Yiddish: the language, people, and heritage: From the Art and Archives of the Ben Uri Collection

This online exhibition, Yiddish: the language, people and heritage, explores Ben Uri's extensive collections of artworks and archives, both more than a century old, with unique pieces reflecting the prevailing cultural heritage of the organisation's founders: émigré Lazar Berson and his Yiddish speaking co-religionists, Eastern-European artisans and businessmen, fleeing pogroms in the Russian Pale of Settlement. 'The Jewish-National Decorative Art Association (London) Ben Ouri', was established in Whitechapel in London's East End ghetto in 1915, within a dynamic Yiddish-speaking community, born out of this first wave of Jewish migration. Ben Uri's varied activities were regularly promoted in the Yiddish press (Morris Myer, editor of Di Tsayt, was closely associated with the society; his artist son studied at the Slade and participated in its early exhibitions), while the East End's renowned Yiddish theatres, including the Pavilion in Whitechapel Road, provided the inspiration and underlying compositional structure for key works such as David Bomberg's Ghetto Theatre, acquired directly from the artist in 1920. 


Ben Uri itself embraced Yiddish at the core of its earliest activities, publishing its first constitution, writing its earliest minutes from 1916, creating a fundraising 'Albom' in Yiddish, and acquiring  carved wooden objects made by Berson and the Ben Uri Studio, engraved with celebratory texts in Hebrew and Yiddish. Fellow émigré and Ben Uri co-founder, Edward Goodack, proprietor of the West End jewellers' Cameo Corner, who financially supported many important early acquisitions for Ben Uri's collection, was an ardent champion of Yiddish culture. Taking the Yiddish pen name 'Moshe Oved', he published and supported Yiddish authors, as well as writing his own autobiography in Yiddish.


Ben Uri's important 1930 catalogue (its second publication after the 1925 catalogue for the opening exhibition of the permanent collection in Great Russell Street) was published in both English and Yiddish (with two separate cover designs by Alfred Wolmark). It included an essay by renowned Yiddishist, Leo Koenig on “Jews and Plastic Art” and on Ben Uri, its history and activities, by co-founder, Judah Beach (originally Judah Phibish). 


While Hebrew had been reserved for prayer and religious study in Hassidic yeshivas in Eastern Europe, Yiddish became the language of daily village (shtetl) life for Ashkenazi Jews and the vehicle for re-telling marvellous stories of the Hasidic masters. It also became the lingua franca of the émigrés who took refuge in London from the late nineteenth century, in search of religious and economic freedoms in Europe and the New World. Using the Hebrew alphabet and based on the German language with Russian, Polish and other inclusions and variations, Yiddish provided a rich literary culture at the time of Ben Uri's establishment, coinciding with a repertory of renowned 'modern' poets such as Sholem Aleichem (who died in 1916), Sholem Asch and I L Peretz, as well as historical writers.  A number of Yiddishists connected with Ben Uri, including Leo Koenig, also participated in Renesans, the first Yiddish art and literary magazine in Britain, published over six issues in 1920, and in which contemporary exhibitions by young artists from the ghetto, such as Mark Gertler, were reviewed. In 1908, the first international conference on the Yiddish language had declared Yiddish to be 'a national language of the Jewish people'. In 1925, YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, was founded in Vilna, Lithuania, as the foremost institution for Yiddish scholarship. Relocating to New York in 1940 following the outbreak of war in Europe, today it retains original versions of Ben Uri's early minutes in Yiddish, which it has made available for translation into English. In an example of apt circularity, according to the Jewish Chronicle, a YIVO exhibition promoting archive material opened on 27th September 1953 at Ben Uri's Portman Street premises.


In September 1939, there were approximately 13 million Yiddish speakers worldwide; the Holocaust destroyed most of this population. Fortuitously, the first wave of émigrés to Britain were naturally at home in the language, and many Hitler émigrés from the second wave, including artists Josef Herman and Jankel Adler, and the writer Avram Stencl, who had originated in Poland or Russia, also spoke Yiddish. For them, the short-lived Ohel Club, founded in 1942 and based in Gower Street, provided another gathering point where they could share a common language and be part of a Yiddish revival. Ben Uri was also connected to Ohel, whose founders were the Society's Chairman, Polish émigré Alexander Margulies (1902‒1991) and his brother, Benzion (1890‒1955). Yiddish culture continued to permeate Ben Uri's activities, with the creation of a 'Friends of Yiddish' group in late 1947 which hosted regular events until 1966. An undated group photograph in Ben Uri's archives is annotated with the names of key figures, including Stencl.


The credit lines reflect the ownership of artworks at the time of the original display.