Yiddish-lovers go to camp

Yiddish-lovers go to camp

Meena-Lifshe Viswanath, far left, from Teaneck, shares a laugh with Warner (Yisrol) Bass and Yudis Waletzky over a game of Yiddish Monopoly.

I visited Yiddish Vokh, the week-long immersion camp in the Berkshires, because I was feeling nostalgic for the language I had grown up hearing every day, the language I had learned to speak first, then rejected for another richer, far more versatile tongue, then discovered that I hadn’t forgotten at all and began to speak again, haltingly at first, then with more fluency, with my mother, my aunt, and other older relatives. Then my aunt died, and later my mother, and suddenly there wasn’t anyone with whom to speak Yiddish. So I missed it. Or maybe I missed them, or I missed the beginning of my life as I get closer to the end. As they say, it’s complicated.

So I drove up the Taconic in pouring rain to see what – and who – was happening at Yiddish Vokh. I had been sternly forewarned by a young voice on the phone that English was strongly discouraged, so I half expected a group of older people who had learned the language from parents and grandparents, with a sprinkling of younger academic types – the Yiddish ethnography crowd. But when I walked into the dining hall at the end of lunch, I found a much more diverse group. There certainly were people of retirement age and older, but there were a surprising number of babies, and people who seemed to be in their 30s and 40s. A heavy man wearing haredi garb was sitting at a table having an animated discussion with a much younger couple wearing shorts and T-shirts. A modestly dressed young woman pushed a toddler in a stroller across the room, and a tall college-aged guy in cargo shorts and flip-flops brushed away the payess hanging down his cheeks. I felt like Alice stumbling into Wonderland.

The Pinhasik family from Union City – from left, Joey, Howard, and Judy – come as a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread for Yiddish-vokh’s “Komedye Nakht un Por Parad.” (Comedy Night and Pair Parade)

Yugntruf, a group that’s been promoting Yiddish for many years, has sponsored Yiddish Vokh for decades. This summer, 170 people gathered at Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camp to swim, play ball, attend lectures, work on computers, and observe the Sabbath, all in Yiddish. One woman told me that she’d been coming for more than 30 years and had missed only one or two summers. Others reported attending for less time, and some seemed like relative newcomers. The Yiddish they spoke also varied widely, with different accents and different levels of fluency. At a cooking demonstration given in Yiddish, I learned the names of foods I’d never heard before, as well as a discussion of the health benefits of raw foods.

Sitting around the table were men and women ranging in age from their late 20s to early 70s, asking questions and offering friendly corrections in grammar or vocabulary.

At another table in a corner lounged a group of teenagers, wearing the uniform of the young – jeans and tight T-shirts, girls displaying lots of cleavage – chatting and laughing. As I drew closer, I heard them more clearly and realized that they were speaking Yiddish. It was an extraordinary and somewhat discordant image. We’re used to respectable young people talking in the idiom of hoodlums or skateboard dudes, but Yiddish? They were the children, I learned, of hard-core Yiddishists, klezmorim or scholars or others devoted to maintaining the language. But they’re still kids, I thought, and must talk about the things kids talk about. Their Yiddish has to express their thoughts and ideas about music and school and romance and whatever else secular young people are concerned with. How are they managing to do this in a language that’s been considered almost dead for 50 years among all but the haredim?

Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath of Teaneck rows around Copake Lake with two of the youngest Yiddish-vokhnikers, Shprintse and Kreyndl Neuberg from Trier, Germany.

Yiddish has a strong emotional hold on many American Jews, a hold that Hebrew never achieved. It’s the pre-Israel Jewish language, the diaspora tongue that the Israelis despised for decades, the language that’s welded to European Jewry, the Holocaust, and all that implies. It really should be gone, disappeared, as its native speakers are gone. But there it was in the Berkshires, in all its haimisch glory. Not the kitsch collection of curses and endearments known to fans of Borscht Belt comics, but a literate, expressive, fluent Yiddish able to communicate the full range of thoughts and feelings that its speakers have. Like the Jews, it just refuses to go away.

I had such a good time hearing and speaking that language, I may go back next year.

For information about Yugntruf, its programs, classes, and events (like its Yiddish-speaking “drop-ins” and potlucks) call (212) 889-0381 or go to yugntruf.org/programs/yidish-vokh/.

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