There is a steady increase of Yiddish lovers in their twenties and thirties. According to Neil Zagorin, bibliographer at The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass, the Jewish ‘mainstream’ interest in Yiddish is growing because a number of young Jews “are reconsidering–or considering for the first time–the meaning of the Ashkenazic Jewish heritage as an important part of contemporary Jewish identity, alongside Jewish religion, ancient Jewish history, modern Israeli history.”
Signs of this interest are evident in place like Makor, a cultural gathering place dedicated to New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s and the university courses being offered in Yiddish and Yiddish literature in translation.” YIVO, Workmen’s Circle, and The National Yiddish Book Center host events that also attract people in their 20s and 30s. The National Yiddish Book Center offers graduate students a chance to work on preserving Jewish books while taking Yiddish classes. The Center receives about forty applications each year. This kind of innovative programming is working to keep Yiddish alive for future generations.
Here at the Washington DCJCC, we recently had an EntryPointDC Yiddish event and 37 Young Professionals attended. While this event was more of a scholarly introduction to Yiddish, it got me thinking about offering interactive and humorous Yiddish language courses for YPs.
One of my friends recently co-founded a Yiddish Farm and has been honored as a Jewish Social Innovator by the ROI Community. His Yiddish Farm boasts programs such as a Summer Immersion program and Golus Festival. Check it out at www.yiddishfarm.org
Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to ask him a few questions…
1.Why are young adults all of a sudden fascinated by Yiddish?
-I believe the reason people are fascinated by Yiddish is because of its glaring omission from the standard Jewish narrative, as if it was hidden from them. Although Yiddish was more widely spoken by Jews than any other language in history (including English and Hebrew), it is barely mentioned in Jewish day schools and congregational schools. In writings about Jewish history, culture, peoplehood and/or civilization, Yiddish is notably absent. For example: In Mordechai Kaplan’s lengthy masterpiece Judaism as a Civilization, which formulates a theory of Jewish peoplehood based on cultural factors (such as language), fewer than 10 pages mention Yiddish. Once people realize how big the discrepancy is between the importance of Yiddish in shaping the Jewish people and the attention that it receives, it is fascinating to discover this major piece in the puzzle of who we are. It is as if we are discovering a major cover-up: “How did I miss this all these years?”
Indeed Yiddish was, in a way, covered up. After the Holocaust laid waste to Yiddish-speaking centers, Yiddish was left to fend for itself in the United States, Israel and the Soviet Union. In all three of these areas, Yiddish was actively suppressed. In the United States Yiddish was a casualty of the desire to become acculturated to American society. In Israel, the Zionist ambition to create a “new Jew” conflicted with Yiddish, which was understood as a symbol of weakness. In the Soviet Union, where separate national consciousness was considered a threat to class unity, the government embarked on a Russification of the Jewish people, including the murder of Yiddish writers in the 1950s. Now that Jews feel comfortable in the United States, Hebrew has blossomed in Israel, and the Soviet Union collapsed, Yiddish is suddenly allowed to be pursued. Let’s hope that it isn’t too late.
3. Tell me more about your Yiddish Farm…
-Yiddish Farm was founded in order to respond to the decline in spoken Yiddish, especially among young people. Given the proper resources and attention, there is no reason why Yiddish shouldn’t be used as a spoken language today among certain parts of the population. The biggest challenge we face in the Yiddish world is that, although people have many opportunities to study Yiddish, Yiddish students usually do not become fluent. We believe that this is due to the following reasons:
1. Lack of sustained Yiddish immersion
2. Lack of access to native Yiddish speakers
People that wish to become fluent in majority languages supplement their studies by practicing with native speakers in foreign countries. Since we do not have this option with minority languages, we must be creative. On our summer programs, people have the opportunity to experience Yiddish in an exciting, new way: by living and working on an Yiddish-speaking organic farm. Participants spend part of the day working the land, and part of the day at classes on Yiddish language, theater, literature, history and cooking. They are exposed to hundreds of hours of Yiddish immersion and they live in a tight-knit community among native Yiddish speakers. We offer a beginner’s track as well as an advanced track for our summer program. We also run an outdoor Jewish culture festival called the Golus Festival. This festival celebrated the diversity of the Jewish diaspora with music, dancing, camping, cooking and shabbos programming.
4. As a social entrepreneur what advice can you give for other people looking to start up programs?
–1. It is hard to work alone: Find someone that could partner with you even if it means compromising a little on your vision.
2. Take advantage of all of the pro-bono resources out there: Foundation Center, SCORE, and if you live in New York: NYC Business Solutions, Lawyers Alliance for New York, and if your project serves the Jewish people: PresenTense, ROI, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture Fellowship etc.
3. Be flexible: Nothing ever works out according to how you imagined it would. You may have to update your strategies constantly.
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