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It’s No Jewish Joke: The Yiddish Teacher Is Japanese

January 9, 1991

JERUSALEM (AP) _ What has Yiddish got that would induce a 27-year-old Japanese student to speak and teach it?

″Schlemazel, for instance,″ replied Tsuguya Sasaki, citing a Yiddish word that would delight any linguist, Japanese or other, in the way it blends German (schlim - bad) and Hebrew (mazal - luck) to produce ″unfortunate person.″

Still, a Japanese Yiddish-speaker? Teaching Yiddish to Israeli Jews? It sounds like the opening line of one of those Jewish jokes Sasaki relishes.

He has heard and read plenty of them in his efforts to understand the secrets of this 1,000-year-old language and its cultural baggage. One of his favorites actually happened to him. It concerned a Yiddish-speaking acquaintance with whom he converses for practice.

″One day an Arab we know overheard us, and said to him, ’Avraham, I didn’t know you speak such good Japanese.‴

The story - told in flawless Hebrew with the accent of a native Israeli - reveals a wry sense of humor that endeared Sasaki to Israelis when he recently appeared on their favorite TV talk show.

″I was amazed that of all the languages he knows, that’s the one he likes. It won’t be the salvation of the Yiddish language but it’s very nice of him to be doing this,″ says Yitzhak Bratt, editor of Lezte Nyes, a Tel Aviv Yiddish newspaper.

Sasaki was born and raised in Honjo, in north Honshu island, and was working on his doctoral thesis in linguistics at Kyoto University when he won an Israeli government scholarship.

He already was proficient in varying degrees in nine languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he found that any student of Hebrew ″naturally runs into Yiddish at some point.″

Yiddish is the language and cultural focus of East European Jews. But its spread has dwindled in the past 50 years because of the Nazi Holocaust, which claimed 6 million Jewish lives, and the rise of Hebrew as an official language of Israel.

In his gentle, self-mocking manner, Sasaki remarks that because of the lack of Yiddish speakers, people ″perhaps haven’t yet realized how ignorant I am.″

In fact, he is blessed with a sharp ear for accents, and after little more than two years of study he speaks Yiddish like a Lithuanian Jew.

Meanwhile, Yiddish is enjoying a minor revival in Israel, and twice a month, Sasaki teaches Yiddish grammar to a class of 15 adults.

″The atmosphere is extraordinary,″ he says. ″Everybody loves this language and identifies with it.″

″It’s heimish,″ he says, using a Yiddish word meaning warm. ″It’s more emotional than logical.″ His pupils ″have heard some Yiddish at home and are looking for their roots....″

In an interview on campus, Sasaki insisted his interest is mainly scholastic. Yiddish, he says, is unusual in having so many components - Hebrew and German, plus elements of Slavic and Romance languages.

″They say Yiddish is just a hodgepodge. That’s not true. When you look at it from the inside you have to see it as a fusion language, not just a hodgepodge.″

Yiddish has led him to identify strongly with the Jews, he says, but he has no interest in becoming Jewish, defining himself as ″a pious atheist.″

He shares a dormitory apartment with an orthodox Jew through whom he is discovering the intricacies of Jewish law, such as not mixing milk and meat dishes - a violation of kosher rules - and not switching lights on or off on the Sabbath.

″I’ve told him I’m willing to be a shabbes goy,″ Sasaki said, using the Yiddish term for gentiles who are paid to perform functions forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath.

He recently had to fill out a health service form, and didn’t know what to fill in as his religion. In the end, he says, he opted for ″Yiddishist.″

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