A Lifelong Obsession with Yiddish: And She Didn’t Even Know She Had Jewish Ancestry!

by Pat Launer November 6, 2018


a-scene-from-janas-play-wooden-wars-or-anybody-can-be-jewish-these-days“Yiddish redt-zich.”

So says Joanna (Jana) Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, citing an ‘Old Country’ saying, ‘Yiddish Speaks Itself’ meaning that “other languages have to be learned or studied, but Yiddish just pours out of your mouth.”

It pretty much did for Jana.

“My neshama [soul] speaks Yiddish,” she asserts.

Jana (pronounced Yana) was born in in Kielce (in Yiddish, Keltz, a name derived from the migrating Celts, who once stopped there during their journey across the European continent). It’s a small town (current population 196,000) situated between Warsaw and Krakow which, she notes, was “in the pupik” [belly-button] of Poland.

“It was famous for being the site of the last pogrom in history,” Jana says of the 1946 assault on a gathering of Holocaust survivors that was the deadliest attack against Polish Jews since the end of the second world war.

Jana’s father was a musician who taught violin and performed with the Kielce Orchestra. Her mother taught English, though she never taught it to Jana, who learned it much later; she acquired a number of other languages first: Polish, Czech, German, a bit of Hebrew, then Yiddish, and finally, English.

“My father was the quintessential man from the shtetl,” says Jana, though she only knows that in retrospect. “But my mother was from big city people, from Warsaw. As atheists and aristocrats, both vilified in Poland, her family was as doomed as his was.  Her mother had Yiddish-speaking friends, with whom she shared intellectual conversations, and a sense of having lost everything. Most of them left in 1968, when the Jews were kicked out of Poland.”

Her parents “got together through Communism,” Jana says. “But they were so different. There were lots of crises and drama. I was an only child, caught in the middle. But they’re still married after 35 years. And still in Poland.”

It wasn’t until she was 20 years old that Jana found out she had Jewish roots. Her family had been visiting her paternal grandparents. Having left something behind, Jana went back to the house and found her grandmother lighting what turned out to be Shabbat candles.

They refused to give her any explanation.

“They were not eager to share their Jewishness or their Yiddish with me,” Jana says. “It wasn’t the fashion of the time. They were not feeling secure in Poland, and they wanted to belong. So they never told me anything.”

She went on to verify her heritage on her own, by means of family history (from neighbors more than relatives) and with genetic testing.

“That just reinforced my Yiddish interests,” she says. “I had started learning Yiddish before I knew I had Jewish roots. Even without Jewish roots, I would have continued what I was doing. I studied Jewish studies and Yiddish because I felt they were a significant part of Polish culture, and they resonated with me. I wanted Yiddish to be a living language. I wanted to spread it around, or I feared it would die.

“My first Yiddish class was a summer class at the University of Vilna, Lithuania,” she recalls. “No university in Poland taught Yiddish at the time. Later, Poland had a few good years – in the 2000s, when my friend worked at a Yiddish radio station in Warsaw, and I did Yiddish theater. But that’s all gone now.”

Bitten by the Theater Bug

When she was young, Jana recollects, “Somebody took me to church. And I thought, ‘Oh my G-d, I want to be a priest – up there onstage! When I was 11 or 12, my mother took me to theater, and I knew that was really what I wanted. There was only one theater in Kielce, but my parents took me all the time. It had 200 seats; it used to be a brothel.  At first, I wanted to be an actor, but I soon realized you have more agency as a director.”

At 14, she went to Krakow to continue her high school education, studying theater for three years under “a Polish national figure who was brilliant, but cuckoo. But he inspired me a lot.”

The teacher was part of the avant garde Polish theater movement. Jana describes the approach as “very metaphorical. Theater made with one chair and two good actors. It was very powerful. It really moved me.”

She went on to graduate from the University of Wroclaw, Poland, with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in Polish Philology, which was, she explains, “rhetoric, all related around theater. It was literally Jewish Studies.”

During her third year of university, Poland entered the European Union, and she realized that she could study anywhere. So she spent time learning about Jewish culture and theater in other places: Leipzig, Prague, Vienna and Bucharest. She took classes or summer workshops in Yiddish and Yiddish culture in Paris, Brussels, London, Strasbourg, New York and Tel Aviv.

“It was such a good opportunity,” she says. “I was born under Communism, when all the borders were closed. That officially ended in 1989, but it was still in the air in the ‘90s. Only in the 2000s was it finally over and I could travel.”

“But these days,” she says, “most of the Yiddishists are based in the U.S.”

Still, when she wanted to create Yiddish theater, she went back to Warsaw, to reunite with her family and to write a book.

The result, “Death or Resurrection: Contemporary Yiddish Theater in Europe and its Historical Background,” was published in Polish in 2015. She plans to translate it into English.

A few years after graduation from the University of Wrocklaw, Poland, in 2010, she received funding to become a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Thus far, she has obtained graduate certificates in Jewish Studies and World Performance Studies.

In 2011, at a Yiddish dance party in Philadelphia, she met Ed, who would become her husband later that year. He has an interesting history, too. He was born in Ukraine, so Russian is his first language. When he was three, his family moved to Israel, with the goal of settling in the U.S. By age 10, he was living in Brooklyn. His mother and grandmother spoke Yiddish, but not to him. (Jana has since been remedying that).

At the University of Michigan, her advisor was “the Slavic Department Yiddish guru.” She also took courses in playwriting, directing and screenwriting. She wrote a trilingual play (in Polish, English and Yiddish), “Wooden Wars, or, Anybody Can be Jewish These Days.”

All this time, she and Ed stayed in touch, and visited when they could (he was still in Philadelphia).

“But I was such a workaholic,” she confesses. For three years, she had little time for anything but her studies. Then, she became ill and had to take a leave of absence from school.

“I was always very sick as a child,” she says. “I have an auto-immune condition, just like my mother.”

Jana recently took another leave, returning to Poland to take care of her mother. By that time, she had already moved to San Diego, where Ed was working as a lawyer at Qualcomm.

A Double Wedding

When they finally tied the knot, she and Ed had two weddings. One was a basic event at San Diego City Hall, and the other, on Cinco de Mayo 2017, was “a theatrical production, re-creating a Yiddish wedding.” Not long after, Ester Lilith, now 18 months old, was born.

Also in 2017, another seminal event: Jana founded YAAANA, the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America, with a mission to promote Yiddish language and culture through academic and artistic events and through Yiddish food. (Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz are among her board members).

“The goal,” she says, “is to make Yiddish culture hip, modern and interesting.”

In the United States, she feels, “Yiddish has been trapped within two discrete, hermetic spheres: the ultra-Orthodox sphere, which engages the religious aspects of Yiddishkeit, and the academic sphere, which tends to study secular Yiddishkeit of the past. As a result, Yiddish language and culture … is often viewed as a relic of the past, and fails to find resonance in daily life and modern culture.”

Jana had her calling. She began teaching Yiddish language/culture classes at the JCC and at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway. Under the umbrella of her organization, she gave Yiddish theater lectures; screened the video of her play, “Wooden Wars;” attended a Yiddish Theatre conference in Romania and presented at others around the U.S.; was invited to sit on a playwriting panel; and recently hosted a Yiddish Rosh Hashanah party at her home.

All her events, either low-cost or free, are filled with Yiddishkeit, laughter and what she calls “good Yiddish food.”

“One of my missions for the organization,” she explains, “is multi-generational events. It’s very important to me to get young people interested in Yiddish; that’s crucial to its survival.”

She also hopes to start a Yiddish dinner theater (with subtitles, so everyone can follow; she’s searching for an appropriate venue).

Over the years, in both Europe and the U.S., Jana has taught, directed plays, written theater reviews and journalistic articles, and made many conference presentations. She’s currently working on a Polish translation of “Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater,” by Nahma Sandrow.

This month, she’s teaching a class at the JCC, “Learn Yiddish Through Song” (every Wednesday evening in November), which promises to explore Yiddish songs “from the satirical to the sublime.”

On Sunday, Nov. 18, she’s giving a talk at Temple Adat Shalom, entitled “Yiddish Theater: From Broder Zinger to Soviet Spies.”

The Broderzinger, or Broder singers, from Brody in Ukraine, were Jewish itinerant performers in early 19th century Austrian Galicia, Romania and Russia. They were among the first to publicly perform Yiddish-language songs outside of Purim plays and wedding parties, and were an important precursor to Yiddish theater.

As for the spies, Jana is referring to Yiddish theater in Warsaw under Communism (her dissertation topic).

“The Yiddish theater was sponsored by the government,” she says. “Thus, many actors were spying on each other, helping the government control what was going on in the theater.”

Here’s what her presentation flyer says: “How old is Yiddish theater? Is it just plays that get translated into Yiddish? Wait! Isn’t Yiddish dead? Don’t be a nudnik! [a pest, a bore]. Come learn the answers for yourself!”

Consider that your wide-ranging invitation to all Jana’s ambitious, high-spirited programs and projects.

For information about Jana’s and YAAANA’s activities, go to yaaana.org.


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