spe­cial sec­tion Ed­u­ca­tion

• Every­one’s learn­ing Yid­dish. • Where Jews and Mus­lims share sum­mer camp. • How yoga helps teach­ers con­nect to Ju­daism.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Drew Ger­ber

There once was a place known as Yid­dish Land. It wasn’t a coun­try. In fact, it lived and breathed for thou­sands of years in to­tal dis­re­gard for the in­vis­i­ble bor­ders sovereign na­tions fought and died over. Its cit­i­zens — Ger­man Jews, Pol­ish Jews, Jews through­out Cen­tral Europe and across the world — num­bered nearly 12 mil­lion, and they were con­nected not only by faith but also by mother tongue.

It took an event sim­i­larly un­bound by the petty de­mar­ca­tion of na­tion-states and fu­eled by a ha­tred of the Jewish peo­ple to rip the heart out of Yid­dish Land. Of the six mil­lion Jews mur­dered in the Holo­caust by the Nazi Party and their col­lab­o­ra­tors through­out Europe, two-thirds spoke Yid­dish.

For many, that’s where the story of Yid­dish Land ends, said Agi Legutko, the direc­tor of the Yid­dish lan­guage pro­gram at Columbia Univer­sity. But al­most a cen­tury later, Amer­i­can Jews in search of con­nec­tion and iden­tity are harken­ing back to the land that was — and they’re (fig­u­ra­tively) look­ing to be­come cit­i­zens.

Yid­dish has re­mained preva­lent in some seg­ments of the Ha­sidic world as a com­mon lan­guage, used to avoid pro­fan­ing the sa­cred He­brew of scrip­ture, but un­til re­cently, the use of Yid­dish among more “sec­u­lar” Jews was nearly nonex­is­tent, Legutko said.

She told the For­ward that she has found three main rea­sons why learn­ing Yid­dish is in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, chief among them the search by mil­len­nial Jews for roots.

“It goes back to that old the­ory,” she said, in ref­er­ence to a fa­mous es­say by Amer­i­can his­to­rian Mar­cus Hansen. “The first gen­er­a­tion tries to make it,

the sec­ond tries to for­get it, and the third tries to re­mem­ber.”

In Ken Rich­mond’s fam­ily, the only Yid­dish he heard was pep­pered among the jokes his grand­par­ents told.

But thanks to his love of klezmer mu­sic, he be­gan to learn Yid­dish in earnest dur­ing an in­ten­sive pro­gram hosted by the YIVO In­sti­tute for Jewish Re­search — co­in­ci­den­tally, at the same time as the woman he would marry.

Rich­mond is now the can­tor at Tem­ple Is­rael just out­side Bos­ton, and he and his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer, speak only Yid­dish at home with their three sons, ages three, seven and nine. At their school, MetroWest Jewish Day School, the boys speak English and some He­brew.

Rais­ing their chil­dren in Yid­dish hasn’t al­ways been easy, Rich­mond and Shazeer agreed, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to find­ing books for their chil­dren.

There’s a lot be­ing pub­lished in the Ha­sidic world, but they said they have to screen those books to make sure there aren’t mes­sages that clash with their world­views.

“Songs and lul­la­bies were easy,” Shazeer said, laugh­ing. “I grew up with that. But sto­ries are harder to find.”

As a child, Shazeer’s fa­ther would speak Yid­dish for a few hours and then switch to an­other lan­guage — He­brew, French, Span­ish. Hav­ing grown up with var­i­ous lan­guages him­self, he felt that the more lan­guages one had, the bet­ter, Shazeer said.

In re­cent years, the small sec­u­lar Yid­dish com­mu­nity in the United States has started to pump out trans­la­tions of pop­u­lar English chil­dren’s books, as well as pro­duce its own. As the In­ter­net has made it eas­ier for Yid­dish speak­ers across the world to con­nect, more lit­er­a­ture has be­come avail­able.

“Yid­dish Land was fa­mously this land with­out bor­ders, spread­ing all over the world,” Legutko said. “Now, I think the In­ter­net com­mu­nity has taken this on.”

Rich­mond and Shazeer had of­ten thought about rais­ing their chil­dren in Yid­dish, but by the time they had their first son nearly a decade ago, the idea had been for­got­ten. Their Yid­dish got rusty, Rich­mond said.

But af­ter their sec­ond son was born, Rich­mond and Shazeer de­cided to take their fam­ily to Yidish Vokh, or Yid­dish Week, and were amazed by every­one speak­ing Yid­dish with their chil­dren. By the end of the week, they de­cided to give it a try them­selves.

Yid­dish Week was founded nearly 40 years ago by Yid­dish lin­guist Mord­khe Schaecter, the fa­ther of The Forverts ed­i­tor, Rukhl Schaechter, as an im­mer­sive week­end re­treat for his stu­dents. It at­tracted a small num­ber of peo­ple. Now run by the Yid­dish youth move­ment Yugn­truf, the an­nual event brings more than 100 di­verse peo­ple to­gether to speak Yid­dish and at­tend lec­tures in Yid­dish on top­ics such as arts and sports. Jor­dan Kutzik, a staff writer at the Forverts, is the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s chair­man and runs the event.

It’s im­por­tant as a kid to have Yid­dish--

speak­ing peers, and ev­ery gen­er­a­tion at Yid­dish Week has found a close- knit group, said Meena Viswanath, a for­mer chair­per­son of Yugn­truf and Schaecter’s grand­daugh­ter.

As a mem­ber of the Schaecter fam­ily, Viswanath grew up with Yid­dish her first lan­guage, but it wasn’t her only non-English one. Her fa­ther, who was from In­dia, also spoke Tamil at home. But still, the Mod­ern Or­tho­dox world in which she was raised could be fairly in­su­lar, Viswanath said.

“I had an ex­tra di­men­sion in my life be­cause I was ex­posed to a whole world of non-re­li­gious and even non-Jewish cul­ture through Yid­dish,” she said. “It al­lowed me to meet peo­ple and in­ter­act in other ways that other 10-year-olds wouldn’t have.”

Ever since she was born, Viswanath has been go­ing to Yid­dish Week, which she said gave her an ex­pe­ri­ence sep­a­rate from her peers in the Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity — some­thing she was proud of.

Yakov Blum rarely heard Yid­dish grow­ing up in a Mod­ern Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity in Flat­bush, Brook­lyn, apart from the ca­sual Yid­dish word that finds its way into ev­ery­day English. In fact, the thought of learn­ing Yid­dish never crossed his mind while he was study­ing math and lin­guis­tics at col­lege — un­til he met a girl.

“I had a girl­friend that I thought knew some Yid­dish, and I fig­ured I’d sur­prise her with it,” Blum told the For­ward.

In­stead, upon open­ing a Yid­dish text­book, he be­came in­fat­u­ated. Blum be­gan teach­ing him­self the lan­guage and en­gag­ing in the Yid­dish com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing Yugn­truf, of which he is cur­rently a board mem­ber.

“This is a lan­guage I’m sup­posed to speak, this is a lan­guage I want to speak with my fam­ily,” he re­counted think­ing. “I felt I dis­cov­ered some­thing new.”

In 2005, af­ter he fin­ished col­lege in Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, Blum moved to New York — where he hadn’t lived since he was 13 — and built a net­work of friends through his Yid­dish con­nec­tions, he said.

One of those friends was Naf­tali Ejdel­man, an­other Schaecter fam­ily mem­ber, and the son of Rukhl Schaechter, whom Blum lived with for a year in an apart­ment a few blocks away from the Columbia Univer­sity Hil­lel. With Yis­roel Bass, they came up with the idea for the Yid­dish Farm.

Founded in 2010, the Yid­dish Farm, where Blum cur­rently teaches, is an im­mer­sive Yid­dish-learn­ing com­mu­nity in up­state New York. Blum’s pupils have in­cluded his mother and sib­lings, all of whom learned Yid­dish on the farm. Un­like Yid­dish Week, which lets fam­i­lies just “ex­ist” in Yid­dish, the farm is meant to teach it, Blum said.

While speak­ing Yid­dish with his fam­ily is im­por­tant to him, Blum said that speak­ing the lan­guage is also about con­nect­ing with Jewish her­itage in a way he feels has been lost.

In the years fol­low­ing the Holo­caust, many non- Ha­sidic Jews as­so­ci­ated Yid­dish with the lan­guage of the dead, ac­cord­ing to Legutko. It was the lan­guage of the Holo­caust, some­thing too painful to keep speak­ing.

Even with the cre­ation of the Jewish State of Is­rael in 1948, Yid­dish re­mained dor­mant. The of­fi­cial lan­guages of the new coun­try were He­brew and Ara­bic. And in many ways, Yid­dish was frowned upon.

Blum, who lived in Is­rael and speaks He­brew flu­ently, said it is Yid­dish cul­ture that con­nects him to his her­itage, not Is­rael, ex­plain­ing that the cul­ture feels richer than Is­raeli cul­ture.

Although Blum still con­sid­ers him­self Or­tho­dox, he said it isn’t enough for him any­more. The Mod­ern Or­tho­dox world feels as­sim­i­lated to Amer­i­can cul­ture, he said, but Yid­dish of­fers a way to have his own world and cul­ture.

Blum is not alone in his search for what he sees as a more au­then­tic con­nec­tion to his her­itage. Legutko said that Yid­dish has be­come a way to cre­ate an al­ter­na­tive Jewish iden­tity that is not built on faith or Is­rael.

“There’s a lit­tle bit of a re­bel­lion as­pect to em­brac­ing Yid­dish,” she told the For­ward. “For those who aren’t ob­ser­vant and don’t feel a deep con­nec­tion to Is­rael, it is the per­fect al­ter­na­tive: an au­then­tic, very rich Jewish cul­ture that de­vel­oped in Europe for over 1,000 years.” Blum agreed. “One of the pat­terns of peo­ple drawn to Yid­dish to­day is that they don’t seem en­tirely sat­is­fied with the ma­jor main­stream ways of be­ing Jewish, re­li­gion or Zion­ism,” he said. “I think Yid­dish is a bit of a third path.”

Most im­por­tantly, Yid­dish can serve as a bridge for an Amer­i­can Jewry that over­whelm­ingly says re­mem­ber­ing the Holo­caust is what it means to be Jewish in Amer­ica to­day.

The six mil­lion Jews killed in the Holo­caust have be­come one of the pil­lars of Ju­daism and Jewish iden­tity — but with­out know­ing Yid­dish, it’s hard to have a real un­der­stand­ing of who those peo­ple were, Blum said.

“One of the things that I’ve felt ever since I started learn­ing Yid­dish was a much more pal­pa­ble and deep un­der­stand­ing of what was ac­tu­ally lost in the Holo­caust,” he said. “It’s some­thing, kind of like a grief, that I carry around that I didn’t be­fore. I think by ig­nor­ing Yid­dish and think­ing it is the past, it means will­fully not con­fronting the enor­mity of what was and what was lost.”

For Rich­mond and Shazeer, Yid­dish of­fers a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of think­ing that con­nects them to the past.

“It seems like there’s some­thing lost when you lose a lan­guage, cer­tain ways of think­ing and un­der­stand­ing the world,” Shazeer said. “I want my kids to have bet­ter ac­cess to that.”

Now that their kids are play­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, Rich­mond and Shazeer also want to share their love of Yid­dish mu­sic with their sons, so they started a fam­ily klezmer band. They’re still think­ing of a name, Rich­mond said, laugh­ing.

“[Yid­dish] is cer­tainly a beau­ti­ful, ex­pres­sive lan­guage,” he said. “We fig­ure this is some­thing spe­cial and unique we can give our kids. So far, they seem to en­joy it.”

Viswanath, whose fam­ily de­serves credit for spark­ing a new life for Yid­dish in Amer­ica, is cur­rently teach­ing her one-year-old son Yid­dish and said that even when she meets Jews across the globe, Yid­dish can help her con­nect with those com­mu­ni­ties. Of­ten, Yid­dish acts as a marker of be­long­ing, she said.

How­ever, Viswanath said it’s im­por­tant to main­tain di­ver­sity within the Jewish tra­di­tion rather than every­one hav­ing the same cookie-cut­ter ver­sion of Ju­daism.

“It’s im­por­tant to me to pass it on be­cause not so many other peo­ple are,” she said. “I don’t think ev­ery Jew needs to go out and learn Yid­dish, but it will al­ways be im­por­tant as a part of the broader cloth of our Jewish cul­ture.”

‘There’s a lit­tle bit of a re­bel­lion as­pect to em­brac­ing Yid­dish.’

KURT HOFF­MAN

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