A Living Language

Yiddish in New York City is more than just ordering a bagel with a shmear and kvetching about traffic.

Sitting around the kitchen table in the apartment of Naftali Ejdelman and Yisroel Bass in Washington Heights, it’s easy to forget that you are in the middle of New York City and not in a rural Eastern European village.

When the two roommates moved in together this fall, they agreed to make Yiddish the primary language of their home. Because of that conscious choice, everything the roommates do from dinner preparation to settling business accounts is conducted in Yiddish. They call their apartment a “Yiddish Haus,” literally a Yiddish house, and envision it as a space to promote spoken Yiddish in any way possible.

Ejdelman and Bass are both active in a community of young Yiddish linguists, who commonly refer to themselves as Yiddishists. Their mission: to preserve spoken Yiddish outside the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities where the vast majority of today’s Yiddish speakers now live. For that reason, they frequently host get-togethers with guests who already speak the language, but often lack a regular venue to use their skills.

“For the health and viability of the language, we need to have people who speak really well,” said Ejdelman, who has spoken Yiddish since birth. “I'm not worried that there's not enough interest in Yiddish today. What I am worried about is that the level of spoken Yiddish among young people today is worse than it was a couple of generations ago because we're not in such an immersive environment.”

Interestingly, Bass did not grow up speaking the language. Originally from Long Island, he transferred from a university in California to the City University of New York because he wanted to be a part of the Yiddish community here.

The new generation of Yiddishists, like Ejdelman and Bass, meet informally around the city at small gatherings such as those held in Ejdelman and Bass’s apartment, and at central locations like Cafe Nana, a restaurant at the Columbia University Hillel. At these meetings, which are referred to in Yiddish as “svyvves,” conversation varies from current events to gossip, but takes place entirely in Yiddish. New students get help from more fluent speakers, who translate a word or two, but everyone at the gathering is expected to communicate primarily in Yiddish.

Even as interest in Yiddish grows, the number of Yiddish speakers in the secular world remains small, however. English words that slip into Yiddish conversation also illustrate the challenge of resisting the influence of the majority language.

“Outside of the Hasidic community, there will be a lot of people interested in Yiddish, but only a fraction of those will speak it in their daily lives,” said Paul Glasser, director of the Max Weinreich Institute, a center for the study of Yiddish based at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan. “And chances are, they’ll mostly know each other.”

While most of the students at the institute are learning Yiddish to conduct research, the type of Yiddish taught there is a similar variety spoken by many of the young Yiddish speakers. The standard Yiddish which most secular students learn is based on a textbook first published in 1949 and very different from the Yiddish spoken in the Hasidic community.

Hasidic Yiddish speakers tend to borrow words from English for modern concepts, instead of creating new words with mashups of classical Yiddish like their secular counterparts, Glasser said. This is because secular Yiddishists believe in preserving the language for its inherent cultural value, while the Hasidic community uses the language to distinguish themselves from secular outsiders.

Creating a sense of community around the language is a central strategy for organizations focused on preserving the cultural value of Yiddish.

Most of the young Yiddishists are members of Yugntruf, an organization that aims to connect Yiddish speakers with social programming. The group, whose name literally means “youth for Yiddish,” was founded in 1964 by students at Columbia University. Several years ago, a group of college students took over the organization’s board from their middle-aged parents, bringing new energy to the group.

Yugntruf’s core audience is Yiddish speakers who already speak the language, rather than those looking to learn the language from scratch. So the group does not regularly offer language classes.

“We try to focus on providing people a gateway,” said Yankl-Peretz Blum, the chair of Yugntruf. “The organization is really doing its job if someone who is interested in speaking Yiddish with other people finds it easier to start doing that.”

Although Yugntruf is based in New York, it has hosted events at college campuses up and down the East Coast, most recently this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.

Yugntruf’s central event of the year is a weeklong summer retreat called Yiddish Vokh.  The event draws Yiddish speakers of all ages from across the country with a combination of recreational programming and lectures conducted entirely in Yiddish. For many years the event was held at a campground in New York; this summer, the event will move to a venue in Maryland.

The organization has a budget of just over $100,000, the majority of which goes toward Yiddish Vokh, the group’s biggest event, according to tax filings.

With it’s limited budget in mind, the group aims to conduct programs cheaply and takes advantages of the Internet as a tool for connecting members and getting the word out about programming, according to Blum. The organization recently launched a new website, which loads in Yiddish.

Even with limited resources, Yugntruf has grown in membership to the point that the success of each program does not rely on the attendance of every member, said Meena-Lifshe Viswanath, the Yugntruf treasurer and the granddaughter of one of the group’s founders.

“Working within Yugntruf, helping to organize these events, you feel like it’s the same people over and over again,” said Viswanath. “Then I meet new people who learned Yiddish in California and in Georgia and in Indiana and in Maryland. Places that I never even knew there were Yiddish classes. You see new people and you think, ‘Maybe there is a point to what I’m doing.’”

In the apartment of Naftali Ejdelman and Yisroel Bass, Yiddish is the language of everything from political discussions to small talk over dinner. The two roommates are leaders of a movement to start a Yiddish communal farm and frequently welcome guests into their home to provide a space for Yiddish speakers to congregate.

Young Yiddishists meet informally around the city at small gatherings at each other’s apartments and at central locations like Cafe Nana, a restaurant at the Columbia University Hillel. These interviews were recorded at Cafe Nana in February 2011.

Listen to Yiddish speakers discuss their connection to the language.

Madalena Provo, 21

madalena provo

Madalena Provo came to Yiddish with an unusual background: she is not Jewish. Provo is currently a student at Barnard College.

1:20

Sam Zerin, 24

sam zerin

Sam Zerin learned Yiddish to enhance his study of Klezmer music, but has trouble finding opportunities to use the language. Zerin works as a Hebrew school teacher and will begin a graduate program in musicology next fall.

1:07

Hannah Meyers, 29

hannah meyers

Hannah Meyers learned Yiddish to read poetry in college and likes stumbling upon the language around the city. Meyers works for the City of New York.

0:36

Jason Lowe, 28

jason lowe

Jason Lowe is interested in the how Yiddish has influenced the Jewish people and how Jews affected Yiddish. Lowe is an assistant attorney general for the State of New York.

0:44