WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Yiddish Women’s Reading Circle recently received recognition from a UN agency.
The program, which features monthly readings in Yiddish of works by female authors, has been listed on the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) register of good practices in language preservation.
“It’s taken a few years to get listed,” says Jeanette Block, one of the reading circle’s founders. “Ours is one of just eight groups and the only Yiddish group listed on the registry so far. The registry is getting one million hits a month.”
UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Program launched its register of good practices in language preservation in 2005 as part of its effort to safeguard languages in danger of extinction. “Each of the world’s roughly 6,000 languages reflects a unique worldview and culture complex, thus representing an integral part of living human heritage,” a UNESCOreport says. Yet, experts estimate that today, over 50 per cent of all languages are in danger of extinction. In accordance with UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, it is therefore the endangered language program’s mission to aid in the preservation of linguistic diversity and to provide assistance to global efforts to safeguard languages.
According to a UN Communication and Information Resources document: “The register provides a knowledge supply and demand base where experience in language protection projects can be accumulated and made publicly available in order to give future preservation projects a head start.
“The rationale behind the… register of good practices in language preservation is simple: a collection of positive experience reports from past and current project agents shall provide a rich source of problem-solving approaches, hands-on solutions, practical information, adaptable models, and dos and don’ts of language preservation, to be easily accessed as a self-help tool for others trying to preserve their languages.”
Block notes that Yiddish women’s reading circles have a long tradition in Winnipeg. The latest version was started in 2001 at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre following the closing of the 80-year-old Jewish Public Library. (A sizeable number of the library’s Yiddish books were transferred to the Gwen Secter.)
Block reports that attendance over the years has consistently been around 15 to 20. While most of the circle’s participants are women, a few men have also dropped in from time to time. This past year, the ladies read the works of Dora Shulner, Shira Gorshman and former Jewish Forwards writer Adella Kean Kamenkin, who, in 1930, published two books of her advice columns for Jewish women newly arrived in America.
While Block notes that there are other Yiddish reading circles in the United States and Canada, what sets the Winnipeg group apart is that it meets in a permanent location. She also believes that an anthology the group published two years ago was an important factor in its being listed by UNESCO.
The book, Arguing with the Storm, is a compilation of short stories written in Yiddish by female authors and translated into English by several ladies in the group. Block’s daughter, Rhea Tregebov, a creative writing teacher at the University of British Columbia, served as the anthology’s editor.
It was Tregebov who first came across the UNESCO registry and looked into what was involved in qualifying for it. “I received an e-mail about the registry a year before we published the anthology and sent an e-mail to the contact person in Paris,” Tregebov says. “I was a little hesitant at first. I wasn’t sure that Yiddish would fit the definition. (The other languages currently on the list are Aboriginal languages.) But we received an enthusiastic response.”
Block and Tregebov co-wrote the proposal. They pointed out that the reading group costs very little to operate, that it receives support from the Gwen Secter staff and that the program is held in the afternoons to accommodate seniors who may tire early in the evenings.
“There was a lot of back and forth,” Tregebov says, “but we are thrilled to be included on the list.”