Ask Bennett Muraskin why you should want to learn about the Yiddish words that already are part of your English vocabulary, and he is quick with the Yiddish answer:
But seriously: Mr. Muraskin’s upcoming presentation at the weekly Yiddish class at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth is part of his wide-ranging amateur interest in Yiddish language and culture.
By profession, Mr. Muraskin, who lives in Parsippany, is a union representative for state college workers. By avocation, he is an enthusiastic advocate for Yiddish culture — albeit one whose own actual spoken Yiddish is sparse and rusty. He has published a guide to Yiddish short stories in translation, written many articles, and even gone viral, after an article he had written for Jewish Currents on Jewish family names was reprinted by Slate and proved surprisingly popular.
All of which proves that his parents got their money’s worth when they enrolled him in a Yiddish school when he was growing up in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. His father understood Yiddish and could speak it “to some degree.” His mother could not. But they were communists, and the Jewish communists had a network of after-school educational programs that taught Yiddish — or at least tried to teach Yiddish — along with various aspects of Yiddish culture.
The International Workers Order founded the schools in 1930. The communists were late to the game; the Labor Zionists founded the first Yiddish shule, as it was called, in 1910; the socialist non-Zionist Workmen’s Circle soon started one, to be followed by the apolitical Sholem Aleichem Institute. At their heyday, there were several hundred such schools across North America, and about 20,000 students.
That heyday pretty much coincided with the Second World War. Mr. Muraskin’s shule days came later. Born in 1953, he went the school in the late 1950s through the late ‘60s. There were only five or six kids in his class. The politics had been toned down from its Stalinist peak. “They didn’t really try to indoctrinate you anymore,” he said. “It was more relaxed.”
The school did, however, let the kids take off if they wanted to attend an anti-war demonstration.
There were classes in Jewish history, Yiddish language, Yiddish literature, and even Yiddish song, with occasional ventures into Yiddish dance.
“Of course, there’s no such things as a Yiddish dance,” Mr. Muraskin laughs, but dance was part of the performances the students would put on for parents, complete with Yiddish dialogue that Mr. Muraskin, at least, didn’t fully understand.
“I never really mastered the language,” he said.
Going to the IWO school “was exciting. I knew I was part of a subculture, an underground movement. We were different Jews than everybody else. The other kids would go to their regular Sunday school from their synagogues. I didn’t.”
Nobody made a big deal about the difference, he said. He remembers his father having “some minor brushes with the FBI. Nothing spectacular. They would knock on the door to visit the house and talk to him. He believed they were trying to pressure his employer into harassing him. It was an unpleasant, hostile atmosphere. But I didn’t really suffer personally too much from it when I was a kid.”
As an adult, for years he has run adult education for the Jewish Cultural Society of New Jersey. Based in Montclair, the society offers a secular Jewish community, including God-free Yom Kippur services.
But back to next week’s talk in Teaneck.
“It’s something I thought would be a lot of fun and educational,” he said.
“There are so many loan words that have entered into English from Yiddish. Some of the more colorful words as well. It’s not going to teach people Yiddish, but it will teach a lot of Yiddish expressions that are part of their English vocabulary.”
Mr. Muraskin finds it amazing “that a small group of people that never made up more than three or four percent of the United States contributed hundreds of words to the English vocabulary.
“In 2013, the winning word in the national spelling bee was knaidel. Unbelievable. And some kid whose parents were from India” — Arvind Mahankali — “got it right.”