"No language is inherently funny": Yuri Vedenyapin sings Yiddish songs, discusses Yiddish comedy

May 3, 2014

Before there was "Who's on first?" there was the similar routine, "Weinstein? Einstein!" by the Yiddish standup team Dzigan & Schumacher. But it's worth noting that when I interviewed Yuri Vedenyapin (who wrote a thesis on Dzigan), he quoted a professor who admonished his students: "Remember, despite what people tell you, Yiddish is not a funny language! No language is inherently funny - it's only as funny as you make it, or as tragic as you make it, or life makes it." 

Yuri Vedenyapin of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, where he lectures on Yiddish folklore and culture.
Credit Yuri Vedenyapin

The Moscow-born Vedenyapin had just sung a heartbreakingly beautiful Yiddish lullaby, and I had said that while American culture associates Yiddish with humor - we often use our Yiddish loan words for comic effect, for example -  the music suggests a richer story. Then he sang another song that is perhaps even more beautiful and heartrending. Listen to the entire interview and the songs here:

Yuri was in Iowa for the Eighth International Annual Russian Guitar Festival and SymposiumIn the middle of the above interview, IARGUS festival founder Oleg Timofeyev spoke of how he wanted to learn Yiddish when he was growing up in Moscow, but that at the time Jewish studies were forbidden by the Soviet state. 

That brings us back to Shimon Dzigan: born in Poland, he survived the Third Reich and imprisonment by Stalin and eventually migrated to Israel, where he hosted a popular television show. Here's  a clip of an opening segment - in Yiddish with English subtitles: