René Lerer

“Yiddish was the Language of Our House”

René Lerer didn’t learn English until he started school; when he was growing up in New York, he says, “Yiddish was the language of the house.”

That’s because Yiddish was the language of his parents, Sam and Sally Lerer, Polish Holocaust survivors who met in Paris and moved to the United States when Lerer was an infant. He and his older brother, André, picked up English quickly and before long were conversing bilingually at home, with their parents addressing the children in Yiddish and the boys responding in English. But when friends of their parents came to the house, everyone spoke Yiddish. “It was a normal part of our life,” Lerer says.

Over the years, Lerer has had only a few opportunities to speak Yiddish in his daily life. As a young teen visiting his father’s relatives in Israel, his “imperfect” Yiddish enabled him to communicate. And as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, he taught a short conversational Yiddish course. Still, Yiddish has remained important to Lerer because, he says, it was so important to his parents.

“It’s so important to keep Yiddish alive. It was such a part of my parents’ lives, and though I never met their parents and grandparents, that was who they were."

Lerer and his wife, Michelle, have been members of the Yiddish Book Center since 1994. Though they now live in Florida, they had the opportunity to visit the Center when they lived in Connecticut. Lerer was particularly struck by the repository at the heart of the building, with its tens of thousands of Yiddish books.

While his parents spoke the language, he says, they didn’t have any Yiddish books in the house, and the only time he saw written Yiddish was when his mother wrote letters to family in Europe.

“The whole notion of the Center, to me, is to keep this language alive,” Lerer says. That’s what inspired him to sponsor a faculty member at the Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, an intensive, seven-week language and culture course that attracts college students from around the world.

“It’s so important to see if we can keep Yiddish alive,” Lerer says. “It was such a part of my parents’ lives, and though I never met their parents and grandparents, that was who they were. It got lost a little bit when they came to the United States, but it was still such an integral part of my childhood.”

To learn how you can sponsor a faculty member in the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, please email or call Zvi Jankelowitz at 413-256-4900, ext. 117.

From Kvel, the newletter of the Yiddish Book Center (Fall 2015)