I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.
Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America, and Cold War politics.
Finally, Professor Gennady Estraikh came into the room and revealed his reason for convening us: he wanted us to plan a graduate student conference about Yiddish, featuring the new generation of scholars in the field. The eventual conference, “Yiddish / Jewish Cultures: Literature, History, Thought in Eastern European Diasporas,” was held at NYU in late February of 2006. Attendees came from as far as Finland, Italy, Poland, Jerusalem, and Cape Town to speak on panels with names like “Performing Yiddish Identities” and “Diasporic Expressions.”
With a klezmer band serenading us at the conference’s concluding reception, we toasted our hard work. However, the end of the conference was only the beginning of a six-year process to grapple with the phenomenon of new scholarship on Yiddish.
In the ensuing years, Lara, Shiri, and I continued the debates we had begun in Professor Estraikh’s seminar, arguing about the evolution of Yiddish Studies and its contemporary meaning both in academia and in popular culture. Gradually, the NYU seminar table was replaced by Skype and conference calls; we each left New York one by one, heading to New Haven, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Marriages were made and babies were born, sometimes appearing wide-eyed on computer screens as we teleconferenced across the country. We each wrapped up our respective degrees and continued to talk (and talk, and talk) about Yiddish.
It is a conversation that I hope to continue for a very long time.
When I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.
It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish—not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations, and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.
Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh(holy tongue) components of Yiddish.
However, I had never heard anything close to a fluent conversation in Yiddish prior to that first YIVO summer. I had heard a smattering of Yiddish words and phrases growing up, the typical exclamations about so-and-so’s marvelous punim (face) and polkes (thighs), protections against the evil eye, and of course, food-related words. These were the linguistic traces left by the heritage of my father’s family, Litvak shtetl-dwellers who migrated to southern Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.
So how did I, Hannaleh (as my Yiddish diminutive nickname went), end up choosing to study Yiddish? Part of it was simple academic necessity. I had just embarked upon doctoral work in modern Hebrew literature at NYU. Early Hebrew writers, dedicated cultural activists scattered among cities like Berlin, Odessa, Warsaw, and eventually Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, were dazzlingly multi-lingual and, in some cases, translated their own work from one language to the other. Learning Yiddish was one way I could start to understand the variegated world they inhabited.
Beyond the disciplinary usefulness of Yiddish, however, I remember having the distinct feeling that something big was happening with Yiddish in the early twenty-first century. Among my cohort in Jewish Studies at NYU, which included budding historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and literary scholars, everyone was taking Yiddish. Newspapers started reporting on the increased interest in Yiddish on college campuses. Michael Wex’s Born to Kvetch, detailing the language “in all of its moods,” was a New York Times best-seller.
More broadly, in the early 00’s, the culture of Eastern Europe was having a moment. The klezmer revivalevidenced a growing fan base for the musical heritage of Eastern Europe. And the success of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated showed us, on the page (in 2002) and the silver screen (in 2005), that readers were thirsting for a back-to-the-shtetl fantasy. Foer’s book articulated our collective compulsion to return, retrace, and recreate the folkways of shtetl life—and, as this Forward article explains, actually resulted in the reconnection of people who had lived in Trochenbrod, his grandfather’s shtetl in Ukraine.
By studying Yiddish, singing songs about potatoes, immersing myself in the worldview of Yiddish speakers from bygone days, I too was part of this whatever-it-was—a trend? A movement? A renaissance?
Or maybe a homecoming, as it often felt when I opened up my notebook to write a Yiddish composition for my teacher. Little did I know, as I conjugated my first Yiddish verbs on a warm summer day in 2003, that this incredibly heimish (homey) language, which seemed to fit me like a second skin, would eventually become the focus of a major academic project—but that is a subject for another blog post.