Vol. 18, No. 17

Sept.  8 - 21,  2005


National Award for Local Yiddish Poet


Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman is surrounded by her art. Numerous oil paintings of her family decorate the dining and living room walls of her Bainbridge Avenue home and piles of Yiddish children’s books she wrote sit on a small table beside her couch. A CD of traditional Yiddish music she composed lies next to it.

Asked why she creates all this art, Schaechter-Gottesman responds with a laugh, “Why do you breathe?”

She wrote her first poem as a 20-something mother in Chernovitz, Romania, one of the centers of pre-World War II Yiddish culture. She continued writing because her children adored her poetry. “It comes to me naturally, so I do it,” she said. “I don’t do it for money or for awards.”

But awards are what she receives, and last month the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) added to her collection when they recognized Schaechter-Gottesman’s contribution to American Yiddish culture by honoring the longtime Bronxite with a National Heritage Fellowship, one of the federal agency’s most prestigious awards.

“They do the classifications, I just write naturally,” she said during an interview in her living room in July. “But it’s nice [to be appreciated by] the eyes and brains who look at you, who measure you.”

The NEA chose this year’s National Heritage Fellows from a pool of over 270 nominees, said Barry Bergey, the NEA’s director of Folk and Traditional Arts. The selection process begins when friends or cultural groups nominate an artist, usually in a letter to NEA.Then the NEA convenes a panel of experts to evaluate each nominee’s work and lifetime achievement in a particular tradition of folk art.

More than 300 National Heritage Fellowships have been awarded since the program’s founding in 1982. Winners receive a one-time grant of $20,000, and a three-day stay in Washington, D.C., including a banquet at the Library of Congress, an awards ceremony with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, and a public performance at George Washington University. Schaechter-Gottesman is the first Yiddish singer/songwriter and poet to win the award.

“The panel undoubtedly recognized her artistic creativity in many different areas,” Bergey said. “She has excelled in poetry, songwriting, maintenance of the Yiddish language and she’s been a teacher of poetry, songwriting and language.”

Yiddish is a culture and language without a country, Gottesman said, surviving only on the devotion of its broad Diaspora. She uses herself as an example: She was born and raised in Romania, but, like thousands of others, left the country after World War II decimated the population. But rather than leave her cultural roots behind, she brought them with her to the Bronx in 1951.

After moving from elsewhere in the Bronx to Norwood in 1964, Schaecter-Gottesman was an active participant in the Sholem Aleichem Folkshul on Bainbridge Avenue where two of her three children went to school, while continuing to write poetry and music. Schaecter-Gottesman continues to teach Yiddish out of her home, making sure, she said, that the language survives for future generations. (Her son, Itzik Gottesman, is an editor at the Yiddish Forward.)

“She’s unique in that she has been able to keep Yiddish alive as a vital part of New York City’s culture,” said Steve Zeitlin, executive director of City Lore, a cultural preservation group in Manhattan. “She didn’t just bring the old music with her [from Romania], she has written new songs that relate to being an immigrant, and to what it means to be Yiddish in New York City.”

In 1998, City Lore recognized Schaecter-Gottesman’s role in developing, nurturing and strengthening American Yiddish culture by inducting her into its People’s Hall of Fame.

City Lore was also one of the groups that nominated her for the National Heritage Fellowship. “We felt that she, more than anyone else, has helped keep Yiddish music alive in New York City,” Zeitlin said

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