Dud khts haltn eydish lebn
By Deb Silverthorn
Shule iz in sesye (school is in session), and lerer (teacher) David Katz is providing Yiddish classes and conversation in the language along with translations of treasured pieces of history. By teaching this Germanic language, with words of Hebrew and modern languages, used primarily by Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust and interpreting family and official artifacts, postcards and letters, documents and literature, Katz reveals — and preserves — history, memories and more.
“Yiddish is a first step to understanding Jewish history, beyond the Bible, what happened after the Bible and with our culture in Europe. As an Ashkenazi Jew with family from Central Europe I enjoy helping people connect to our past, whether through speaking or identifying papers,” said Katz. He added that translating gives insight into understanding the generations who went before.
A Chicago native, raised in Dallas, the son of Barbara and the late Lawrence and brother of Lisa, Mark and Susan, Katz is a J.J. Pearce High School alumnus. A lifelong member of Temple Shalom, he was a member of BBYO’s Brandeis chapter.
Katz earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and literature at SMU, a master’s in history from Harvard University and a master’s in mathematics from The University of Texas at Dallas. He says his Yiddish education is circuitous. His first memories of the language were his grandparents’ usage. He perused collections at the Tycher Library when it was based at the Aaron Family JCC and at Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library. He would drop in to programs Monica Ribald taught at the J, when she read Yiddish newspapers and more to the seniors.
He took courses through the University of Wisconsin, at YIVO/Bard College in New York, Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts and while studying at Oxford University in England.
“A language formerly of millions, and now just close to just 300,000, Yiddish is not, cannot be, dead or forgotten. I hope to encourage the next generations to study and learn it too,” said Katz. His children Zoe and Zachary and his late wife Mari have also taken Yiddish classes.
At his home office, Katz, who is treasurer of the Texas Jewish Arts Association, uses a 1964 Hebrew typewriter gifted to him by Holocaust survivor Emerich Fuchs, of blessed memory. Katz is translating the memoirs of Fuchs, who lived in Canada and whose family lives in Ohio. For a family in Rockwall, he is working on translating postcards written in the Nazi ghettos in 1940.
With the encouragement of friend Melissa Holmes, Katz, who offers his services to private clients with Raquel Bromberg, Naomi Lewins and Max Spindler, founded Texas Yiddish, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The organization’s purpose is to translate materials in Texas archives. It aims to translate Texas’ own Wochenblatt, a Yiddish newspaper that was published in Fort Worth in the 1920s and is archived at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. The newspaper includes serialized novellas and stories of some of Texas’ earliest Jewish settlers.
Katz’s work has benefited many including the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, the Houston Jewish History Archive and the Texas Jewish Historical Society. Donations to Texas Yiddish allow Katz to provide translation services at no cost to the organizations.
“Dr. Sara Abosch-Jacobson [DHHRM chief education, programs and exhibitions officer] is bilingual in Hebrew and I am in German. But, Yiddish isn’t as simple as a mix of those. Eastern European languages are challenging. It’s one thing to read, another to read handwriting and to translate and make sense,” said Felicia Williamson, DHHRM director of library and archives.
Williamson said that having someone local to work through the museum’s papers is a boon.
“So many of our archival papers have poignant messages, and we never want them hidden,” she said.
Katz teaches Yiddish at Collin College (where he also teaches math) and bimonthly at The Legacy Midtown Park. He leads a Yiddish reading group at Temple Shalom as well. In the fall he’ll be teaching at SMU’s CAPE, continuing and professional education program. Some of those he works with know less than a bisl (a little) and for some it is mameloshen (their mother tongue).
“My kids say that when I became a grandmother, Yiddish started pouring out of me. It’s phrases and a few words that I remember of my grandparents, aunts and uncles. I was always Judalah, shayna meydl (pretty girl) to them,” said Judy Night, who moved from Beaumont to The Legacy Midtown Park in January.
Night is taking his class and has talked to Katz about translating boxes of her mother’s letters. “David is a good teacher. As we talk, I am triggered by words I know and I’m enjoying learning more,” she says.
“Alts iz farbundn (all is connected). Holding on to this language, this link of our tradition, our heritage, is very special,” says Katz.
To learn more about Katz’s classes or translation services, visit TexasYiddish.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.