You might call Itche Goldberg a mentsh. A choshever mentsh, if you want to be exact about it. That’s a ”man of worth and dignity, a respected person” in Yiddish, the language and culture to which Goldberg has devoted his life.
Now, in his 101st year, Goldberg is fighting to keep alive his life’s work, the 60-year-old journal Yiddishe Kultur.
”If you know of any millionaires, we would be very eager to be helped,” said Goldberg, grasping his cane as he sat in the spare offices of Yiddishe Kultur at the bustling intersection of Broadway and 26th Street.
Goldberg and his assistant, Shoshana Balaban-Wolkowicz, have been pouring their own money into the bimonthly, which publishes commentary, literature and other writings in Yiddish. It is a simple affair, usually about 60 pages in black and white, and circulated to a few hundred subscribers.
The precarious position of Yiddishe Kultur is no small matter.
”Itche Goldberg has pretty much single-handedly kept the Yiddish Left going for the last 30 years,” said Itzik Gottesman, associate editor of the Yiddish Forward, a revered Jewish newspaper.
Goldberg stands just over 5 feet tall, a charming man who sprinkles his conversations with subtle jokes amid stories of great writers and thinkers. He turned 100 this month but looks 70. With his wavy white hair and mustache, he could pass for a well-groomed Albert Einstein.
”My eyes aren’t too good, my ears aren’t too good, and my legs aren’t too good – the joys of aging. I’m not being negative,” Goldberg said. ”The nose is OK.”
It is tempting to think of Yiddish only as a language that gave birth to some of the world’s most exquisitely expressive words. Yiddish taught people to schlepp and to schmooze and to nosh – preferably with a mentsh, not a schlemiel. But Goldberg explains that Yiddish, once spoken by 11 million people in Eastern Europe and Russia, is much more. Some of the world’s best-known literature, theater, art and political ideas grew out of Yiddish culture.
Yiddish leaders fueled labor movements and fought for the rights of immigrants, such as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, whose conviction and execution on murder and robbery charges sparked protest among those who believed they were targeted because of their political convictions.
”Many people around Itche Goldberg saw the development of their language as part of that same struggle,” said Michael Steinlauf, associate professor of history at Gratz College, a college of Jewish studies based in Melrose Park, outside Philadelphia. ”They were very involved in changing the world.”
After the Holocaust killed millions of Yiddish speakers, Goldberg taught Yiddish to keep it alive. In the early 1930s, he taught in Philadelphia, which once had four Yiddish school systems.
Yiddish is still the main language in some Orthodox Jewish communities, but assimilation has left mostly echoes of this once-influential culture. It has recently experienced a revival, with, for instance, klezmer music growing popular and major universities developing Yiddish programs. More in the mainstream, echoes can be heard in Fiddler on the Roof – a musical that grew out of the stories of Shalom Aleichem, the Russian-born Yiddish author who created the character of Tevye – or in the jokes of Jerry Seinfeld.
Goldberg is a fan of both and wrote the text for Tevye’s Hodl, a musical performed in Yiddish with English translation at Lincoln Center in 1981.
”We’re dealing with a language that is about 1,000 years old and a literature that is 600 or 700 years old,” Goldberg said. ”What developed was an extraordinary and profound modern literature which would become the equivalent of French and German literature.”
Poetic paeans to the common man dominate Yiddish writing, as in these Goldberg lines from Tevye’s Hodl about a man in exile:
Under lock and key, soaking in silence
Are the Feferls of the whole wide world.
A day of sun and joy will come
In the distant land of snow and cold
Liberated and newly arisen
Will be the Feferls of the whole wide world
The words reflect the political persecution of Jewish intellectuals. Goldberg, who is not religiously observant, says one of the accomplishments of Yiddish culture is that it offered a people a way to be Jewish that ”did not depend on a synagogue.” But Aug. 12, 1952, the day Stalin’s regime executed several Yiddish writers, is his holy day. ”They were killed simply because they were Jewish intellectuals. Their Jewishness was the reason. They were all stamped as spies,” Goldberg said.
He was born in Opatow, Poland, in 1904 and named Itche, a derivation of Yitzhak. His father ran a furniture store but ”fled in 1914 because there was a slogan: Don’t buy from the Jew.” The family went to Canada.
”It’s wonderful to behold how, in spite of that anti-Semitism, Jewish people developed,” Goldberg said.
He studied philosophy and economics at McMaster University in Ontario ”when it was just one red building” and began teaching Yiddish in Toronto’s Workmen’s Circle schools, which focus on Yiddish culture.
He and his wife, Jennie, 99, a former social worker, have two children, Susan and David, who are both involved in Yiddish; two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. Every weekday, Goldberg takes a van for the elderly and disabled – his assistant calls it the ”Schlep-a-Jew” – from his home on the Upper West Side to Yiddishe Kultur, a magazine modest in size but worldly in scope. A recent issue reprinted a 1919 work by Yiddish poet Dovid Hofstein with illustrations by Marc Chagall.
For his 45 years at Yiddishe Kultur – he is its third editor – Goldberg received an award last week from the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. Today, about 300 former students, friends and writers are throwing him a 100th birthday party.
There, friends will tell stories, including this one from Gottesman:
A few years ago, when Itche was in his 90s, he fell and bloodied his face as he entered a Yiddish center in the Bronx to give a speech. He handed his speech to Gottesman and left for the emergency room.
”As I was about to speak,” Gottesman said, ”Itche entered the room, with his face bruised up and bandaged, and said thank you, but he would continue giving his talk. It just shows his incredible stamina and his devotion to Yiddish culture.”