Planting the Seeds of Yiddish
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Planting the Seeds of Yiddish

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A scene from the Yiddish Farm’s Golus festival.

Who knew Yiddish could grow on a farm?

Naftali Ejdelman and Yisroel Bass did.

The two city boys – one heir to an erudite Yiddish dynasty, the other from a Conservative Jewish home on Long Island – have created their field of dreams in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in the form of Yiddish Farm, where organic farming meets Yiddish education.

“Part of the mission of Yiddish Farm is to bring back Yiddish as a language of culture and community and to connect Jews of all backgrounds,” Ejdelman said. “Outside of chasidic communities, you don’t get an opportunity for Yiddish immersion, and immersion is the only way to really learn a language. We are using organic farming to strengthen the Yiddish-speaking community.”

Gearing up for its upcoming summer-long work-study program, set to start at the end of May, in which participants will study, work the fields, cook, eat and chill together – in Yiddish only – Ejdelman and Bass are looking forward to not only producing a crop of 10,000 pounds of hardneck garlic but also a crop of students fluent in the mamaloshen.

“It’s the only Yiddish immersion program like this in the world, and for me it was very successful,” said Sarah Wolk, a 25-year-old second year fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in Manahattan and a graduate of Brown University, who was among the participants who spent summer 2012 at Yiddish Farm.

“I went from knowing absolutely nothing to really speaking Yiddish,” she said. “I loved it. I loved using my body and being in the outdoors, and I learned about farming.

“At first I didn’t understand anything, but by mid-July I was able to understand Yiddish and carry on a conversation, and talk about farming strategies.”

Ejdelman, 27, is Yiddish Farm’s education director, teaching the classes from beginner to advanced students. He also works on marketing and fundraising, while Bass, 24, is the farm manager, overseeing day-to-day operations and directing work in the fields.

This year’s programs at the kosher and Shabbat-observing farm include the main 11-week intensive, which costs about $4,000 for the summer; several weekend programs of varying levels; a yeshivah, where classes are in Yiddish; a fall program; and a new Yiddish theater initiative. New cabins are being built and old bungalows spruced up in preparation for summer 2013.

Personally, I stumbled upon Yiddish Farm online.

Right before last Labor Day weekend, an email from TeaneckShuls promising a day of music, tours of the fields, butter churning, and picnicking at Yiddish Farm popped into my inbox. It looked like an intriguing outing for the children, and certainly trumped staying in the city. We live in Manhattan, and my children never had visited a farm, and there were going to be goats there. So our family boarded a Port Authority bus and headed 50 miles northwest to Goshen, N.Y.

(Incidentally, Yiddish Farm’s location – Goshen – isn’t lost on those who wish to make biblical parallels. In ancient Egypt, Goshen was the fertile land the Israelites settled into and farmed after leaving the famine-stricken Holy Land.)

When we arrived at the upstate bus station, Ejdelman, who is affable, with a quick smile and warm demeanor, met and spirited us to the farm for the Golus (diaspora) Festival, the celebration that caps the summer. Being at the farm, which looked verdant on this very hot day, felt both hip and heimish. The program was already under way, with musicians playing beneath an open-tent stage. Drawing a crowd of about 100 people, from young Jewish hipsters to middle-aged parents with teens to chasidic mothers from Monsey with their large young broods, the diversity was testament to how Yiddish attracts varying types for varying reasons.

Among the visitors, actress Yelena Shmulenson was there with her husband, actor Allen Lewis Rickman, with whom she regularly speaks in Yiddish. (Shmulenson and Rickman played a Yiddish-speaking shtetl couple at the start of the Jewish-themed Coen brothers film, “A Serious Man.”) Shmulenson said she loved the idea of Yiddish Farm. “The farm is a Yiddish homesteading project that should be admired, encouraged, and supported,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone doing something in Yiddish instead of lamenting how no one does anything in Yiddish.”

Elisheva Friedman, a Satmar chasid from Monsey, was there with her four children, who range in age from 9 to 3. She said her interest in organic farming, “reversing the degradation of the environment,” and the concept of sustainability, inspired her farm trip. “People have to look at growing their own food,” she said.

Elaine and Jerry Cohen, a couple from Binghamton, N.Y., said they were keen on the locavore movement, eating foods produced as locally as possible, and the achdus (unity) represented by Yiddish Farm.

We were treated to a tour by Bass, who stands at 6’2″, with the athletic build of a one-time sailing instructor turned tractor driver. He tramped through the fields, high-stepping in rubber boots. On his head, a wide-brimmed straw hat he bought in the Amish country protected him from the inexorable sun, his chasidic-style curly peyot cascading beneath. To finish the look, he wore a stunning plaid tzizit that his dress-designer mother made for him.

As we walked, Bass told the story of how he and Ejdelman took over the dormant farm. Those were not easy times. If the 227-acre property, a one-time Lubavitch bungalow colony, was once again to produce crops, its old well had to be restored and an irrigation system had to be put into place. Much of the acreage, especially the land without topsoil, had to be primed for proper planting.

A greenhouse and a fence were built, and many of the organic vegetables, including beets, zucchini, spinach, spaghetti squash, and potatoes, were planted. Bass credits his neighbor, Steve DeFalcon, who moved to Orange County, N.Y., from Fair Lawn, with helping him to rehabilitate much of the land.

The season produced more than just potatoes and zucchini. Yiddish Farm forged relationships with members of the community in Kiryas Joel, where about 20,000 Satmar chasidim live. Kiryas Joel, a convenient Yiddish-speaking enclave just 15 minutes away, was a boon for students who wanted to practice their language during their jaunts there. The farm also has sold its organic produce to businesses there, including Landau’s, Grandfoods, Frankels, Health Mart, and Feder’s Restaurant. The exchange has flowed from Kiryas Joel to the farm, too. One time, Bass said, a school in the community brought nearly 200 4- and 5-year-old boys to the farm for an outing. “It was great. We had all these Yiddish-speaking kids digging around in the dirt…. For some chasidism, to see non-chasidism speaking Yiddish and caring about being Jewish is really surprising, and really good.”

Ejdelman and Bass had hoed different roads to Yiddish Farm.

Ejdelman was born into the “Yiddish Kennedys”. His late grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, a renowned Yiddish linguist and professor, spent his life standardizing, studying, and teaching Yiddish. His mother, Rukhl Schaechter, is a journalist with the Yiddish Forward; his aunt, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath of Teaneck, is a Yiddish poet; his uncle, Binyumen Schaechter, is a composer and conductor of the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, a Yiddish chorus; another aunt, Edyl Reznik, teaches Yiddish to charadim in Sfat, Israel. Ejdelman, who went to Yavneh Academy in Paramus, grew up speaking Yiddish as his first language. He earned a master’s degree in Judaic studies at Brandeis University; while he was there be became interested in agriculture and environmentalism. He became involved with Jewish environmental organizations, including Teva Learning Center, Hazon, and Adamah.

Bass caught the Yiddish bug soon after his bar mitzvah. He grew up in Sea Cliff on Long Island. His mother, Nanette Bass, recalls her son’s iconoclasm and individuality even as a young boy. One time, she said, when she encouraged her then 4-year-old to play in a soccer game, he told her: “‘Soccer’s not important. Baseball’s not important. What’s important, is my life!'” She said that when her son was 8 years old, she told him about his great-grandmother, who died in Auschwitz. Her daughters, including Yisroel Bass’s grandmother, also were at Auschwitz, and she impressed on them the necessity of staying true to their Jewish selves if they survived.

Following high school, where he founded an underground political newspaper, Bass moved to Los Angeles to attend Whittier College. In Los Angeles he interned at the Yiddishkayt cultural center, got a Yiddish tutor, and tried to speak to anyone he could find. “There was no scene and most of the people I found to speak with were old,” he said. He came back to New York and enrolled in City College, but he really wanted to pursue Yiddish in a more active environment. He began thinking about a Yiddish-speaking farming community after educating himself about Jewish Territorialism, a movement that proposed Jews living in a Yiddish-speaking agricultural territory, and which coincidently was a dream of Ejdelman’s grandfather, who had tried to found a Yiddish speaking territory in New Jersey, but did not.

A running joke between the two is who had the idea for Yiddish Farm first. While the answer is still up for debate, Ejdelman and Bass began to work together to realize this agricultural venture. Bass spent the summer in 2010 learning organic agriculture at Adamah as both looked for seed money and for property.

Yiddish Farm was founded in December 2010 and piloted a three-week Yiddish immersion program in 2011 with the help of grants from several Yiddish-supportive foundations, including Naomi Prawer Kadar Foundation, the Benyumen Shekhter Foundation for the Advancement of Standard Yiddish, the Chaim Schwartz Foundation, and the Aaron and Sonia Fishman Foundation for Yiddish Culture. The farm took its lease in 2012 from the family of Eve Jochnowitz, a Jewish food historian and co-host of a Yiddish YouTube cooking show that she does with Ejdelman’s mother, Rukhl Schaechter. On their show, “Eat in Good Health!”, they once did a segment using farm-produced products.

Bass said among the farm’s lofty and idealistic goals are the more pragmatic ones. That is, buy the farm. Make enough money to be on their own. And eventually create a community of Yiddish speakers who will live on the property. “We would want to buy the land and settle families. Families are the goal,” he said

Until then, Rukhl Schaechter said, the farm is “finding a way to bring Yiddish to the next generation. It’s a generation that doesn’t have the nostalgia or memories that their parents might have had. There are different ways of coming into Yiddish. Some have come through Klezmer music; others through Yiddish theater.

“Here they are coming into Yiddish through organic food and the food movement,” she said. Yiddish Farm is going back to the roots, literally. It’s going into the Earth to cultivate food to eat, and also going back to the roots culturally for the language of Yiddish.”

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