Yiddishists seek community to preserve revered language

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In 2017, the Yiddish Culture Festival at Haverford College hosted the anarchist punk group Koyt Far Dayn Fardakht. | Photo by Wanyi Yang

In the middle of the 20th century in the South Philadelphia, a group of Jewish children, many of whom were children of Holocaust survivors or refugees, flocked to the city’s Sunday schools where they would learn Yiddish, a language they would retain for life.

“It was a time of revival of interest in this generation of immigrant children,” said Rakhmiel Peltz, professor of sociolinguistics at Drexel University. “For them, the essence of their Jewish being was expressed in the language they had grown up with at home. “

Peltz is the author of “From Immigrant to Ethnic Culture: American Yiddish in South Philadelphia”, an ethnography of immigrant children in the 1980s. He found, overwhelmingly, that these Yiddish speakers preserved their language. to preserve their Ashkenazi Jewish roots.

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“What maintained Judaism was not the shared religion,” Peltz said. “It was, on the one hand, the sharing of religion, but on the other hand, adaptation to local life: through the family and through the neighborhood.

Today, nearly 40 years after Peltz conducted his ethnography, young Yiddish speakers still attempt to retain the Ashkenazi language and culture at its core, either by learning the language as adults or by preserving it. through klezmer music. While interest in the language has remained steady, Peltz said, a community for Yiddishists is sorely lacking.

Sunday schools for learning Yiddish no longer exist, and the Philadelphia Sholom Aleichem House, a space where lay Jews can discuss Jewish culture – including Yiddish – was dissolved after 50 years of operation in 2014.

Finding other speakers to practice with is a challenge for the next generation of Yiddish learners. This is a problem that West Philadelphia resident Estelle Lysell has been experiencing for several months since taking a crash course in Yiddish with the Workers Circle.

“My friends were interested in Yiddish; I have friends who have learned a bit of Yiddish, but I don’t have anyone who actually speaks, ”she said. “And when you learn a language in a vacuum for your own good, it’s demoralizing. “

Lysell started learning Yiddish in January 2021, when she bought herself a textbook to study. But she was not a fan of most of the resources available.

Duolingo, which launched its Yiddish course in April 2021, helps teach phrases and reinforce prior knowledge of a language, but is not a useful tool for someone starting from square one, a- she declared. Textbooks and online courses are expensive for those 20 and over.

“For other languages, the stimulus projects teach children and elementary schools how to speak the language free of charge,” Lysell said. “With Yiddish, it’s only the students who pay for themselves. “

But just as Lysell searches for communities to learn the language with, pre-existing Yiddish institutions struggle to attract a younger clientele.

Over 20 years ago, professors from Haverford College, Seth Brody, Dan Gillis and Mel Santer, all deceased, founded the Yiddish Culture Festival, a gathering of Yiddish speakers for programs such as poetry readings, screenings of movies and klezmer performances. Festival attendance has held steady at 20-30 participants, many of whom are older members of the community.

“There were very few students on the Haverford campus who, in fact, were drawn to it,” said Jeffrey Tocosky-Feldman, math professor at Haverford and organizer of the Yiddish Culture Festival.

Two decades after the group was founded, the demographics have not changed, he said. Recently, a few young members of the community have participated in programs, but no more students. Because the festival is run by professors, organizers don’t have as much time to spend advertising events or attracting newcomers, which Tocosky-Feldman wants to do.

“Almost every year I go to Haverford’s website, research Jewish student organizations and try to contact whoever is running them,” he said. “And many times the person listed there has graduated.”

Susan Hoffman Watts, a fourth-generation klezmer musician, has had similar issues attracting audiences to the Community Klezmer Initiative, particularly after COVID.

In December 2019, after years of trying to host events with a critical mass audience, Watts finally succeeded with a “Yiddish Cocktails” event, bringing together 80 people in the Philadelphia Folksong Society building on Ridge Avenue.

Surrounded by a crowd of several dozen people, a few individuals join their hands or have their arms outstretched, dancing to klezmer music.
Founder Susan Hoffman Watts is looking to bring programming back to the Community Klezmer Initiative, which has been dormant since COVID began. | Courtesy of Alan Lankin

“Has been [the Yiddish] terrible and awful and not great? I mean, it was; it was crazy, ”Watts said. “But people have heard Yiddish.”

After COVID, however, the Klezmer Community Initiative has largely remained dormant. Watts hopes to resuscitate programming there, but is struggling to recover. It’s particularly unfortunate, she says, because of the welcoming environment of klezmer spaces.

“One of the things about the klezmer scene is that it’s very open, that it accepts and loves… and no matter what… you are welcomed with open arms, loved and respected,” Watts said. . “I think people are really reacting to this opening. “

As Yiddish institutions strive to get the word out to interested parties, individuals imagine their own spaces to practice the language in community with others.

Lysell is inspired by a community garden she volunteers in, where many other volunteers speak Spanish. By immersing herself in an environment where the language was spoken, she began to grasp it on her own.

She thinks the same could be done with Yiddish, inviting a group to garden or cook Shabbat dinner together, “limp through sentences” in English and Yiddish, “slowly building up our vocabulary”.

“It would be really cool to see something like that – an active community organization,” Lysell said.

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