Culture, Tradition, and Folklore

Often the standard tools of the historian, such as government records, official documents, and newspapers, do not paint a complete picture of a group's past. In order to more fully understand how a community views itself and the world around it, we must look to the folklore and traditions of the people themselves. That will give us a different picture of the daily dynamics among the members of a community.

Over the centuries, the Eastern European Jewish community developed a rich cultural life. The language, food, music, games, superstitions, and folk art traditions of the community reflected the unique situation of its members, and often drew on Jewish religious traditions as well as regional folk customs. Cultural identity is built from a variety of sources rooted in daily life and expressed through a variety of activities. Your identity might include aspects of your ethnic culture along with the influences of pop culture and national or regional elements-all expressed in a unique way. The same was true for the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Jewish music, for example, incorporated many sources: synagogue-based motifs as well as elements borrowed from Eastern European folk traditions and contemporary social trends. This rich amalgamation of source material produced klezmer music, Hasidic melodies, Yiddish folk songs, Russian Jewish classical music, and political anthems. The echoes of these formats can still be heard in contemporary Jewish music scene today.

Food is another element of culture that is much more complex than it might seem at first. For Jews, food is not only a matter of sustenance. Food is an essential aspect of the religion, a way to express and transmit culture and values. On the one hand, what is considered "Jewish food" in any given place has been partly influenced by what is commonly eaten in the surrounding culture. The foods of the Eastern European Jews were different from what Jews traditionally ate in Asia or Africa. On the other hand, the basic formation of what makes food "Jewish" was and will be, for the most part, the same everywhere. What an observant Jew eats is governed by Kashres, the Jewish dietary laws. The day of the week or time of year also has an impact on what is eaten, as certain foods are associated with specific holiday celebrations. You might compare the traditional Ashkenazi foods to your own: study the variation, the symbols, and the flavors. You can find these foods mentioned in Yiddish songs and sayings and you can start to imagine what these meant to a child or an adult living in that world.

Yiddish, the Jewish vernacular, is itself a cultural production of the 1000-year settlement of Jews in these regions. Study how this language developed, and compare it to the formation and history of the language you speak most fluently. Did you ever imagine a world without your language? Why do you feel attached to your language today? Consider also the time and generations it takes for a language to mature, and the point at which literature produced in that language becomes high art. Yiddish combined elements of Hebrew, German, and Slavic languages-creating an important tool for the production and transmission of a unique Jewish culture. Modern Yiddish literature reflects not only the language of Eastern European Jewry, but the essence and worldview of that community, as well. By reading Yiddish literature and folklore, we can get a glimpse into how they perceived the world at that time.

When Jews first came to Eastern Europe from the West, they brought their existing culture with them. Jewish culture continued to flourish in the cities (shtot), towns (shtetlekh), and settlements (derfer) of Eastern Europe, but the way of life was often slightly different in these different contexts. In the large Jewish communities of the cities, a diverse array of cultural institutions, such as schools, synagogues, and youth groups developed. In the shtetlekh, many communities were able to create a similar network of cultural institutions on a smaller scale. Often residents looked to the cities to fulfill cultural needs that these smaller towns could not accommodate. The smaller minorities of Jews in the derfer could not support the same level of communal life as larger communities. In these settlements, the Jews were much more isolated and culturally impoverished. But they still tried to maintain their cultural distinctiveness as best they could. The artist Toby Knobel Fluek has recreated some of her recollections of life in the tiny village of Czernica through her drawings and paintings. As you look at these images, consider how life might have been different for those Jews living in shtetlekh as compared to those living in larger cities. There are many books that describe the life of a shtetl, and diaries that portray the lives of Jewish families in larger cities. Investigate what your library has to offer you, or visit the YIVO library. You may be surprised at the wealth of information awaiting you.

As you explore this tour in the website, continue to consider the ways in which Yiddish culture was expressed and passed on from one generation to the next. How did communities sustain this culture? How was the culture fed and enriched by the surrounding communities? What has happened with Yiddish today? Do you know anyone who speaks it? Can you imagine what people feel when they lose their language? How would your life change if your daily language were to be modified or eliminated? Can you find parallel situations of endangered languages elsewhere? Do you see remnants of Yiddish culture in the world today? Is it worthwhile to maintain a language and keep it alive?