“It’s cool, it’s fringe, and it’s lively.” Those aren’t words that immediately spring to mind when describing Yiddish.
Yet for students at the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program at Tel Aviv University, the language is making a comeback. Or, as far as they are concerned, it never left.
“Yiddish is not dying, it’s quite the opposite,” Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell recently told The Jerusalem Post.
“When people think of Yiddish they think of Sholem Aleichem and Tevye, but there are other interesting aspects outside of the box that Yiddish is put into,” he said.
Russell, a student in the TAU summer program, is an African-American convert to Judaism who trained as an opera singer but found his calling singing Yiddish songs.
“I heard the singer Sidor Belarsky on the Coen brother movie [A Serious Man (2009)] soundtrack, and something about his vocal camber reminded me of my own voice and I wanted to figure out who this person was and what he was singing,” he said.
Russell learned Belarsky’s entire repertoire and began performing in Yiddish some five years ago.
“Now I’m primarily a Yiddish singer,” he said. “The audiences are everywhere and the connection to Yiddish is so familial in a sense that it is very easy to make a connection with my audiences quickly, because the language is a part of who they are and a part of who I am.
“I’ve been performing in the language without actually being able to speak it, and so the summer program has allowed me to learn the basics – how to speak, read and write,” he said.
The program, now in its 11th year, sees over 100 students annually, nearly half from abroad, partake in a monthlong full immersion Yiddish language experience.
“The program is a hub of people with the same interests, who as a professional working in Yiddish, it is important for me to meet,” he said. “I’m here in Israel making connections with people all over the world because of the language.”
Russell has been accepted to continue his studies in a yearlong program at the Helix Project in Los Angeles that will further immerse him in Yiddish language and cultural studies and will culminate in a monthlong educational trip to Eastern Europe. One of his professors at the TAU summer program will continue to teach him in the US, he discovered.
“It’s a rootless cosmopolitan [thing],” he said. “Regardless wherever I go I will always have a small community of people that I know through the Yiddish language.”
Program director Prof.
Hana Wirth-Nesher told the Post that she was pleasantly surprised to see such an interest among youth, such as Russell, 36, in studying Yiddish.
“We are the largest Yiddish international summer program in the world,” she said.
“The students come from a great variety of places and aren’t necessarily all Jewish.”
There are nearly 50 students from some 15 countries participating in the program, which offers six levels of Yiddish from beginner to advanced, she said.
“We have a lot of doctoral and master’s students who need Yiddish for a research tool, we have translators, educators, actresses – all studying for different reasons, for poetry, for research, or just to explore,” she said.
“It is a language that is not associated with a nation and there is interest in transnational studies, or knowledge that is not nation-based, which speaks to students who are interested in other ways of looking at identity,” Wirth-Nesher explained.
In addition to 80 hours of language classes, the program offers an afternoon cultural program that includes music classes, cultural activities and walking tours of Tel Aviv sites, all in Yiddish.
“It is fitting that the program should be held in Tel Aviv – the first secular Jewish city – where there used to be signs that said: ‘Jews speak Hebrew,’” she said.
“We have students from Poland, Romania, Hungary, last year we had a student from China – we are amazed at how many students we receive, we have more applicants than people who can actually attend,” she said.
“Yiddish is cool,” Wirth-Nesher said. “There was an avant-garde, urban culture that was marginalized due to historical events.”
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