Yiddish is not a dead language for 33-year-old Sebastian Schulman. It’s not a niche academic pursuit, or a sentimental way of connecting with his roots. For this millennial, it represents a meaningful and thoroughly modern expression of Jewishness.
Schulman, the new executive director of KlezKanada, did not know Yiddish when he was growing up in New York’s Westchester County. At McGill University, he studied Hebrew while working toward a degree in Jewish studies, but the language just didn’t speak to him.
By chance, in 2004, he came across a flyer for a summer internship at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and applied. There, he learned Yiddish while sorting through the thousands of Yiddish books the centre rescues, before returning to his studies in eastern European Jewish history.
He eventually completed an MA at Indiana University on contemporary Yiddish-speaking life in Moldova, and is finishing up a PhD on the same subject.
Schulman, KlezKanada’s first full-time executive director (and sole full-time professional), comes to Montreal from the Yiddish Book Center, where he had been directing its translation program, as well as fundraising, since 2012.
He has translated numerous Yiddish books into English, believing that they are treasures that belong in the world’s canon. He has taught Yiddish literature and culture at various colleges, but eschews being pigeonholed as a scholar.
Schulman is no stranger to KlezKanada, a festival that celebrates eastern European Jewish music and culture, having been among the faculty attending the weeklong summer retreat in the Laurentians several times since 2009.
Schulman loves Montreal because it allowed him to experience a vibrant Yiddish scene while he was on his youthful Jewish journey, and says that it feels natural to settle here now. His wife, Asya Vaisman Schulman, will continue to work remotely as the director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Yiddish Language Institute. Their daughter, Tzina Schulman, is being brought up in Yiddish, as well as Russian and English.
Schulman is also an expert in Esperanto, having been initially attracted to it because its Polish-Jewish creator, L.L. Zamenhof, hoped it might end anti-Semitism and foster world peace. Schulman’s translation of an Esperanto novel by Spomenak Stimec was published last summer.
Schulman is in the midst of finalizing the 23rd edition of KlezKanada, which takes place from Aug. 20-26 at Camp B’nai Brith.
KlezKanada founder Hy Goldman and his wife, Sandy, remain very much hands-on. They have been organizing the event almost on their own, but Goldman is now 90 and is confident that Schulman will take KlezKanada to new heights.
“I’m on the phone with him every day and Sandy speaks to every single person who registers,” Schulman said.
We’ve reached the point where we had to move on from a mom-and-pop operation.
– Hy Goldman
Goldman said that, “We’ve reached the point where we had to move on from a mom-and-pop operation. KlezKanada began as a low-key long weekend gathering and has become probably the biggest event of its kind in the world. Seb comes with an impressive background for someone his age. He knows what’s needed to update our profile. I think he’s the right guy at the right moment.”
This edition’s theme is “Uprising, Rising Up,” in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as well as women’s leadership in Jewish culture.
The highlight will be a concert called Beyond the Mechitzah, which will bring together some of the best female klezmer musicians in the world, led by trumpeter Susan Watts.
Also noteworthy is a writers’ retreat featuring Joshua Levy, the 2018 CBC/Quebec Writers’ Federation writer-in-residence.
Schulman brings the professional skills needed to sustain KlezKanada, which, despite its popularity, has had a precarious existence. Registration accounts for about half of its budget and the rest must be raised privately, said Schulman, who works out of a small office at the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre.
Schulman’s vision is to make KlezKanada a year-round program. While it does sponsor concerts and other events from time to time, Schulman wants to bring “the magic” of the marquee summer getaway into the city on a regular basis, such as through multi-day “immersive and experiential” programming that appeals to various interests.
He is also looking to reach out to non-traditional audiences, including the Sephardic community and francophone Quebecers, among whom there are a surprising number of klezmer fans.
July 1 is the deadline to register for KlezKanada, which has around 500 spots that fill up quickly.