Lisa Mayer and Rabbi Sruli Dresdner of Auburn perform klezmer music Sunday at the Yiddish Culture Festival at the Jewish Community Alliance building in Portland. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Klutz, kvetch, schlock, bagel – though Yiddish, the language of central and eastern European Jews, exists only in a few scattered enclaves, its influence endures throughout the world.

That was the message this weekend at the first Maine Yiddish Culture Festival, where hundreds of language buffs, traditional music lovers and members of the area Jewish community gathered in Portland to explore traditional music, food and humor.

“A lot of people use Yiddish words without even knowing they’re doing it,” said Barbara Merson, executive director of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, which organized the event.

Rachel Ackoff dances with her son Oz Levikoff, 2, as they listen to klezmer music Sunday during the Yiddish Culture Festival at the Jewish Community Alliance building in Portland. Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Yiddish has roots in several languages, including Hebrew and a ninth-century version of German. The language was spoken by more than 10 million people in Central and Eastern Europe until the Holocaust; now, only a fraction of that number still use the language, many of whom live in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

Jamie Isaacson of Portland came to the Jewish Community Alliance building on Congress Street on Sunday to learn about his own heritage.

A third-generation Mainer whose family came from Belarus and Lithuania, Isaacson remembers hearing his parents and grandparents speak Yiddish. But they didn’t pass it down to him; English was the focus, and so, instead, Isaacson’s elders used Yiddish when they didn’t want to be understood.

That left him feeling like he was missing something.

“It’s this roots thing,” Isaacson said. “You want to learn about who you are and where you come from.”

In the Jewish Community Alliance auditorium, New England Conservatory musicologist Hankus Netsky gave a lecture on the history of klezmer – the musical tradition of Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. (The word “klezmer” originally referred to a musical instrument, but has grown in popular parlance to encompass a much wider musical culture.)

He identified the traditional instruments – “You can tell how many Jews live in a house by how many violins there are on the wall,” he quipped – and traced the history of klezmer from a slump in the early 1900s to its revival, later in the century, as part of an international wave of interest in ethnic music.

After the lecture, Netsky sat at a keyboard and accompanied a traditional dance. Audience members linked hands, forming a ring that broke into a long line and danced its way through the auditorium.

The festival kicked off Saturday at One Longfellow Square with a concert featuring Netsky and Eden MacAdam-Somer of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, based in Boston, plus the Casco Bay Tummlers, longtime performers from Maine.

Earlier on Sunday, Michael Wex, a Canadian humorist and writer, gave a talk on Yiddish language and phrases. Later that afternoon came a screening of the film “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal.”


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