish Yiddish you say duus is mæn væb. [A comment: æ is the sound you say in “man” in English, I did not want to transcribe whole sentences in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in order for the examples to be understandable for non-linguists as well.] It sounds completely different. The Polish Yiddish is the Yiddish I am used to, so sometimes when I sing I tend to get into Polish, which is mostly changing the “u” sounds into the “i” sounds. There is also an example I gave you in class that instead of saying “ey” you say “ay” for everything: in pronouncing “bagel” instead of saying “beygl” you say “baygl.”

Did you go to the Yiddish theatre in London? Could you tell us about what it was like to be a Jew in London?

I went to the theatre but not when it was in the Grand Palaise but when it moved. But this was not really a professional theatre anymore. You could not make a living out of it. It was a sort of amateur theatre in which you performed once a week or in a hall. When I was much younger, in the 1940s and 1950s, then there would be a Yiddish theatre but probably I was too young to go. My mother took my older brother there. After a while the quality was not so good, so people stopped going.

The other question you asked is about being Jewish. I think in this country it was much more difficult being Jewish in the 1940s because of what was happening in Palestine: the tension between the British rulers in Palestine and Jews. That had a reflection on anti-Semitism in this country. One of the worst periods of anti-Semitism here was immediately after the war, which is really a tragedy because Jews suffered so much during the war and when they came they found a different form of anti-Semitism as a result of what was happening in the Middle East.

This country was different then. It was not a multicultural society, it was more English. Jews were very much the exotic other. People really thought that they were very odd, spoke too loud and were a bit vulgar. I think the country has changed: we have got all these different ethnic groups and Jews are not really considered to be so exotic. However, there are other problems that come up that have to do with anti-Semitism and what is going on in Israel and the Middle East today.

Underlying everything, there was still a sort of feeling in many countries in the world that made people think “Why are the Jews what they are? Why can’t they stop being Jewish and become like everybody else?” This is what I call the stubbornness of wanting to remain Jewish. People say “What do you want to remain Jewish for?” and you say “Why not? Why shouldn’t you remain what you are? Why do I have to become like everybody else?” I think that is the main argument. What is more, the fact that there has been so much hostility also makes Jewish people feel like “We can’t let go, we’ve got to keep on going. We can’t let them have the last word.”

Do you think that in the future it will be hard to preserve Jewishness and Yiddish in London, in the UK?

I think the problem with Jewishness is that it is difficult to preserve because people become very acculturated, very similar to the mainstream culture, the host culture. It is difficult unless you have a strong sense of something that holds you to it. That is why religion is quite important for many people, so that it keeps them a reason. Interestingly enough, more children go to Jewish schools today than they did in my lifetime. Are the Jewish schools in view of any sort of religious viewpoint? Probably not. So there is a sort of cultural Judaism: as long as people receive a Jewish education I think they will remain Jews. On the other hand, Jews are very similar to non-Jews. They end up marrying non-Jews and the question is whether their children will be Jewish. Some will and some will not. The orthodox people tend to believe that the only way to remain Jewish is by being religious.

As far as Yiddish goes, I do not think that Yiddish itself is going to help the culture because there is not enough non-religious, non-Chasidic people that speak Yiddish. Within the Chasidic community Yiddish is absolutely essential in keeping their culture together and I myself have been in many school where they teach in Yiddish. If you say you want a critical mass of people, the only way you can get it is if you have a large mass of people learning Yiddish as children by speaking Yiddish. The main problem of non-religious people is that they come and learn Yiddish but it is not the same. Their knowledge and their vernacular feel is not the same. It has to be said that probably the future of Yiddish is in hands of the Chasidim and the more religious Jews.

But on the other hand, how many people do you need to keep a language going? If you look at a small language like Gaelic and Welsh, how many people speak it? I do not know how many people speak Flemish but they still feel very strongly about it. Mind you, they have an infrastructure: the country educational system and so on. Without the infrastructure to keep a language going, without the education it may be difficult to preserve it. Education for most Jews in this country except for the Chasidim is mainly in English, not in Yiddish. The reason for this phenomenon is that people want to function within the society. Many Jews want to remain Jewish, to keep their culture but they want to fit in the modern world at the same time. They do not want to live in a cut-off from the society.

We would like to thank you very much, Barry, for the time you spend with us answering our questions and we are looking for the next language class with you!

Interviewers: Disa Witkowska, Viktoria Makai