By Marcia Bronstein
I spent an amazing week at Yiddish School at the Yiddish Book Center (YBC) last year, along with 41 fellow students from around the U.S. and Canada united by a desire to speak and learn Yiddish. The levels of knowledge ranged from those with formal training to those who didn’t even know the Yiddish alphabet.
Faculty members at Yiddish School are a who’s who in the Yiddish world. Among them: Koyla Borodulun, coordinator of Yiddish programing at the NYC Workman’s Circle; Asya Vaisman Schilmn, director of the Yiddish Language Institute at YBC; Yuri Vendenypin, who has a Ph.D. in Yiddish from Columbia and teaches Yiddish at Harvard; Mark Slobin, professor emeritus at Wesleyan University and editor of numerous books on Yiddish film.
The staff included David Mazower, bibliographer and editorial director who had been a BBC News journalist and deputy curator of the Jewish Museum London. He is the author of Yiddish Theatre in London and has published several articles on his great-grandfather, Sholem Asch.
We also had the pleasure of hearing from Aaron Lanksy, founder and president of the YBC. When he was a graduate student in Montreal in the late 1970s, he discovered that large numbers of Yiddish books were being discarded by younger Jews who couldn’t read the language. He founded the YBC and issued a public appeal for unwanted and discarded Yiddish books. Scholars believed just 70,000 volumes were still recoverable. Lansky and a handful of young colleagues recovered that number in six months and went on to collect more than a million volumes. Their work has been described as one of the greatest cultural rescue efforts in Jewish history.
Three years ago, I donated a beloved four-volume anthology of Yiddish songs to the YBC. I loved the anthology that I had owned for 20 years, but didn’t use it often and felt that it might serve a bigger purpose if I shared it. So I called the YBC and arranged with a local zamael (a book saver — a YBC volunteer) to hand over the set. On my first day of Yiddish school, I asked about the possibility of “visiting” my books. I was introduced to David, and described the books. He asked me to follow him into his office and pointed to a bookshelf that now housed the anthology. It was an important anthology and he kept it in his office!
At meals there was a Yiddish Tish, a Yiddish-only table.
I met Hinda at the Yiddish Tish. She spoke Polish Yiddish and spoke it beautifully. I later learned that she was born at a DP Larger in Germany and that it took her family six years to gain access to America. She was a writer by profession and wrote a book called “The Shoemaker’s Daughter.” I asked if she was the shoemaker’s daughter and she said yes and that the book was her parents’ story, but she has a couple more books to write.
Wielem had an interesting story as well. His parents hid Jews during the war in Holland. He had a longing to learn Yiddish even though he was not Jewish and was also very interested in Yiddish music and poetry. His Dutch and German language skills made Yiddish easy for him.
Perel lived in Toronto, having moved from South Africa about six years before. She was one of the few religious Jews in the program, and her ability to read and speak Yiddish was outstanding. She longed for a community in which to study and improve her skills. For fun one afternoon during study hall, Perel and I read Peretz’s short story “Shalom Beis.” I must admit that it was way above my level of reading and required looking up every few words but Perel loved doing that with a dictionary/verterbooch and I happily let her do it for both of us.
There was Markel, who was 93 and lived in Ohio, and Benson, who was a psychotherapist from Portland. We all became Yiddish-speaking friends for the week. I spoke more Yiddish at the YBC than I did for my entire life. The irony of doing Yiddish school as an adult was not lost on me because as a child, I didn’t always enjoy the five-day-a-week after-school Yiddish program at Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul #21 in the Bronx.
The week included workshops on Yiddish dance and lectures on topics such as “When Jewish Music Met America.” We watched “Yidyl Mitn Fidl” and “Dybbuk.” We had singalongs, and a lecture and film about Birabijian, the independent Jewish Republic set up in Russia along the border with China. When I first heard about Birabijian, I thought it was a mythical place like Chelm.
To speak Yiddish today, we needed to learn many 21st- century words:
Email – blitzbrievele
Internet – internetz
Text message – texel
Microwave – Microyven
Computer – Kumputer
Cell phone/smartphone – kluger mobile
CD – Compactel
Thumbdrive – flaskil
Politically correct – politishe farrenchik
It was a frielach (joyous) week, and we learned of many more opportunities for Yiddish-loving people. There are summer programs in Vilnius, Berlin, Tel Aviv and Paris, and Yiddish camp programs. There are various online classes that allow students to interact with one another and the professor. Un az men vult, mir ken dos gefunen — and if one wants to find opportunities, then you really can.
It was great to see that Yiddish learning is alive and well.
Marcia Bronstein is director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Regional Office.