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Dmitry Tishchenko: Not only Jews take an interest in Yiddish

The compiler of the Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary on the family, history and language of his ancestors

Dmitry Tishchenko, the author and compiler of the Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary published in Kiev recently, was born in 1964 into a mixed international Jewish-Ukrainian family. Dmitry’s maternal grandfather Abram Zaleshansky published extensively in his native language of Yiddish in Hrodno and Warsaw newspapers. The attempt to publish the verse feuilleton “An Open Letter to My Jewish Neighbors” in “Sovetish Heimland” magazine, in which the author speaks out as a fervent patriot of the Yiddish language and harshly criticizes contemporary Jews for their linguistic Nihilism, was met with refusal. Dmitry remembers the pain with which his grandfather spoke of the fate of the Yiddish language in the USSR, about the fact that there wasn’t a single Jewish theater, although there was a Gypsy theater, and that for 2 million Jews there was just one newspaper in Birobidzhan, which wrote about anything but the vital problems that concerned the entire Jewish people.

His grandfather taught him the Jewish alphabet and read poems in Yiddish with him. Not long before his death, he put all the Jewish books in a pile and put them on the top shelf. He thought that no one would ever need them again, but his grandson took them down from the shelf and began to read them.

“Our family is from Hrodno, but we didn’t have much contact with Jews. Few escaped from there… But my grandparents managed to, they even found each other after the war, and found my mother,” Dmitry Tishchenko recalls the history of his family. “As I later found out, they spoke in a Lithuanian-Belarussian dialect of Yiddish. When I was in Israel, I found my grandfather’s poems. He was a poet, and was printed in Hrodno and Warsaw. He once even lived off the money earned by publishing poems. My interest in Yiddish was born in my family. My ancestors spoke this language, it was as natural as breathing.”

On the party membership card of Dmitry’s grandmother, Itka Shmulevna, it says: “Native language – Jewish. Speaks the following languages – Belarussian, Russian, Polish, French, German.”

With this “inheritance”, Dmitry developed an interest in Yiddish at an early age. He learned French from his grandmother Itka, and Polish from his grandfather Abram.

But his parents decided otherwise. And as his mother was a doctor and his father was an agronomist, they decided to send Dima to the biology faculty of Odessa University. So Dmitry began to embark on a typical scientific career.

In August 1988, the ensemble “Haverim” came to Odessa. Dima first heard living Yiddish on stage from the mouths of his peers, and songs in Yiddish, which only his grandmother and grandfather had sung to him before.

This event was a turning point, and the future author of the Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary decide to devote his life to learning the language of his ancestors to perfection, and to do everything to make sure that other people had access to the spiritual riches created in this language. He became a member of the society of jewish culture, organized Yiddish courses and published the magazine “Mame-loshn”. In 1991 Dmitry moved to Israel, studied at the Yiddish faculty under Professor Vainer and began to write a dissertation on literature in Yiddish.

For example, the word “Feuer” in German means “fire”. In Yiddish, this word “faerle” means “light”, Dmitry says. “This says a lot about the people’s mentality and their approach to life. The period when Jews spoke in Yiddish coincided with the greatest achievements of the Jewish people in culture and science. When Israel was founded, both Yiddish and Hebrew had the chance to become the main language. Those who were in favor of Hebrew were simply more practical.

The primary task was to feed and protect people. When these tasks were solved, people began to return to their past, their sources, and analyze their identity.

It’s interesting that not only Jews take an interest in Yiddish, but other peoples too.

This is taking place all over the world. The folklore of the people, their wisdom and proverbs were formed in the Yiddish language, this is something that Hebrew does not have.”

Living in Frankfurt, the author continues to realize his main goal in life – to create a professional dictionary for enthusiasts of Yiddish. With the support of the Yiddish Foundation of Ukraine, and thanks to a grant from the Canadian public organization “Ukrainian-Jewish Meeting”, he is publishing comprehensive Yiddish-Russian and Yiddish-Ukrainian dictionary, which will be of assistance to people wishing to study Yiddish.

“When I compiled this dictionary, I tried to use a generalized version of the language. I took words that I found in Jewish literature. In the vocabulary of the people, their soul is reflected. The life of people influences the language they speak. But language also influences their lives. The time has come to gather the stones…”, says Dmitry.

At present Dmitry Tishchenko is working on an online version of his dictionary, which will make the process of studying Yiddish even more convenient and accessible.

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