A dozen men and women gathered in the library of Temple Emeth in Teaneck on a recent Monday morning to read and discuss “Das Fligeleh Un Ber” — or in English, “The Fly and The Bear.”
When all was said and done, it was a rather inconsequential children’s story — but the discussion was of some consequence, since it was conducted, to the best of each participant’s abilities, in Yiddish.
This weekly Yiddish class has been meeting for many years now, with people coming from as far as Wanaque and Mahwah. Some of the participants grew up in Yiddish-speaking homes; for others, this has been their first experience of the language.
Deborah Veach, one of the few Temple Emeth members in the group, joined after retiring and making plans to visit Eastern Europe to explore her family’s roots. She grew up in a Yiddish-speaking house and took a yearlong Yiddish course decades ago, during a year at Hebrew University.
Brenda Weiss knew no Yiddish before joining the group six years ago.
“A friend said, come to this Yiddish class. It’s fun,” she said. No one in her home spoke Yiddish. At the class, “I had to study a lot. At this age, it’s wonderful for your brain.”
Another student didn’t even know the Yiddish alphabet — which is to say the Hebrew alphabet — before she joined.
Susan Levin is a newcomer to Bergen County; she moved to Hackensack from south Jersey only a year ago.
“I’m the child of Holocaust survivors,” she said. “They spoke to me in Yiddish. I answered in English.” That is, after the family came to America and settled in Brooklyn in 1950; Ms. Levin was born in a DP camp.
Yiddish language and culture was important to her parents, who came from small villages outside of Vilna. They sent Susan to a Workmen’s Circle Yiddish school and a Yiddish-speaking summer camp. To spend time with her camp friends, she studied at the Yiddish Lehrer Seminar and People’s University in Manhattan with Dr. Mordkhe Schechter for a year. They rode the train back to Brooklyn together. “He made me speak Yiddish to him,” she said.
She heard about the class and decided to try it out.
Not long after she started, the class’s long-time teacher, Jenny Freile, moved out of New Jersey and Ms. Levin was drafted as her replacement, because her Yiddish was the best in the class.
She agreed to lead it temporarily, while she looked for a replacement.
No replacement was found.
As it turned out, Ms. Levin enjoyed leading the class. “I’ve come to enjoy it much more than I thought I would,” she said. “The people in the class have gotten to me.”
And she discovered that Yiddish has a special resonance for her. “When I speak Yiddish, it evokes something very emotional,” she said. “I think of my late parents. I feel I must do anything I can do to perpetuate yiddishkeit and Yiddish culture.”
She emphasizes Yiddish conversation in the class. “I force them to speak. The more you speak the more fluent you are,” she said.
She also works on the reading — like the story about the bear and the fly, which is from a 1997 reprint of a Yiddish children’s book originally published in 1923. She had sent a copy of the story out to the students before the class, with difficult words — such as ibergeshtanen, meaning spoiled — highlighted.
Ms. Levin is proud to be part of this century’s minor resurgence of Yiddish. It is a good time to be speaking and teaching and learning Yiddish. There are Yiddish plays winning awards. New York now has two theaters producing Yiddish plays. For the last day of this year’s class, Ms. Levin got tickets to a reading of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance,” presented by New Yiddish Rep.
“If my father, alov hasholom, knew I was speaking Yiddish so much, he would say, ‘I told you one day my Yiddish would come to you,’” Ms. Gold said.