The Yiddish Project
 
Three bodies of work, exhibited at Galeria Labirynt, Lublin, Poland.
Curators: Drorit Gur-Arie, Tal Schwartz
2021

Yiddish looks familiar to Hebrew speakers, since both languages share the same written alphabet. However, it is precisely because of this seeming familiarity that the Hebrew speaker who has no Yiddish feels foreign, sensing an uncanniness of strange familiarity. The letters that are so familiar form words that remain incomprehensible, unable to be understood. This sensation intensifies when hearing many Yiddish words that originated in Hebrew but which have a different meaning. When faced with the strange situation of foreign familiarity, the principle of the arbitrariness of the sign seems even more arbitrary.

What is perhaps unique to the Yiddish-Hebrew relationship, as compared with other languages that share the same written signs, is that for generations, Hebrew was the “Holy Tongue” reserved for study and Yiddish was the secular vernacular of daily life, of the street. The encounter between Hebrew and Yiddish stands as the blurring of bounds between sacred and mundane, pure and impure, mixing categories and contaminating holiness.

This is artist Assi Meshullam’s “playing field” and a repeated motif in his oeuvre. He is exhibiting three works born out of the encounter between the artist and Yiddish – a language he does not speak or understand.

The mixed media installation Kukuriku (2020-2021) corresponds with one of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories in which the wild, animalistic crow of the rooster, the “kukuriku” that hails the sunrise, calls out the ineffable Name, the holy of holies absolutely forbidden by Jewish tradition to utter aloud.

 

Gezetsn fun Shkhitah was inspired by a guide to kashruth for the ritual slaughterer on the preparation of permitted meat. Originally written in Hebrew, the guide was rendered into Yiddish by Google Translate with all of the limitations of online translation. For Meshullam, animal slaughter is like a bridge between the sacred and the mundane, since this is a religious ritual practice used for the needs of living. The issue of sacrifice reappears in other works by Meshullam.

 

In the video trilogy Yiddish Dybbuk, the artist takes on the persona of a false prophet or perhaps a madman. The prophecies are Yiddish translations of the texts of three of the Prophet Ezekiel’s major visions, which Meshullam mispronounces, making them incomprehensible. For Meshullam, the biblical Ezekiel who was exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia is the essential representative of the hybrid nature of Yiddish, as a prophet who was “here” as well as “there” – or perhaps neither here nor there. The prophetic speech as declaimed by the artist becomes like a dybbuk’s voice: the body is speaking a language the person does not understand, while the films themselves become cross-breeds internalizing the logic of the language.

 

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