The decade didn’t start on the most optimistic note for New York’s Yiddishist community. In 2010, CYCO (Central Yiddish Cultural Organization), the city’s only secular Yiddish bookstore, was evicted from its East 21st Street home. In July 2014, the Congress for Jewish Culture, a small Yiddish nonprofit, also lost its space on East 21st after a 30-year run, and Klezkamp held its last winter festival in the Catskills. In between, Menachem Yankl Ejdelman, the grandson of linguist and educator Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter and a Yiddishist in his own right, vacated his Upper West Side bachelor pad, and the home of our beloved Yiddish svive (conversational group), to start a family in Brooklyn. After 122 years, in 2019 the Yiddish Forverts went digital-only.
The loss of CYCO’s prime location was reported as the “nail in the coffin of Yiddish.” But since I moved here over 20 years ago, the churn of unchecked development has increased every year, pushing everyone but the wealthiest residents to the edges of the city. Yiddish is no more a victim than the countless other linguistic, cultural and artistic communities lacking millionaire benefactors.
As a living language, Yiddish is actually growing among the chasidic Jews for whom it is a first language. But even among secular and non-charedi Yiddishists, its death, per the old cliche, is greatly exaggerated. Yiddish festivals draw crowds from Las Vegas to Krakow. Universities, archives and nonprofits, like YIVO, Yidish-Vokh and Yiddish Farm, continue to attract younger audiences eager to learn the language. The Folksbiene’s Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” has been selling out the largest Off-Broadway theater.
Loss of place and community has become a kind of background pain we all have to live with. Once historic landmarks are gone, there’s no bringing them back. But it’s impossible to predict how communities will shift and reconstitute and it’s easy to underestimate the resilience of the people who make up those communities.
The last Klezkamp was followed by the inaugural Yiddish New York festival in 2015, now in its fifth successful year. CYCO ended up re-planting its bookshelves in an enormous loft space in Long Island City. And though the Congress for Jewish Culture is still operating out of virtual offices, last month it inaugurated a new classroom-bijou performance space at an unlisted location in Chelsea, playing cutting-edge Yiddish theater for sold-out audiences.
And Menachem Yankel? Not only is he back in Manhattan with his family, he’s now my neighbor, and there are enough Yiddish-speaking babies and toddlers on our street to support a Yiddish playgroup.
Rokhl Kafrissen is director of special projects at the Congress for Jewish Culture.
More essays from The Decade In Review: 2010 – 2019 as well as snapshots from our editorial team on the last ten years in Jewish Journalism, including the key issues they covered locally and nationally.