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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Before he became Austin Powers, Mike Myers was a famous speaker of Yiddish. "I'm all farkrimt, talk amongst yourselves," the actor would tell TV audiences while playing Linda Richmond, one of the comedian's most famous characters on Saturday Night Live. As Richmond, Myers routinely used Yiddish words to emphasize his character's emotions, also speaking regularly of "shpeelkas" and "shpiels."
A language long associated with immigrant grandparents, the religiously observant and comedians has experienced an Israeli renaissance during the last month at Tel Aviv University, where the new Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture has hosted its inaugural summer program for 98 students from all over the world.
Professor Hana Wirth-Nesher, the institute's director, says she was inspired to create the Tel Aviv University program after discovering that no similar programs were offered in Israel, and that students interested in Yiddish would need to travel to New York or Lithuania to immerse themselves in the eastern European Jewish language during their summer vacation.
"It seemed inconceivable to me that a student who wanted to enjoy one these intensive Yiddish summer programs would go to New York or Vilna and not to Israel," said Wirth-Nesher. "We decided to embark on this project together, and that's how it was born."
The "we" in question was a combination of Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv's Beit Shalom Aleichem and Professor Avraham Nowershtern, a Yiddish instructor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. All played a part in creating this year's inaugural program, she said.
Interest was so high, Wirth-Nesher said, that she was forced to turn down applicants. The nearly 100 selected students, roughly 60 of whom are Israeli, range in age between their 20s and 60s and are divided into four levels, with the most advanced group studying Yiddish literature.
In addition to four-hour classes each morning, the institute also offered a cultural program to further aid students' acquisition of the new language. Activities included theater, music and poetry workshops, as well as guest lecturers and trips conducted in Yiddish around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The students came from the United States, Argentina, Australia and much of Europe, with a small number of non-Jewish students joining their Jewish counterparts.
"I don't have a Yiddish background. I'm not even Jewish," said Alyse Nagele, the program's lone student from Liechtenstein. "[But] I always felt very attracted to the Yiddish language. It's warm and emotional and I wanted to study it."
Residents of Liechtenstein speak a German dialect that is very similar to Yiddish, Nagele said, adding that she sees a strong connection between the two languages and has grown attached to Yiddish. She expresses regret that she won't have any Yiddish conversation partners after she returns to Liechtenstein, now that she can speak, read and understand Yiddish at a basic level.
Elana Cohen, an Israeli student in one of the program's two beginners classes, said she has also learned the fundamentals of the language. "I have the tools if I want to keep learning, but there's a grasp on the language which I didn't have before," the 24-year-old said.
She says she wanted to learn Yiddish so she could sing in that language as well as in Hebrew, and so that she could share Yiddish culture and music with members of her synagogue congregation after completing the program. "There's songs for everything," the Jewish Theological Seminary cantorial student said. "They show what it's like to be poor and only have potatoes to eat. That was a big thing for me."
Roee Chen, a lifelong Tel Aviv resident, said he's viewed his hometown differently since starting the program. "This was the first time I felt abroad in my own country," he said. "I'm sitting with people from all over the world, and I'm speaking Yiddish. It's been so weird, so fabulous and so romantic."
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