Yiddish Learning Learning Yiddish

Illustration by Ward Schumaker

For Debra Caplan, the authentic joy of Yiddish revealed itself on a summer morning after a long night trying to translate a poem by Avrom Sutzkever—“The Lead Plates at the Rom Press.”

“It’s a World War II poem about a printing press taken over by partisans who melt the plates [of Hebrew tomes] to make bullets,” Debra recalls. “It’s not a simple poem. And I was up all night, looking up every single word in the dictionary, going over grammar tables. Going at it line by line.”

Groggy from lack of sleep, she returned to her language class at the Yiddish Book Center, where she had been chosen as a summer intern that year. Though her father had spoken Yiddish around the house (often to the family dog), it was Debra’s first formal instruction in the language. Her teacher, Justin Cammy, went over the students’ work line by line. “My god,” Debra says, “I’d never had an experience like this before. It was thrilling.

“It was a revelation of what knowing a language—especially a language that has such complexity to it—can open up for you.”

Debra went on to study Yiddish culture in college classes and bolstered her facility with the language at intensive workshops around the world, from New York to Vilnius to Tel Aviv. She graduated from Hampshire College with a senior project that involved translating and producing two Yiddish musicals. “My thesis,” she says, “was titled ‘Historical Perspectives on Modern Jewish Identity.’ But in reality everything I did had to do with Yiddish and Yiddish theater.”

That remained her focus while obtaining a PhD from the Yiddish studies program in Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. She recently accepted a teaching position in the theater department of Baruch College at the City University of New York.

“A lot of what I want to transmit to my students is about theater and culture and art,” Debra said one morning recently, sitting in her office at Baruch’s fourteen-story “vertical campus,” with the skyline of downtown Manhattan in the window behind her desk. “And it’s thrilling for me to pass on a love of theater.”

But, she added quickly, “I’m teaching theater at the only college in the country that has a resident Yiddish theater company—the Folksbiene Theater performs here. Some of what I want to transmit is about Yiddish." And so, with variations, is how it has gone for any number of students who have come to the Yiddish Book Center as interns or, more recently, as Steiner students. They learn a threatened language and become eager ambassadors of a neglected culture. In recent decades, learning Yiddish in a secular setting has usually been something students could only do as they reached college age. And while opportunities for formal instruction are increasing, it is still not a path of study that can be set upon blithely.

“To be honest,” Debra says, “it was exciting how difficult it was to learn Yiddish. I couldn’t just go and find a group of people who spoke it. It was a lot of work and effort just to figure out how to do it. It’s not simple like, say, learning German. Not that German is easy to learn, but it is easier to figure out how to learn it. With Yiddish there’s no simple how.”

Beyond the question of how, students of Yiddish often must answer another question, at least from others—why? It came up so often with Barbara Henry, a non- Jewish expert in Yiddish theater who teaches in the Slavic languages and literature department at the University of Washington, that she has prepared a talk titled “So Why Yiddish?”

“I never get asked why I studied Russian literature,” says Barbara, who first encountered Yiddish through klezmer music. “It is impossible to learn anything about the Yiddish world of Eastern Europe,” she believes, “and not fall completely in love with it.”

“Yiddish is not just a language, it’s a way of life. It’s a way of being in the world that can only enrich what it means to be human.”

Figuring out how to study Yiddish and its culture was not always such a challenge. “When Jews came to America in the early years of the twentieth century,” says Yiddish Book Center founder and president Aaron Lansky, “they created Yiddish afternoon schools, modeled in part on secular Yiddish schools they’d known in Europe. Those schools thrived for the better part of a generation. There were an awful lot of kids in those schools.”

An encyclopedic examination of Yiddish afternoon schools (and their close relations, Yiddish summer camp) was published recently by historian Fradle Pomerantz Freidenreich. Passionate Pioneers: The Story of Yiddish Secular Education in North America, 1910-1960 gathers information on a thriving education sector that, at its peak, comprised nearly a thousand schools, spread across 160 communities in the United States and Canada, offering instruction in Yiddish to children and adults.

The schools often were affiliated with political movements, ranging from Labor Zionist to Communist, with the notable exceptions being schools run by the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute. Though inspired by differing ideologies, all the schools served one fundamental purpose, Freidenreich writes: “to transmit Jewish heritage to the next generation.”

“Don’t let your child be carried away by the stream of assimilation!” cried one advertisement for a Yiddish school quoted in Passionate Pioneers. “Give your child a serious, deep, realistic Jewish education! Save your children from American assimilation! Save them for your own sake, and for the sake of the Jewish people. Educate them Jewishly.”

Of course, the sheer force of the stream of assimilation was relentless, and in the years after World War II, it became a flood that nearly swept away everything in its path.

“Within a generation,” Aaron Lansky says, “Yiddish culture got eclipsed. Certainly, after the war, most Jewish kids going to afternoon school were going to religious schools, not secular or cultural schools or anything to do with Yiddish.”

The result, he adds, is that “for a very long time Yiddish was a niche business in America.” It was a niche business that for the most part survived by setting up fledgling franchises in universities.

One person who has straddled the old world and new world of Yiddish instruction is David Roskies, who grew up in Montreal in the 1950s and attended secular Yiddish day schools. “I’m the last generation to have grown up in a Yiddish-speaking environment where not only was the home Yiddish-speaking, but so was the street,” he says. “In Montreal there was a Yiddish press, a Yiddish theater, a Yiddish public library, and anetwork of Yiddish schools.”

Roskies went on to Brandeis University, where he earned a PhD and began teaching and writing extensively on Jewish literature. He is the series editor of the Yiddish Book Center and Yale Press University Press’s New Yiddish Library series. For a time, Roskies helped run an intensive summer seminar for advanced graduate students to immerse themselves in Yiddish culture and language in a way that hadn’t been possible since his own childhood. It’s a program the professor has described as “Yiddish finishing school.” Lack of resources forced the program’s termination.

Roskies has long been concerned that the move of Yiddish from the home and school to academia led to an unfortunate compartmentalization—“Yiddish for the sake of Yiddish” in his words—languagestudy separated from the more richly contextual Yiddish cultural studies “embedded in a dense social fabric.” Though he holds the official title of professor at two different universities, he urges his students to refer to him as “Lehrer,” an honorific that implies a more comprehensive teaching range. “I don’t want that name to be forgotten,” he says. “The culture bearers were called ‘Lehrer,’ not professor.”

One of the first college-level Yiddish programs was begun in the 1950s at Columbia University, established by the linguist Uriel Weinreich, the son of the great Yiddish linguistic and cultural historian Max Weinreich and himself an alumnus of afternoon Yiddish schools run by the Workmen’s Circle. These days, according to a list of resources compiled by the Yiddish Book Center, there are about twenty colleges and universities around the United States that offer some kind of instruction in Yiddish. A few, like Columbia and Harvard, offer advanced degrees.

Former Yiddish Book Center intern Jeremy Dauber now runs the Yiddish Studies program at Columbia. He arrived for a summer in Amherst after his freshman year at Harvard, and like so many students before and since, the time spent immersed in and surrounded by the products of Yiddish culture inspired him to return to school with a serious intent to learn the language. “It clearly changed my life,” he says. Fortuitously, the eminent scholar of Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse (who is David Roskie’s sister), had just arrived in Cambridge to set up a Yiddish studies program.

“I was lucky,” Jeremy says of the timing of the arrival of Wisse at Harvard and, more generally, his decision to pursue Yiddish at the college level. "My interest in Yiddish corresponded with the general rise of the field, made legitimate by its inclusion in universities like Harvard.” Since earning a doctorate from Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes scholar, Jeremy has used his facility with Yiddish language and culture to write an opera libretto based on a Sholem Aleichem novel, collaborate on a collection of translated landmark Yiddish theater works, and, recently, publish the first fullscale literary biography of Sholem Aleichem.

“Understanding Yiddish in understanding American Jewish history is very important,” Jeremy says. “And it’s very important to do research in Yiddish literature.” At his university, about fifteen students study in Yiddish language courses in any given semester. But a Yiddish culture course given periodically an attract as many as seventy-five students. Some of those students might become fascinated with the language, as he did, and pursue further study. But the professor is happy to teach in translation. “It's wonderful literature,” he says, “and I want as many people reading it as possible."

It was at Columbia (before Dauber arrived to teach) that Sarah Benor first felt the tug of Yiddish culture. A klezmer band played at her bat mitzvah in suburban Washington, DC ., which inspired her to adapt her classical violin training into jamming with local klezmer bands. When she read in the Columbia course catalog that there was a class in Yiddish culture that included klezmer music, she enrolled.

That class convinced her that she needed to learn Yiddish, and Sarah arrived at the Yiddish Book Center as an intern the summer after her freshman year.

“That was when I really got into Yiddish,” she remembers. “I got hooked and started thinking about becoming a Yiddish teacher.” It didn’t quite work out that way. After receiving a PhD in linguistics from Stanford, she now teaches at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and her research interests have widened beyond the Yiddish language. But she has taught Yiddish in a number of different settings, from high schools to synagogues and recently to rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.

“My students have come from all different backgrounds,” she says, “from non-Jews to aspiring newly Orthodox Jews. (Her book on newly Orthodox Jews, Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, was published in 2012.)

“I don’t really think in terms like, ‘Oh, no, the future of Yiddish is imperiled,’” Sarah says. “I just don’t. I think of Yiddish as not an endangered language. Mostly because it’s so widely used in Hasidic communities. And looking outside of Hasidic communities, I’m heartened by the post-vernacular use of Yiddish and the increased interest in Yiddish language and culture.”

The idea of a post-vernacular Yiddish culture comes from the work of Rutgers University Jewish studies professor Jeffrey Shandler, whose 2006 book, Adventures in Yiddishland, explored the idea of the language offering a sort of symbolic homeland.

“While learning Hebrew is typically a fixture of an American Jewish childhood,” he writes, “taking a class in Yiddish now marks for some a voluntary step into the formation of one’s Jewish adult self.”

In Aaron Lansky's decades of watching young adults arrive at the Center ready to cross the border into Yiddishland, he has seen a progression in attitudes and motivation. “When we first started out thirty-something years ago,” he says, “the strongest motivating factors were nostalgia and curiosity.” It was a language students’ grandparents had spoken, something exotic. Those days are long gone. “Then, in the mid-eighties, Yiddish became a kind of Rorschach test. Everybody identified their own politics in it. People found in it feminism and socialism and critical theory and all kinds of things for their own personal reasons.

“Then we went through what I would call the academic phase, where students coming to us were mostly serious aspiring scholars—grad students who needed Yiddish in order to handle scholarly research. It wasn’t all that different from studying Latin so they could read about the Gallic Wars. There was detachment to the whole thing—professional and careerist.

“Over the past seven or eight years I’ve seen another transformation,” Aaron says. “The kids who come to us now are neither scholarly nor odd nor politically motivated. They’re healthy young people, intellectually alert and multilingual and very aware of the world. They want to understand Yiddish as a way of understanding a culture. They may have an immediate personal connection to Yiddish, but not always.”

Now, in addition to the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, the Yiddish Book Center offers yearlong fellowships for recent college graduates. Among the current cohort is Rola Younes, a native of Lebanon whose first languages are Arabic and French. She is also fluent in English and proficient in four other languages, including Hebrew.

“I was twenty-four when I started to learn Yiddish,” Rola wrote in her application essay for the Center’s Fellowship Program, “but I had the impression of finally learning my mother tongue.” For this young woman from Beirut, it was Avrom Sutzkever—the same poet who had inspired Debra Caplan from suburban Philadelphia ten years earlier — who evoked the import and poignancy of the Yiddish language.

“I once came by a verse of Sutzkever,” Younes wrote—“‘vu es gefint zayn ponem yeder ger—where every stranger finds his face.’

“I felt he was talking about Yiddish, in which every immigrant can feel at home.”

For now, this particular new immigrant into Yiddishland has found a home at the Yiddish Book Center.

John Marchese is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Worth, Philadelphia, and Pakn Treger.

Subscribe Now