Body of Language, Transforming the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry: An Interview between David Shneer, Rob Adler Peckerar and Alexx Shilling

David Shneer


As the founder of Archive Transformed, a five-day collaborative residency hosted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, Chautauqua, and the Boulder Public Library that brings an artist and scholar together to “transform” archival material for the present and future, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the collaborators for one of the winning projects that will be incubated in May 2019 in Boulder, CO. Rob Adler Peckerar, executive director of Yiddishkayt and former CU Boulder professor of Jewish culture, and Alexx Shilling, choreographer and dancer, are working on an unusual archive called the Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ), whose archivist Michelle Chesner was featured in an interview with In geveb editor-in-chief Jessica Kirzane.

The archive, which consists of over 600 interviews conducted with native speakers of Yiddish between 1959 and 1972, was created by linguist Uriel Weinreich and continued after his death in 1967 under the directorship of Marvin Herzog. It was a comparative study of the linguistic diversity of pre-WWII Yiddish in Central and Eastern Europe.

Adler Peckerar and Shilling are re-imagining how the subjects of this research project can be reembodied as human presences, rather than as a data set for a linguistic project. What follows is my interview with Rob Adler Peckerar, and Alexx Shilling about their unique project.

David Shneer: The archive you are working with is a set of recordings from the 1960s between native Yiddish-speaking interviewers and their Yiddish-speaking informants. The archive has been used for academic publications in linguistics, but not for this kind of creative re-embodying of the subjects whose voices we hear. What compelled you to do this with an archive of native Yiddish speakers speaking into a tape recorder?

Rob Adler Peckerar: I have always been troubled by the way cultural products become dehumanized as objects of study and analysis. And, as someone who studies the relationship between language and the production of culture in the aftermath of a genocide, this stripping away of the human from the humanities often feels particularly distressing. I first came across the sound of the voices in the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ) when I was a graduate student. It was in the form of a CD-ROM tucked into the envelope of the book Gesprochenes Jiddisch, which had been published a few years before I got hold of it. The book and its accompanying CD extracted sections of recorded text that included interviews from the LCAAJ. I was immediately struck by the distance between the interviewers’ voices, who were gathering data, and those of the informants, who in being asked to recall words and phrases in their native language were so clearly brought back to the landscapes they hadn’t seen in years (and, I’d imagine, would likely never see again). I remember that in addition to the responses to the LCAAJ survey, the recordings on that disc included additional interviews, in which informants were allowed to speak about themselves.

One of these speakers came from Trzebinia. She begins the recording in her distinctive Galician dialect saying [written here in the International Phonetic Alphabet to convey the specific features of her Yiddish]: “Ix bin gəbojrn in a klãjn ʃtejtl — tʃɛbinjə — niʃt va:t fin kru:ko in fin oʃpitsin … Ix … ix bin gəvejn də ɛlsto fin dra:j kindɚ, mã:ne ɛltɛrn obn gə… z’obn gəhat a gəʃɛft … in z’obn ox gəarbət in a:ntsigə, vus z’obn gənimən de mʊəs. Mã:nə ɛltɛrn obm gəarbət zejɚ ʃvɚ. Ikh op a jiŋgɛrə ʃvɛstɚ, in x’op … In də jiŋgkstə ʃvɛstɚ iz gəvorn gəbojrn in nã:ntsn-dra:sik in z’i gəvejzn tsi jiŋk tsi ibɚlejbn. Z’iz giganən tsəzamən mit mã:nə ɛltɛrn [I was born in a small town — Trzebinia — not far from Krakow and from Oświęcim/AuschwitzII was the oldest of three children, my parents hadthey had a storeand they also worked with garments, for which they took the measurements. My parents worked very hard. I have a younger sister and I have… And my youngest sister was born in 1930 and she was too young to survive. She went together with my parents],” and then she trails off for a moment.

DS: So the posing of a simple linguistic question brought back memories of her childhood home and the fact that her parents and youngest sister were murdered in the khurbn (Holocaust)?

RAP: Yeah, or even just being asked the name of her town in Yiddish, by a Yiddish speaker. This directed attention to the language and places of the past was a powerful mode of imaginative transportation. I remember hearing this and being struck by the power of this moment of recollection. The woman from Trzebinia, when asked by an interviewer to recall Yiddish words that she likely hadn’t thought of in years, was directly transported back to her childhood. Calling her attention to language in this particular way brought her back to her hometown, to the moments before 1939 when her whole family was still alive — only seconds later to recall how the rest, besides one sister, were all gone. The voice from Trzebinia touched me very deeply. I wondered how the project’s original researchers, who, like me, were a mix of young students working in Jewish languages and culture, felt at that moment when their research protocol was thrown off course by an informant’s instinct to tell personal stories, to connect with their interviewer. In this recording, it seemed we could palpably sense the incredible power of language. Here, one’s own native language became a kind of time/space transporting vehicle. What was it like, I thought, to sit with this woman in this apartment? How would it be to listen to her, watching as this “vehicle” transported her?

A few years later when a team working on this material in Germany published excerpts from the LCAAJ interviews online, I found myself drawn to this material again and then to the scholarly linguistics volumes published about the data. This time, I was struck by the apparent gap between the “cold science” of the project — with its researchers paying such detailed attention to phonology, lexical features, syntactic constructions, and sociolinguistic elements — and only secondarily to the informants as living, feeling people. I found myself paying more attention to the curious dynamics playing out at the moment of the interview, to the sounds of the cities in the background — traffic rushing, babies crying, cats meowing, children playing outside — as they were recorded.

DS: So the sounds of the cityscape where and when the fieldwork was conducted were not part of the project, and yet as with photographs, the intention of the image or recording captures unintentional information, a snapshot in time that transports you back to that time.

RAP: Exactly. And at the same time, the informants were being asked to recall all the various ways of referring to such mundane objects as plants, fruits, and the geographic features of distant childhood landscapes. Now these speakers had been reduced to an informant number, their language transcribed for scientific purposes. The individual lexical elements that they conjured up were being chopped into small bits to be stored in some kind of digital deep freeze like the endangered seeds of the world in the Global Seed Vault near the North Pole. I wondered how someone could take these bits of linguistic data out of the deep freeze and bring them to life again, the way the seeds in this frozen granary one day could be called upon. How can we re-plant these sounds into living bodies? There’s a line in the often-quoted ninth thesis on the concept of history, where Walter Benjamin says of the Angel of History: “Er möchte wohl verweilen, die Toten wecken und das Zerschlagene zusammenfügen [he’d surely like to linger for a moment, to awaken the dead and reassemble what has been smashed].” It seemed to me that this was precisely what was happening in this recording. We can hear the Angel of History staying still for a moment, pausing to let language itself do the work of making whole all that has been destroyed.

DS: I teach Benjamin’s “Angel of History” in all of my classes as a way to have students reflect on what history is. Alexx, I’m curious how you relate to the project and in particular to the idea that what we are witnessing is Benjamin’s Angel of History come to life.

Alexx Shilling: I really love that image of the lingering angel in its momentary stillness, which also makes me feel still. A big part of my research process involves “listening” to spaces and objects like a phenomenological collector, detailing everything about the materials and the energies contained within. It’s like trying on someone else’s three-piece-suit and allowing the garment to teach you something about the person who wore it, to teach you how to move. There’s a personal aspect to this project for me because I’m starting to forget the sound of my grandparents’ and other relatives’ voices, their thick accents and the surprising bursts of Yiddish that would only accompany a funeral or a Passover seder. So selfishly, I want to be immersed in the sounds of native Yiddish speakers. When we were traveling through former Jewish spaces in Belarus and Poland on the Helix Fellowship, I would imagine Yiddish being spoken as an addition to the soundscape; I felt the absence of voices speaking or singing in Yiddish as a palpable omission.

RAP: Returning the sounds of Yiddish or making the traces of disappeared culture audible or visible on the historical landscape is such a significant part of the Helix experience.

"I wondered how someone could take these bits of linguistic data out of the deep freeze and bring them to life again, the way the seeds in this frozen granary one day could be called upon. How can we re-plant these sounds into living bodies?"

Rob Adler Peckerar

DS: So you met each other through the Helix Fellowship, which is a project of Yiddishkayt, meant to inspire artists, teachers, and students to create, educate, and study by means of reading, speaking, and performing Yiddish culture in situ. But proximity does not mean instant connection. What drew you to each other as collaborators?

AS: Robby and I discovered alignment points in our research as soon as we met through the Helix Fellowship in 2016. I had just finished a performance piece entitled Absence: a History, which was both an attempt at reconstructing my grandmother’s post-genocidal testimony — that she herself never gave — and an interrogation of the ways in which institutions catalog and document personal histories. I have wanted to understand more about how to trigger body memory in order to conjure a performative state that could be repeated and shared with an audience and began using commonplace objects. From 2004 to 2010 my choreographic research centered on making performances at historical sites in New York, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue and two former World War II steamships. Later, I collaborated with multidisciplinary artist Quintan Wikswo. Together, we made a constellation of performance, visual, sound, and video works based on field research at sites of ecological trauma in relation to testimonies by female survivors of Dachau concentration camp at the end of their lives.

DS: Alexx, I’m a scholar of Jewish cultural history, so I find it fascinating to learn more about how a dancer and choreographer understands the nature of historical research.

AS: My first question is always, how can I bring the body into the foreground? What if we recognize the body as the object or site of memory — a lieu de mémoire, as Pierre Nora wrote. Robby’s object is language, but his particular perspective manifests as a continuous imagining not only of the conditions surrounding a people speaking and writing a language but also of the people themselves; the quality of their breath, what they were wearing, what the landscape outside of their window was. To me, these are also choreographic concerns. At the risk of sounding mystical, I feel like Robby and I share a way of looking at cultural materials that is about simultaneously looking through them. We both see and sense what isn’t readily perceptible. These processes likely developed as a way to access interwar and pre-WWI Jewish life in Eastern Europe that includes the body and might therefore render these histories more or less present.

RAP: I don’t mind sounding mystical about it at all! But maybe it’s more of an attempt to join the mind with the body without ignoring the heart. I think Alexx and I share an outlook that seeks out presence in absence. And this isn’t limited to creating art in the aftermath of atrocity. It’s a certain way of attending to the overlooked, unseen, or even invisible elements that are the context of all human creativity. One of the things I love so much about dance is the bodily transformation of material. Alexx’s work, in particular, seems to have this incredible, almost alchemical, power to turn what may initially seem not-human into a living, breathing, sweating, bodily, human activity.

AS: Emphasis on the sweating …

DS: How will your project transform our understanding of the material you’re working on?

RAP: I feel like there is something transformative simply in the act of having others hear these voices in a creative new context. In the various spheres of Yiddish culture today, whether in performance or in academia, there is now a remove — temporally and geographically — from a living mass of people speaking in an organic, native Yiddish. This is probably most pronounced in the academic world, where the sounds of the so-called klal shprakh (twentieth-century standard Yiddish) eclipses the wide variety of the sounds of Yiddish. In the face of — most devastatingly — the Nazi genocide, but also post-immigrant generations who didn’t maintain Yiddish, shifts in language policy in the Soviet Union, and ideological opposition to diaspora languages in Israel, we are left without a great deal of direct access to the diverse sounds of a once-vibrant language. So, simply by presenting audiences with this incredible multiplicity of sounds of a once living and breathing language, I think our sense of the language changes.

AS: And the language can be alive again! In a new way, in a different way. We’re seeing how curators are updating museum technologies to try to enliven cultural artifacts. There is a craving for a more present experience with the past. Maybe the potential for transformation has to do with how we frame archival materials, how to give them space to be experienced while also animating them in real time and space.

DS: Can you give me an example of that?

AS: Just a few weeks ago, I witnessed a performance for the choreographer Merce Cunningham’s 100th birthday (he passed at age 91). Twenty-seven performers learned solo material from Cunningham’s prolific repertoire; however, not a single one of them had danced for Cunningham directly. I was on the edge of my seat watching each performer’s bodily history co-exist and grapple with the rigors and specificity of the material. It was like the past was being brought into the future and the material was evolving before our very eyes! I think even without a deep literacy of postmodern dance or linguistics there’s something we fundamentally understand about being with other bodies.

DS: Through this interview, it’s becoming clear to me that this incredible project is as much about sound as it is about dance.

RAP: In a way, I suppose. The sound of language and the movement of dance are all rooted in the body, after all. But it’s also about silence. Maybe you’ve heard that project by the composer William Basinski — The Disintegration Loops? Like us, Basinski was working with old reel-to-reel tape as part of a preservation project. He noted the process of deterioration of the iron oxide powder that holds the recorded material as it became detached from the plastic tape. And he created a new symphonic piece based on the fragments that remained on the tape after the bulk of the recording material had fallen off — literally rusty dust just floating away! The resulting piece, which started as a kind of salvage project, became a stunning meditation on ephemerality. We try to preserve as much as we can, but then even our acts of preservation need to be preserved. And in the end, all we have are continuously disintegrating fragments.

AS: I think it’s wonderful that we are discussing silence in the same breath as Cunningham because his partner, the composer John Cage (who is one of Basinski’s key inspirations), made a practice of framing silence as its own composition to be valued. Silence not necessarily as absence but having its own materiality. I teach a technique called Open Source Forms whose lineage can be traced back, in part, to John Cage and his interest in Zen. We work in a way that equally values silence as sound and stillness as movement. There is another conversation to be had around ephemerality and dance especially within the context of historical research, as I believe that the body leaves traces.

"My first question is always, how can I bring the body into the foreground?... Robby’s object is language, but his particular perspective manifests as a continuous imagining... of the people themselves; the quality of their breath, what they were wearing, what the landscape outside of their window was. To me, these are also choreographic concerns."

Alexx Shilling

DS: We’re visually documenting the entire residency, including “preserving” the process using still and moving images. But I hadn’t thought about preserving sounds, including silence.

RAP: I remember, maybe, 15 years ago, David, you wrote an essay about how we, whose work centers on a culture in which many of its creators were violently murdered, can be haunted by the people we study. There is an element of this project that is attending to that spectral sensibility. When I first heard these recordings, it reminded me of a Laurie Anderson performance piece titled “Example #22,” from her cycle United States I–IV. In this piece, seemingly “found” audio material is cut apart and activated by the performance with overlapping layers of new sound, including operatic voices, backmasked speech, and a kind of parody of a pop song. The found audio begins with a disembodied woman’s voice, lifted from an anthology of recordings of electronic voice phenomena. The voice starts the performance, saying: “Beispiele paranormale Tonbandstimmen. Was sind paranormale Tonbandstimmen? Es sind Stimmen unbekannter Herkunft. Es sind … [Examples of paranormal tape-recorded voices. What are paranormal tape-recorded voices? They are voices of unknown origin. They are … ]” and then the tape loops back to the beginning with new voices and sounds being added.

When I first heard the clips of the informants, I remember thinking about Anderson’s piece, thinking: these are those paranormal taped voices. In a way, because of the distance in time since the initial recording and the denaturalization that occurs from the processes of digitization, the informants in the archive have become paranormal voices on tape. Now Alexx and I are working to transform them again as we relocate these voices in living human bodies before live audiences using dance as a medium in all senses of the word.

DS: What challenges have you encountered when working with archival material?

RAP: Well, the technical challenges of obtaining usable recordings are certainly the most pressing ones. Michelle Chesner, the Jewish Studies librarian at Columbia University where the archive is held, has been tremendously helpful. Columbia received two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve the disintegrating reels of tape of the archive, housed in their Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The idea of the grants and the additional funding that has come in for archival preservation was both to preserve these recordings and to make them easily available to researchers. In addition to this collection, a project based in Germany called EYDES (Evidence of Yiddish Documented in European Societies) continued the work of the LCAAJ after the work at Columbia came to an end. That project also collaborated with Columbia, as it digitized and published the material. And even while these recordings may be digitized and some published online, it’s still difficult to acquire the recordings in a useful way. The EYDES online repository presents some serious usability challenges and some of the software they used a decade ago has since become obsolete.

For example, Alexx and I discussed the possibility of anchoring parts of the work in a variety of phrases spoken by many of the informants. When these phrases are clustered, looped, overlapped, we can hear the variations in voice, tone, dialect, emotive response to each phrase. Even though the EYDES researchers created a way to isolate individual elements of speech, we can’t access these in a straightforward way that allows us to use these for performance purposes. Also, the digitized CDs at Columbia are stored in an offsite facility and it takes time to get them, then listen to them, edit them, and so forth.

AS: Yes, I suspect we will be spending a lot of time getting to know the logic of the archive itself in an effort to construct new logics through layering and repetition. I’m curious about how these early aspects of the process will inform the piece and if it will become important to share bits of our process within the body of the piece? Works that I have created about an archive have tended to generate their own sort of archive of new materials. Is it part of the nature of working this way? Because the work of archiving, particularly in a post-atrocity context, is impossible to resolve?

Of course, it’s daunting to work with materials from and of a group of people who we cannot speak with or meet directly. I’ve grappled with this before, primarily with Sonderbauten: The Special Block, which evolved out of testimony from survivors of gender-based war crimes committed at Dachau. This was the beginning of trying to bring a “body-ness” into an interdisciplinary, collaborative process as a dance maker. Dance can provide ways to move from the archive to the body (or as Diana Taylor says, “the repertoire”). I find it problematic to attempt representation, like a dramatization for example, as a way to bring an archive to life. I want to be careful not to claim ownership over anyone’s experience. The holes are so apparent and I’d rather let people see them, like seeing an opening. That being said, we’ve just begun talking to some living people who were involved in the LCAAJ project!

DS: So there are still people around who were involved in the original project?

RAP: Yes, that’s been an incredible thing! In the preliminary discussions I’ve had with some of the original interviewers from the 1960s, it’s clear right away how this project, even unexpectedly, impacted them deeply for the rest of their lives. In a volume published by EYDES, there’s a truly moving account of what it was like to be a fieldworker on the project by Rosaline Schwartz, who recorded a great number of the interviews. She passed away in 2015. In her recollection of the experience she says something like, we went out with a tape recorder and we returned with a shtetl. That’s exactly what we hear.

DS: This residency pairs artists and scholars. Do you generally see eye to eye? What happens when there’s a conflict between you two? How does that conflict (intellectual, aesthetic, personal, or otherwise) get resolved?

RAP: Generally our conflicts are resolved by rap battle. Or duel.

AS: Or headstand contest.

Shneer, David. “Body of Language, Transforming the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry: An Interview between David Shneer, Rob Adler Peckerar and Alexx Shilling.” In geveb, May 2019:
Shneer, David. “Body of Language, Transforming the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry: An Interview between David Shneer, Rob Adler Peckerar and Alexx Shilling.” In geveb (May 2019): Accessed Jun 25, 2019.


David Shneer

David Shneer is Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History, Professor of History and Jewish Studies, and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.