As we grow older, the mystery of our grandparents’ lives only grows deeper. The more time goes by, the more questions we wish could have asked them when they were alive. The more their lives recede from our own, the more questions we have.
Sometimes, though, technology’s advance helps us to reach back. A growing number of people are connecting with their grandparents by learning their language online. At Workers Circle, the 120-year-old organization originally known as the Arbeiter Ring and then, until last year, as the Workmen’s Circle, enrollment in Yiddish language classes is up 65 percent this year, according to its CEO, Ann Toback.
Workers Circle started online classes as a supplement to its Manhattan Yiddish language classes in 2014, and “from that moment the numbers went crazy,” Ms. Toback said. “Within a year, we had almost as many students online as in person. Every year we’ve seen exponential growth. In 2014 we had maybe 200 students. In 2020 we have over a thousand.
For Ellen Muraskin of Parsippany, Workers Circle classes let her reengage with Yiddish without making the long shlep into Manhattan.
She first heard Yiddish as a child, she said. She wasn’t impressed. “We lived with my grandmother. When she was tired or kvetchy, she spoke Yiddish. I thought Yiddish was a tired and kvetchy old person’s language,” she said.
In college, she learned otherwise. She studied at Rutgers, where Curt Leviant, who headed the Judaic Studies department, told her that she couldn’t graduate unless she took a year of Yiddish. “I discovered it wasn’t an old person’s kvetchy language,” she said.
After that — well, “I kept the one year I took in college alive for 40 years,” she said. That was enough Yiddish instruction to let her feel comfortable teaching an introductory Yiddish course at her synagogue, Adath Shalom in Morris Plains. But she knew she needed more. “I would feel illegitimate if I wasn’t also studying while I’m teaching,” she said.
So she googled online Yiddish classes, found the Workers Circle, and started studying. “I think I’m on my fourth class,” she said. “I’ve hung out in the intermediate level the whole time. I really like the teachers. It’s good to just listen to them speak. They are extremely fluent and helpful.”
Among the students in the class, “there’s a great range between people who are speaking very hesitatingly and make lots of fundamental mistakes, and people who really grew up with Yiddish and still speak with a lot of mistakes but still speak it fluently.”
Her class is on Wednesdays, from 1 to 2:30. “Everybody just shows up on Zoom,” she said. “It’s like the Hollywood Squares. People join from all over the world. I’ve had classmates in France, Canada, Ukraine. We read and converse. We break off into littler groups where we can speak with each other more. Yesterday we took parts in a short story and read it aloud.”
And her Yiddish studies don’t end with the class.
“There’s such a wealth of things you can do online with Yiddish,” she said. “I’ve been reading the Forverts and watching the Folksbiene. You can hear and watch tons and tons of Yiddish.”
Rebecca Pressman of Nyack just started her Workers Circle Yiddish classes in October, and she began with the beginners class. “My grandparents, who I never had contact with, spoke Yiddish,” she said. “My parents learned English to be the interpreters for their parents. They both spoke Yiddish. It was the secret language. They spoke it when they didn’t want me to understand what they’re saying.”
It filtered down to her with a couple of books on her shelf that have taken on new significance. “There’s ‘The Joys of Yiddish’ and ‘The Best of Sholom Aleichem,” she said. “The course is filling in some kind of void in my cultural history, touching the part of me that is a Jewish American as opposed to just an American.
“Workers Circle also has a nice activist, political bent that I appreciate in these particular times,” she added.
Ms. Pressman, who grew up in Fair Lawn, studied Russian in junior high and high school, “and a little French. When I went to college, I went back to Russian for a year. At some point I thought it would be nice to learn Spanish, so I tried that.”
So how does Yiddish compare to the other languages she has studied?
“When I started Russian I was in seventh grade,” she said. “It does get more challenging to learn languages. Yiddish might be easier, because Russian had six or seven cases with different endings and you have to memorize all the endings. French has many more verb tenses. I don’t think Russian was that complicated when it came to that.”
Unlike some of her Yiddish classmates, Ms. Pressman can’t really read the Hebrew characters Yiddish is written in. “I didn’t spend that much time in Hebrew school,” she said.
After each 90-minute class, she spends half an hour with a classmate from Portland on Zoom reviewing the material, “and then whatever time I can fit in on YouTube. It’s a wonder. Someone did lessons that focus on grammar. The Forward this year recorded about 100 Yiddish words of the day.”
And while she might not be picking up Yiddish as quickly she once learned Russian, “One thing the teacher said is if you learn it and forget it, that’s okay,” she reported. “You’ll learn it again and then it will stick, eventually.”