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Ladino and Yiddish Classes Boom Online

Virtual classes attract a new generation of students, from a wide variety of places

Paula Jacobs
April 12, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

“Ikh Heys Borekh Moyshe,” says Workers Circle teacher Baruch Blum, introducing himself over Zoom to his Beginners Yiddish Conversation I class. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Zoomosphere, Karen Sarhon—who teaches for the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of North America—welcomes her Ladino 101 class with the greeting “Bienvenidos.”

The number of students studying Ladino and Yiddish online has boomed since the pandemic hit, giving birth to a new generation of Yiddish and Ladino speakers, connecting in virtual classrooms.

Before the pandemic, classes in Yiddish—the vernacular language spoken historically by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe—were mostly in-person, held in major Jewish population centers. Today, there are numerous online Yiddish classes in North America that fill up quickly, with long waiting lists.

Until this past year, little opportunity existed in North America to study Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), the diasporic language of Sephardic Jews whose ancestors were expelled from Spain. The language is a fusion of medieval Castilian, other Spanish dialects, and the various Mediterranean languages acquired on the migration path from Spain, mostly to the former Ottoman Empire.

Online language students include Jewish young adults seeking to connect with their heritage, college students in Jewish studies or Sephardic history programs, musicians inspired by Sephardic or klezmer music, and non-Jews interested in Jewish culture. Some simply love studying languages; others are teachers and scholars with a professional interest or retirees nostalgic for the world of their late parents or grandparents. Whatever their motivation, and whatever their location, these students have grown in number as classes have moved online.

Alexandra Brenner traces her lineage back to the Spanish Expulsion in the late 1400s, when her ancestors fled to Greece and Turkey. “Ladino has always been central to my identity as a Sephardic Jew,” said the 25-year-old, a strategy communications consultant in Toronto. Although her ancestors held on to the language for 600 years, her grandparents are now the last remaining Ladino speakers in the family. The grandchildren, now scattered around the world, cannot understand or speak the language. “I wanted to reclaim that heritage,” said Brenner, who fears for Ladino’s future when her grandparents’ generation is gone. “The weight is on my shoulders to keep the legacy going.”

Last spring, her mother, Myriam, who understands Ladino, saw a Facebook posting about a free Ladino 101 class with the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America—an organization that provides services and programs to the North American Sephardic community. The two immediately signed up for the five-week, one-hour class taught on Zoom by Ladino scholar Bryan Kirschen. In the summer, they studied Beginner Ladino 1 and 2 with his Ladino Linguist program, which has attracted more than 100 students since its rollout last June.

“Ladino is such an enriching language and I hope that we can learn it and keep it alive,” said Brenner. “Once you learn the meaning of the stories, it’s too rich to be lost.”

Nor is she alone. “There has been a resurgence of interest in Sephardic identity in recent years,” explained Ethan Marcus, managing director of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America. “Language is a window into identity.”

In March 2020, the organization launched its Digital Academy, and soon afterward introduced online Ladino. More than 200 students participated in the initial Ladino 101 class held in spring 2020. Since then, approximately 350 students have registered for ongoing Ladino 101 classes, which average 100-120 participants per session. Approximately 25 advanced-level students attend Learning the Me’am Loez, about an 18th-century Bible and legal commentary written in Ladino, while approximately 20 students participate in the Perasha de la Semana, a class about the weekly Torah portion.

“Learning Ladino has been one of the most single most impactful things to connect to my Sephardic background,” said 32-year-old Leah Varsano, a program officer with a Boston-based global nonprofit. “The humor and outlook on the world, even just the process of learning it intensely in the past year has profoundly influenced how I think about my Sephardic identity.”

After learning about last spring’s Ladino 101 class, Varsano quickly hopped on board. She has since studied with Ladino Linguist: Intermediate 1 and 2 Ladino, Conversational Ladino classes, and Reading & Writing in Solitreo—a Hebrew-based cursive script once commonly used by Sephardic Jews.

“I would love to be able to converse with elderly native speakers before we lose them because we are losing the language at a scary, fast rate. We need to be harnessing the capabilities that we have for working with each other across the diaspora, and that what is happened when we moved into Zoom, which was so powerful,” said Varsano who co-authored with classmate Jane Mushabac a short play in Ladino. Another Brother, which premiered at New York Ladino Day 2021, tells the story of a contemporary Ladino-speaking family in New York.

Today, though, Ladino remains an endangered language. Numbers are difficult to measure; the Jewish Language Project estimates 100,000 speakers, while Ethnologue figures approximately 51,000.

“Creating regular opportunities to use the language is an essential element in revitalizing the language. It will take a major amount of work, but as long as there are speakers, Ladino remains a living language,” said Kirschen. He is also the director of Los Shadarim, an international delegation created in 2018 by the National Authority of Ladino to preserve the Ladino language.

Ladino’s future also depends on dispelling negative myths about the language, reflecting 20th-century prejudice toward Sephardic immigrants. “I think that many of the aspects of the Ladino language denigrated years ago should be celebrated today,” said Devin Naar, who chairs Sephardic studies at the University of Washington in Seattle—one of the few universities in the U.S. to teach Ladino. “Ladino is a language of fusion, and a way to build bridges with other cultures … It forces us to think about the world differently … as a more integrated, synergistic understanding of the way that cultures that can interact.”

Growing up in a secular Jewish family in Chicago, 19-year-old Audrey Jacobs never received a formal Jewish education. But since last fall, she has been studying Yiddish during her gap year before entering Smith College. “I wanted to connect more to my Jewish heritage. All of my relatives of a certain generation are so excited to share their Yiddish knowledge with me,” said Jacobs, who has completed Beginner’s Yiddish, a six-week winter intensive program, and Intermediate Yiddish with YIVO.

Over the past few decades, the American public has realized the importance of Yiddish to Jewish life in America, said Sheva Zucker, a longtime Yiddish teacher and author: “Yiddish speaks to so many aspects of Jewish life and is a way for young people to connect comfortably with Judaism. … Sadly, few people have access to Yiddish speakers or even Yiddish culture in their own communities anymore.”

For 28-year-old Danielle Rosen of Toronto, who is studying beginner’s Yiddish online with her mother and younger brothers, it’s a connection with her Yiddish-speaking late grandmother. Online classes enable Toronto family physician Roslyn Shafir and her 84-year-old mother-in-law, Reva Lawry, to maintain their longtime tradition of studying Yiddish together. “The pandemic didn’t create the interest,” said Sharon Power, a Yiddish teacher with the Committee for Yiddish, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. “The interest was there but it’s now more accessible.”

After viewing 15 Minute Yiddish—an initiative of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene—retired children’s librarian Barbara Shansby was inspired to organize “Monday Morning Yiddish.” Sponsored by Mishkan Torah Congregation Sisterhood, in Greenbelt, Maryland, the group meets weekly to watch the program over a shared Zoom screen, with discussion afterward.

“The online stuff is so successful that we can reach numbers of people that we could never reach with live performances,” said NYTF associate artistic director Motl Didner, who created and teaches the program, which has attracted more than 54,000 viewers during its two seasons. Recordings are available on the NYTF website, and a third season is in development.

Indeed, interest in Yiddish has soared since moving online. “When the pandemic struck in March 2020, we quickly moved classes to Zoom, and found students enjoyed them. We then decided to roll out more online and it exploded from there,” said YIVO director of education Ben Kaplan. “New students join YIVO courses each term, with hundreds of Yiddish learners representing 40 countries and 26 U.S. states.”

YIVO spring 2021 Yiddish classes quickly filled up: Three hundred students registered for 21 classes—versus 65 students enrolled in four YIVO online courses during spring 2020.

An additional 125 students attended the 2020 YIVO Uriel Weinreich six-week summer program in Yiddish language, literature, and culture, with students and faculty from 14 different countries and 23 U.S. states, versus 75 in-person students the previous summer.

“We knew how much pent-up desire there was to join this program over the years, but it’s been in New York. The pandemic gave [people outside New York] the opportunity to realize this dream,” said academic director Dovid Braun.

This meant Dan Shore, an instructor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, could attend the 2020 summer program without incurring New York City housing expenses as before. Because online is so convenient, he now takes more classes, including YIVO’s Intersession: Advanced Yiddish (three evenings a week) and a literature class with Yiddish Ort in Tel Aviv. He also studies Advanced Yiddish: Learning through Literature at the Boston Workers Circle for Culture and Social Justice—which has increased Yiddish enrollment from 87 Greater Boston students in eight in-person classes to 215 online students from across the U.S. in 25 classes, with a marked increase in beginners (nearly half of whom are under age 40).

Satoko Kamoshida, a part-time lecturer in Yiddish at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, has been studying Yiddish literature online with the Workers Circle to maintain her skills and increase her knowledge of Jewish culture to share with her students.

The online student body is younger and more diverse, says Kolya Borodulin, director of Yiddish programming at the Workers Circle, where the demand for online Yiddish has skyrocketed. In fall 2020, 470 students from 28 countries and 32 states registered for 43 classes—compared with 40 students in three online classes during 2014.

YIVO’s Braun sums up the significance of online classes: “We maintain the belief that face-to-face, in-class learning is important for community. But we have achieved a wonderful virtual community in a world without boundaries so we will figure out the best combination for the future.”

With the continuing demise of elderly Ladino and Yiddish native speakers, the future of these languages rests on the shoulders of younger generations. Online classes can play a critical role in preserving this linguistic legacy.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.