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Musician Geoff Berner sounds off on learning Yiddish, British imperialism, and Canada as a crusader country

Geoff Berner
East Van accordionist Geoff Berner decided to seriously study Yiddish in his late 20s and early 30s.

The first time Geoff Berner recalls hearing Yiddish was at a family gathering when he was eight or nine years old. The East Vancouver accordionist and singer-songwriter tells Pancouver by phone that some Jewish old folks from the Louis Brier Home were at the event.

His grandfather was sitting at the buffet table, uttering words and sentences that Berner didn’t understand. The boy thought it sounded like German.

That left him baffled because in his mind, only the bad guys spoke that language. So Berner, who’s also a novelist, asked his dad what was going on.

“He was, like, ‘They’re talking Jewish’,” Berner recalls.

In fact, the elders were speaking Yiddish—a language spoken for centuries by Ashkenazi Jews from Germany to the Urals.

Because Yiddish has Germanic grammar and vocabulary—like Dutch and Afrikaans—it sounded German to the young Berner. In addition, Yiddish incorporates elements of Romance and Slavic languages fused with Hebrew and Aramaic.

The language mostly disappeared from Eastern Europe after the Nazis murdered six million Jews. Berner’s grandfather’s generation was the last to rely on it.

“My parents were like this missing link in the chain,” Berner says. “They didn’t learn it.”

After the new country of Israel was created in 1948, it declared modern Hebrew as an official language. In subsequent years, Yiddish was banned from radio and TV.

According to Berner, the Zionist movement viewed Yiddish as a “loser language” because “that’s the language we were murdered in”.

So, in an effort to unite Jews from around the world, he says Israel revived a “sacred language for sacred liturgy” that hardly anybody spoke in common conversations. This occurred even though all the prime ministers of Israel from that era spoke Yiddish.

Music pushes Berner to study Yiddish

Berner says that Israel sought to leave the language of his ancestors behind. Moreover, Hebrew was promoted to Jewish children abroad, including in Vancouver.

“They didn’t offer Yiddish at the Hebrew School at Beth Israel [Synagogue],” Berner says.

Like many Jewish kids, Berner studied Hebrew. And he grew up to become an accomplished musician. As he pursued his passion for the accordion, he felt a deep connection to Jewish music created in Eastern Europe. Yiddish was the bedrock of this culture and was at the heart of the songs he wanted to play.

“What people are, to a certain extent, is their language,” Berner says.

The Pale of Settlement
This Pale of Settlement map is reproduced from Russia Gathers Her Jews: the Origins of the Jewish Question in Russia, 1772-1825, by John Doyle Klier (Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.)

Moreover, his family’s roots go back to various parts of the Pale of Settlement. Within this large territory in Imperial Russia, Jewish settlements were permitted. But that didn’t spare these communities from deadly pogroms. The Pale included what’s now Belarus, Moldova, much of Ukraine and Lithuania, and parts of Latvia, Eastern Poland, Romania, and western Russia.

All of this led Berner to want to learn Yiddish. But he didn’t really get serious until his late 20s and early 30s after he started playing klezmer music. He says that it took a fair amount of time because he was raising four kids and touring as a musician.

Geoff Berner sings Rae Spoon’s “GELT (Money)”; Yiddish courtesy of Michael Wex.

Mediating a world through language

Nowadays, Berner describes himself as an “advanced student”. He has even composed songs in Yiddish with the help of Yiddishist friends, including Canadian linguist and author Michael Wex. They’ve ensured that his thoughts come out properly.

“We plan to put out this Yiddish album that we got a couple of grants for,” Berner reveals. “We talk Yiddish while we’re figuring out these songs. It’s pretty fun.”

Berner is part of a growing movement of liberal Jews who are promoting a Yiddish revival. According to Haaretz, that’s led to a backlash in Israel from conservative Jews who despise the language. For his part, Berner accuses them of engaging in a massive “erasure project”.

“Language is culture,” the East Vancouver musician insists. “Language is how we speak. That’s what Judaism is kind of about—’in the beginning was the word.’ We don’t just live in the world. We understand the world and mediate it through language.”

He adds that this world doesn’t truly exist until people attach names to things. “So, how you name things and how you talk about things is who you are.”

Berner maintains that languages have assumptions built within them. And he describes writing musical lyrics in Yiddish as “the apex of linguistic proficiency”.

“Learning this language, to me, is a key part of my work trying to decolonize my own mind,” Berner emphasizes. “You have to learn to speak a different language than the language of the colonizer if you want to really find a way to decolonize.”

English described as a “pirate language”

To illustrate this point, Berner brings up how the English imperialists used their language to advance their colonial project. It began in Scotland and Ireland and then spread around the globe.

“Their first agenda is to beat the language out of the children so they only speak English,” he says. “That’s the project of the British Empire, really.”

It’s why he believes that one of the most subversive things that society can do is fund Indigenous language education.

Geoff Berner sings “I Can’t Believe/Mir Gleybt Zikh Nisht” in English and Yiddish.

Berner, an ardent democratic socialist, describes English as a “pirate language” rooted in “predatory militarism”.

“When you start running through various expressions that you use every day, you realize that they are all things associated with, like, the giant global killing machine of the British navy,” he declares.

To cite one example, he mentions the term “three sheets to the wind”. In English, it means a person is drunk.

“When you talk like a British privateer, it tends toward you behaving like a British privateer,” Berner says.

Assimilation was a product of the times

For Jews living in Canada in the early to middle part of the 20th century, they were confronted by the carrot and stick of colonialism, he says. The carrot was that if you adopted English, you could move forward. The stick was beating children if they didn’t learn English properly.

He cites his own family background as an example. His father was a lawyer, as was his grandfather. But his great-grandfather on his father’s side was a rabbi, as were many of his ancestors.

“You can take your cultural affinity for law and you can turn yourself into a lawyer,” Berner says. “Or even if a judge in this system if, you know, you can learn to speak white sufficiently. Nobody with a Yiddish accent got made a Canadian Jewish judge.”

He also accuses Canada and the United Kingdom of being complicit in the Holocaust. Neither country was willing to accept many Jews hoping to flee Nazi Germany.

“People talk about the Kindertransport a lot in England, what a wonderful thing that was—how they brought all these children to safety,” Berner says. “But it was because they barred their parents from coming. It was because they deliberately left their parents to die.”

Kindertransport
Young Jews arrive in London in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport. Photo from German Federal Archive.

Holocaust orphan in Vancouver

Berner then shares a local story from Vancouver. His father’s best friend at law school was a Jewish orphan. The man’s parents came to the Dunbar-Kerrisdale area before the Second World War. After hostilities ended, they spent about five years trying to find anyone from their extended family who survived the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe.

“There was nobody,” Berner reveals. “They got them all. And when his father realized that, he feel into a deep depression and committed suicide.”

A year later, his father’s friend’s mother died in a “car accident”.

“So he was a Holocaust orphan in Vancouver,” Berner says. “That’s not a strange or out-of-the-ordinary story.”

He adds that people don’t comprehend how scary Canada was to Jews in those days or how big a role the country played in the Holocaust.

“I think a lot of Canadians don’t understand that there isn’t any difference between a crusade and a pogrom,”  Berner states. “They are the same thing. And that’s what the Holocaust was. It was a crusade.”

Berner emphasizes that by murdering millions of Jews, Germans believed that they were cleaning up the world for Jesus and making the world better for God. And he insists that they committed these crimes joyfully.

“They had parties while they, like, murdered entire towns,” Berner says. “They would set up booze and snacks and play music. It was fun for them. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, unfortunately, we have to do this kind of thing.’ This was a joyful crusade where they went into Lithuania and they killed 19 out of 20 Jews.”

Watch the video for “Nagging Cough” by Geoff Berner.

New crusade targets immune-compromised

Berner points out that the British also didn’t have clean hands during the Second World War. Rather, he offers a reminder that they were responsible for the deaths of three million people in Bengal.

In 2019, Guardian reporter Michael Safi reported that the famine in Bengal in 1943 was the only one in modern Indian history not linked to a serious drought. This mass killing came as a result of policy failures by the government led by Winston Churchill. The then British prime minister blamed Indians for “breeding like rabbits”.

Berner also sees mass death taking place in modern times as a result of heartless policies in response to COVID-19. The lack of mask mandates and refusal to adopt measures that will create cleaner air in classrooms remind him that Canada hasn’t changed from the 1930s and 1940s when Jews were kept out of the country and left to die in Nazi Germany.

The current health crisis actually inspired him to create a collection of plague songs, which will be on his new album coming out on May 12.

“It’s a eugenics policy where we’re saying we don’t need really old people and we don’t need people who need help to get around to do stuff—people with disabilities,” Berner claims. “Canada is expressly saying we are not going to help you.”

He argues that this is what underscores why people won’t wear masks on public transit. He thinks it’s because able-bodied folks and those who govern them really don’t want those who are immune-compromised riding the system.

“And if they do come and they die, we’re basically at peace with that,” Berner adds. “We’re a country of monsters. It’s a crusader state.”

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.