Mendy Cahan, or the Secret Yiddish Shelter of Tel Aviv

Mendy Cahan is an actor, singer, and collector of books, all in Yiddish… He has stored 90,000 of them in an unlikely location in the Tel Aviv bus station. The piles of accumulated books seem to hold up the walls. And it is in this piece of Eastern Europe stuck in a zone of the Middle East that those who frequent this place gather to revive a Yiddish language that has become a minority in the middle of Hebrew. Visit the Yung Yiddish and meet its creator.

 

Yung Yiddish collections.

 

The Tel Aviv bus station is a huge seven-story building, a colossus of dirty concrete, lying in the south of the city, not so old but already decrepit. Surrounded by a ramp where noisy and polluting buses circulate, this hub absorbs and pours out a continuous flow of passengers into a maze of escalators and corridors lined with cheap shops, like a multi-store souk. Generally hated by the inhabitants of the city who demand its leveling, this vociferous giant knows nonetheless how to be welcoming: in its disused arms, wide corridors with no exit, all sorts of activities for which the station was not intended have nestled: a Filipino market, an African church, a dispensary for refugees and a nursery for their children; small parties and festivals take place there regularly, without authorization. And in this pulsating life that parasites the big beast, there is also Yung Yiddish. Just like in Harry Potter’s train station, you have to know the way in, push the right door, on the 5th floor. Finding it with great difficulty gives you the feeling of holding a secret.

The Tel Aviv bus station © Danny Trom

You enter another world, the world of Mendy Cahan. The décor is striking: a huge windowless loft, the floor covered with antique carpets, the walls lined with 80,000 volumes in Yiddish; tables and chairs, a stage, a piano, percussion instruments, a jumble of objects saved from the wreckage, old paintings and yellowed posters, all bathed in a subdued light. The enveloping warmth comforts you, as it must have done for a Jewish traveler lost in the freezing winter of Eastern Europe, guided by a glimmer of light, pushing open the door of the study house in some small town.

Mendy, a large bird with spread wings, an aquiline nose, a piercing gaze, a sunny smile, is standing there. In this saturated space, which never lets the eye rest, the master of the place captures your attention. Originally from Antwerp, he left the Orthodox community where he grew up to go to Jerusalem. “In what language would you prefer us to speak?” he asks in English, as he sits down, bottles of beer in hand. This is a purely rhetorical question, as Mendy switches from one language to another, from French to Hebrew, from English to Yiddish, throwing in a few expressions in Flemish, a sign of complicity with his interlocutor who, as he knows, does not really have a mother tongue. A conversation between two illiterate interlocutors starts in several languages. Although in reality, the language, whatever it is, is secondary for Mendy: he projects words that clash, and this jostling, he puts it to music with his body always in movement, a wide, graceful gesture, an expressive face. Mendy is an actor who has performed at the Habima National Theater. In Yung Yiddish he is a storyteller, a singer, a pantomime. Through him, Yung Yiddish comes to life, the secularized Hebrew letters locked in the books that surround us twirl.

At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mendy discovered that Yiddish is not only the vernacular of the little people or the language of traditional study: modernity has also found a variation in it. He wanted to forget the kehile [community] and the rebbe, he no longer wanted to davenen [pray] or lernen [study]. He wanted to explore the great world, to familiarize himself with the great literature, to go out, to see the sun. The French language has its Chanson de Rolland and Yiddish takes him directly to the Talmud and the Midrash before taking him on a journey through an off-center but connected Jewish world that covers all of Eastern Europe. Here is the surprise: young Mendy wants to go out into the modern world and finds that all the great European literary works have been translated into this language, read with passion, assimilated, and extended into their own artistic forms.

Yung Yiddish collections.

The young Mendy wants to be a writer, but he is overwhelmed by a mass of works that nobody reads anymore. So he decides to recover this literature, which has been abandoned by the Jewish state, to give it a second chance, to exist in spite of everything, in the interstices of Hebrew. At the Israeli public radio station Kol Yisrael, where he provides the Yiddish service, he reads the news daily and takes advantage of the opportunity to launch an appeal for donations of books that would otherwise end up in the trash for lack of readers. “In Israel, ‘Jew’, and therefore the Jewish language, ‘Yiddish’, is still a dusty word, something from the past that implies religion, something unclear that the Hebrew speaker is rid of,” he says. “What they don’t know,” he adds, “is that Yiddish has been the vehicle of the Hebrew language through the centuries, it’s what brought them here. Yiddish peddles Hebrew and illegally squats on the so-called noble languages.”

Mendy, too, is a peddler and squatter. The Yung Yiddish had found its home in the basement of the Beith Leyvik, the Yiddish Writers’ and Journalists’ Union House in the heart of Tel Aviv, but the young director eventually fired him. “It was a ganze maasse [a whole affair], petty, tangled, typically Jewish, an incomprehensible war like in Flavius Josephus,” Mendy recounts with a smile. The Yung Yiddish then found a home in the bus station, when a few artists’ studios were allowed there. The municipal authorities tolerated the squat, regularized it, imposed a property tax on it, which Mendy painstakingly negotiated downward. In short, an arrangement stabilized the shelter, but in the long run the future was uncertain. In the meantime, this non-place, this derelict space, paradoxically lends itself to the reassignment of Yiddish.

But do not see in this unlikely project any ideological intention: Mendy does not play Yiddish against Hebrew, diasporism against Zionism, the world of the vanished shtetl against the State of Israel, poetry against the administration.  “Look,” he says, “all these books have made their aliya.”  Mendy is not a system man or an opponent. His approach is free of doctrine. And his words are devoid of anger, bitterness or regret. “The Zionists wanted a new Jew, but this new one was only a continuation of the old one,” Mendy muses, adding, “Wasn’t Herzl given a standing ovation in 1904 when he visited Vilna, the heart of Yiddishland?” So, “look, all these alte sachen [old-timers] are coming back to life, they’re popping up with as much energy as the young khalouts of yesteryear [the pioneer of the early Zionist adventure].´” What is young and what is old, no one has the power to decide, such is Mendy’s conviction, who bends to the movement of history, loves it, embraces its curves. This is how he embraces the life of Yiddish, a language without origin or destination.

So who frequents this place? There are young volunteers who come to put the immense library in order; to move, tidy, classify, clean. What motivates them? “I never ask,” says Mendy, “everyone has their reasons”. For Mendy does not dispense knowledge. He invites, he welcomes, he makes available the Yung Yiddish, but for whom? To young Israelis who wonder what their grandparents’ language was, of which they have only a few expressions left. They look at the Hebrew letters, but they cannot read what is written, it confuses them. “So I tell them, look, you already know the alphabet, here is what you need to know in addition and in ten minutes I give them the key, it is good now to read, and they understand more than they think.” Sometimes a khozer beshe’ela arrives at the Yung Yiddish [young person who has broken away from the Orthodox world] he arrives dressed all in black, he doesn’t know how to behave, he listens to Kletzmer music. Uncomfortable, he squints at the books, dares to open one, discovers another world in Yiddish that he does not know. “This soothes him, reassures him, helps him not to fall into self-hatred.” One feels that Mendy is close to them, he understands them from experience.

Yung Yiddish collections.

Then there are all those who come in the evening for pleasure, to listen to a concert or watch a quality show. Then there are all those young people who suspect that the Zionist narrative is built on something else. “They wonder why the trees are cut down, and why they were cut off from their often tragic past,” Mendy explains. Yad Vashem is now proving insufficient. They want to get close to this world, to touch something alive. “We [Israelis] realize today that we are connected to the past. In Tel Aviv there is no heritage like in Europe, the old is crushed; in Jerusalem there is a gap between antiquity and the present.” What does Yung Yiddish do? “It fills in the gaps a little”.

Mendy is a squatter, and by nature he likes wanderers. People who wander aimlessly around the station, “chleppers [simpletons], beggars,” curiosity seekers come to the Yung Yiddish. But also groups of anarchists from Tel Aviv who make this place their headquarters. They discuss, write their fanzine, play their heavy metal. Mendy opens its doors to any project that does not find a place. To any project, as long as it is driven, in one way or another, in a potentially infinite way, by a desire to repair the world. When this diverse audience is joined by lovers of Kletzmer, music hall and Yiddish theater, when they all form an audience, Mendy is happy. Yung Yiddish then approaches its essence: a “battery of the unconscious,” he says, pulsing with energy.

Yung Yiddish gets a jolt every time a bus passes overhead. The place lives as if under a volcano. The bus station, this 14,000 square meter monster, planned for twenty years, built for ten years, inaugurated in 1993 and possibly closed in 2023, will then have lived for thirty years. Its demolition will take at least ten years. Is this a nightmarish metaphor for the State of Israel? Tel Aviv residents who hate this monster now fear that its destruction will cover the city in dust for years. So the Israeli media has rushed to the bedside of the Yung Yiddish. “I don’t know why,” says Mendy, “I think the place is photogenic,” then he catches himself, “maybe there’s an idea that something needs to be saved.” And when the new visitor, attracted by this publicity, looks contrite and asks him what he is going to do, he replies “and what are you going to do?

Of course, this mass of books could fill a library in New York or Berlin, but Mendy is adamant: “The books belong here, they came on foot, by boat, they were geschlept [painfully dragged] here to enter into conversation with the Hebrew language. They call us to a little introspection. They remind us that having power comes at a price; that the present is made up of multiple layers. There are presents, and we must all honor them,” Mendy insists. Being aware of them broadens and deepens our perspectives. “Then our language becomes more plastic, more sensitive to dialogue,” this is Mendy’s hope.

Mendy Cahan © Eldad Rafaeli

For he attributes a special quality to the Yiddish language. “Yiddish is a crossroads of languages, it is stratified, it fights with itself. It has survived without institutions, without an army. But how? I don’t know its secret, it’s up to each of us to find out.”

It’s 7pm, we’ve emptied the beer bottles.

“So Mendy, will you tell me the secret?

– If you give me money to last another five years, I’ll tell you the secret.

– If you give me the secret, then I’ll give you the money if I find it.

– Give me the money in a sealed envelope, when I find the secret I will give it to you and open the envelope.”

Suddenly, a dozen Russian tourists from Moscow invade the room, interrupting our negotiation. Mendy gets up, places them in a semicircle, sits in front of them, catches their eyes. He sings. His gestures punctuate the intonation, animate the soft melody, which he whispers in a clear voice:

Oyfn veg shteyt a boym,

Shteyt er ayngeboygn,

Ale feygl funem boym

Zaynen zikh tsefloygn[1].

A young Russian girl stares at Mendy, her mouth agape, mesmerized. A tear rolls down her cheek.

I discreetly slip away through the secret door. A mixture of urine and fried food stings my nose, then the roar of a bus makes me jump.


Danny Trom

Notes

1 First stanza of a poem by Itzik Manger, born in 1901 in Czernowitz, died in Israel in 1969: “On the road there is a tree / It’s all bent over / All the birds in the tree / Have flown away.”

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