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Poet Tells of Her Journey in Language She Loves

December 20, 2007 By:
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Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman
In one poem, acclaimed Yiddish poet, singer and songwriter Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman uses nature references to recall her childhood. One line goes as follows: "I've come such a long way."

And that she has.

Schaechter-Gottesman, 87, a Holocaust survivor, recounted not just her own journey during a recent event in Elkins Park, but that of the language and culture she uses to express her feelings and tell her stories.

She said that she's spent most of her adult life making sure that the language she grew up with and brought with her to the United States from Romania when she immigrated more than 55 years ago remains alive in this country. During her days living in a Yiddishist colony in the New York borough of the Bronx, she created plays, poetry and songs to make learning Yiddish fun for her children and, once they grew up, began to write for herself.

Her newest book of poetry, The Blossom of Days, came out last week. Though it's her ninth book, it is the first of her works to feature her own sketches.

Schaechter-Gottesman's success led to her receiving a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, one of the highest cultural honors given by a U.S. government agency. She is also the subject of the documentary film, Song of Autumn (Harbstlid in Yiddish), named after one of her works.

On Dec. 13, about 100 people attended a local presentation given by the poet. The event -- titled "Autumn Song: Portrait of the Artist as an Older Woman" -- was held at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park and sponsored by Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.

More than a dozen local organizations co-sponsored the event, where the audience age range stretched from some participants in their 20s to a bevy of more seasoned citizens.

"We wanted this event to be truly multigenerational," said Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, director of Hiddur, a venue that fosters "the voices of elders to be heard and appreciated."

Her group, she said, wants to have seniors share their later-life journeys with others.

In her work, Schaechter-Gottesman captures everyday joys and sorrows, punctuated with a bit of sassy humor.

The poet has many stories to tell and, during the program, she reflected on her life through the use of song and poetry. Her son, Itzik Gottesman, an associate editor at the weekly Yiddish Forward, translated for his mother throughout the evening as she read and sang (a capella) from her many Yiddish works.

Her folksongs touch on various subjects, including Jewish holidays, her childhood, love and broken hearts. She has several poems that express her feelings on more solemn topics, such as the Holocaust and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Still, Schaechter-Gottesman has a humorous side. Her representation of New York, in "My Home, New York," drew chuckles from some audience members as she described the city's wild noise, gasoline smoke and coal dust, but also how the metropolis is beloved by its citizens despite such drawbacks. Some folks even joined in on the chorus during a few selections.

Yiddish poetry, music, theater and other creative outlets from artists of her generation, she said, help Jews discover the language their ancestors spoke. She added that every current activity in the Yiddish arena is important to the survival of its history -- to both the language and the associated culture she has worked for decades to preserve.

Schaechter-Gottesman did pose a question as to why more Americans are not learning Yiddish. She called it a pity that younger generations don't speak or understand the language of their forebears.

"It's never too late to learn Yiddish!" she added. "It should really be fun to learn."

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