Special to the JTA Mame Loshen is Alive and Well

It is not yet time to say kaddish for Yiddish. There is a persistent international spark of interest in preserving. Yiddish, a language rich in history and culture.

While Yiddish is no longer the mame loshen (mother tongue) of the Jewish people, every summer for the past 19 years students from all over the world converge at YIVO’s Uriel Weinreich Summer Program at Columbia University for six intensive weeks to study Yiddish language, literature and culture.

This year, 34 students fueled what some consider a revival of Yiddish and what others see as a small-scale resistance to its imminent status as purely an academic language.

“The program is demanding but I love it,” Nancy Sinkoff, a 27-year-old graduate student of Jewish history, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Like many of the students, Sinkoff will be using her Yiddish along the lines of her career. She needs to be capable of reading historical documents written in Yiddish as part of her graduate study, which focuses on Eastern European immigration.

AN EFFECTIVE PROGRAM

Not only did YIVO offer three levels of language courses, but the program included a workshop for Yiddish translators, a teacher training program, conversation groups, lectures and social gatherings, films and folk singing.

“It’s an incredibly effective program,” according to Aviva Katzman, who is in her fourth year of cantorial school at Hebrew Union College. Katzman, 32, plans to teach Yiddish to her congregation at Temple Emanuel in Lynbrook, Long Island. She also sprinkles her service with a bisl Yiddish.

“Yiddish carries a lot to Jewish culture,” Katzman, who was enrolled in the intermediate language class, explained. “A lot of times I’ll need a song that evokes an historical situation or feeling. Yiddish songs get a wonderful warm response.”

The course was a full-time commitment, according to Katzman. “This year is different from the beginners class,” which she was enrolled in last year, Katzman said. “A lot of students just take beginners for fun and it’s easy to do well, but everybody in my class now is serious.”

While the course had been a long struggle for Katzman, her practice with Yiddish songs helps her vocabulary. “It takes time to build my vocabulary and to express myself comfortably, but I feel I’ve gotten the tools to work on my own.”

DIFFICULTY IN SUSTAINING YIDDISH

It may be difficult for Katzman and the other students to sustain their Yiddish because of the limited avenues for practice. Outside of the Hasidic movement, which still uses Yiddish as the everyday spoken language, only small pockets of Yiddish speaking communities survive.

But through Yiddish theater, jokes, phrases and song, the language and culture is not forgotten. Katzman likes to “sneak” in a Yiddish song into her Reform service because of the emotion it can trigger.

Katzman recalled that after one sermon on teenage suicide, she sang a Yiddish tune that asked “Why did the candle go out?” and she could “feel the congregation respond.” It’s that culture and nuance in Yiddish that Katzman believes will prevent the language from becoming dry and academic, like Latin.

In Germany, a number of people become “hooked on Yiddish through Yiddish music and literature,” Dorothea Greve, a student of applied linguistics at the University of Hamburg, told the JTA.

Yiddish music and culture in Germany is “very alive,” according to Greve, who teaches conversational Yiddish in Germany. “It’s even stronger than in Israel and the U.S. because they feel responsible for the annihilation.”

Greve has taught Yiddish at Hamburg University for the past two semesters and is self-employed as an adult education teacher. “If I can get 10 students for adulated, the class can go ahead,” she said.

At the university, the minimum is five students, although Greve’s classes have attracted 15 or 16 people. Greve attributes this increased interest to her offering spoken Yiddish. “People don’t want to learn it as a dead language,” she said. But the Yiddish course is very insecure and could be thrown out at any time since it is not institutionalized, according to Greve.

CLASSES ARE POPULAR AT OXFORD

Before attending the YIVO program, several students, including Greve, studied Yiddish at the Oxford Yiddish Program in England. The class at Oxford is popular, as 87 students enrolled last year. Their four-week program is similar to YIVO’s, according to Greve, but not as academic.

Since entering the advanced Yiddish course at YIVO, Greve feels “I am able now to express myself more subtly in terms of tone, irony, and sarcasm.” She was also pleased with the small classroom setting, which induced Yiddish conversation.

Greve did, however, miss the family atmosphere created at Oxford where the students met to sing songs and have parties. “It was a warm close circle,” she recalled, but at Columbia only nine people, mainly beginners, stay at the Yiddish house and everyone else is spread out. “The students at the house are lost amongst themselves,” Greve said, “without any advanced or intermediate students to help them.”

The Oxford program offered four courses with half-hour breaks in between for socializing, Nathan Berman, a native of Chile, currently studying medicine in Italy, explained. At YIVO, the students only had 15 minutes together in the morning.

Berman, who said he would love to teach Yiddish someday, suggested conversations in Yiddish should be conducted on modern subjects. He still believes the course was effective and the 30-year-old hopes to pass his Yiddish knowledge on to any children he has in the future.

PRAISE FOR THE FIVE TEACHERS

There was considerable praise for the five teachers in the program, Pascual Fiszman from Argentina, Hershl Glasser from the U.S., Dr. Avram Nowersztern from Israel, Sonia Pinkusowitz from Australia, and Prof. Mordkhe Schaechter, originally from Czernowitz.

Fiszman, 50, is a graduate of the Jewish Seminar of Buenos Aires and is teaching for the sixth year with YIVO. “Yiddish is related with Jewish identity,” Fiszman told the JTA. “This is a very difficult program; we demand from them and they love it.”

When Fiszman came to the U.S., he didn’t know English and immersed himself in Yiddish circles. “My love for teaching Yiddish goes deep to my soul,” Fiszman said.

“Sometimes I tell my students, if you don’t hurry up and learn Yiddish, there will be no one left and I will be talking to the wall … and I think they’re listening,” Fiszman continued. “I won’t stop teaching until the moment I can invent some pill that automatically teaches them Yiddish.”

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