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The Next Generation

Rokhl’s Golden City: Young people get organized in Yiddishland

Rokhl Kafrissen
July 21, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Tret arayn in sindikat—walk on in solidarity. It’s the kind of slogan you wouldn’t be surprised to find at a demonstration in 2022, where Yiddish slogans old and new have reemerged as bearers of political identity.

However, this particular slogan wasn’t found on a union banner, but in a child’s notebook from 1933. The notebook was owned by Mari, a student at the Belleviller shul, a communist Yiddish supplementary school in Paris. Opposite the Yiddish, she’s drawn herself saluting, along with the French wartime slogan Sois Prêt, be ready. It’s an amazing snapshot of a moment in Jewish radical politics, down to Mari’s Yiddish spelling, notable for its lack of a final nun, one of the hallmarks of Soviet Yiddish orthography.

Mari’s notebook, and other Yiddish school kids’ drawings, will be on display as “Be Ready”: Anti-Fascist Yiddish Children’s Drawings in the Szajkowski Collections, at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, through the end of the summer. I understand that the subject matter is not for everyone, but getting to see a hand-drawn invitation from the kinder-komitet (children’s committee) to their gogette gathering? I’m obsessed.

The materials are just a small sample from Columbia’s Zosa Szajkowski Collection. Szajkowski was a historian of French Jewish life, an acquirer of rare archival materials, and, to put it mildly, a character of no small note.

We get to see these particularly captivating documents thanks to the hard work of a Barnard undergraduate named Daniela Goodman Rabner. She spent the spring semester working through the Yiddish materials in the Szajkowski Collection in order to create a new finding aid. It’s the kind of project I would’ve killed to work on as an undergraduate.

I’m regularly amazed, if not agog, at the opportunities available to students studying Yiddish today. It’s not that there are so many more students studying Yiddish today. Halevay. But the coming of the internet age simply transformed how we do everything, including Yiddish. Key to that is the interconnectedness that characterizes so much of our lives, as well as a radical democratization of media and knowledge.

A virtual conference hosted by Harvard Yiddish studies this past February highlighted those very changes. It was called Farbindungen: A Graduate Conference on Yiddish Networks. Farbindungen served as a rich metaphor for the conference, and perhaps this interconnected age of Yiddish studies. Farbindungen are ties, links, bonds, or contacts. The word can also have connotations of networks and connections, especially in the digital sense. When I recently spoke to Sarah Biskowitz, one of the conference organizers (and a current bibliography fellow at the Yiddish Book Center), she told me that they “wanted a theme that was open ended in an academic sense,” but Farbindungen worked so well because “it was also a pun on the idea of networking, which was a meta-motivation behind the conference.”

Despite the name, Farbindungen was designed to be inclusive of undergraduates, graduate students, and academics, as well as independent scholars. The resulting lineup leaned heavily on the youthful side. This is no small thing at a time when jobs in academia have contracted and the pressures on young scholars have intensified. Rather than a schmoozy afterthought at a conference, networking is more than ever a survival strategy and community building tool.

Though the proceedings are not available online, the keynote panel is up on YouTube. The keynote talks offered intriguing perspectives on the field of Yiddish studies, refracted in surprising ways through the theme of Farbindungen. We’re all (too) familiar with the idea of the “old boys network,” the ways that those in power use informal, closed networks to maintain power. Jessica Kirzane, a literary translator, Yiddish instructor, and coordinator of the Yiddish-language program at the University of Chicago, reflected on the power of networks to both reinforce and mitigate professional precarity. Kirzane used the example of Yiddish novelist Miriam Karpilove, whose work she’s been translating for a number of years. Karpilove certainly experienced how being a woman in Yiddish media put her at a disadvantage when the men who ran things didn’t see her as “one of them.” But there were also key moments when Karpilove’s network supported and nurtured her. As Kirzane put it, “networks are what make the Yiddish literary world go round, for better or worse.”

Karolina Szymaniak of University of Wroclaw (Poland) talked about farbindungen as “moments of contact.” One of these moments was captured in the 1925 correspondence between YIVO’s Max Weinreich and the chair of ethnology at the University of Krakow. Weinreich makes the point that there needed to be contacts established between the fields of Yiddish and Polish philology (language study) “not just in theory, but in practice.” I had to laugh at that part, because it felt like Weinreich could have been talking to me, or any of my American Yiddish colleagues. On the Yidforsh Facebook page for Yiddish research questions, countless (seemingly) thorny questions have been posted about this or that obscure word, only to be answered with enviable nonchalance by a Polish speaker, more often than not, Szymaniak herself. As many times as I’ve yelled at American Jews to simply consult a Yiddish dictionary, for the love of God, so the ghost of Max Weinreich has yelled at me to buy a Polish dictionary (and learn how to use it).

By way of introduction to her talk, Szymaniak made the observation that when she was a student, not so long ago, she could not have imagined a conference like this one. Academia, and the field of Yiddish studies, has changed, and “early career scholars speak in their own voice and this voice is heard.”

Journalists writing about Yiddish tend to lean heavily on the idea of a revival or renaissance, happening whenever that particular article is written. But Yiddishist activism has been ongoing in the United States since the 1940s. The interesting story isn’t so much “young people speaking Yiddish” but how that activism has changed, often dramatically, over the decades. My friend Sandra Fox wrote a long overdue exploration of this very phenomenon last year, called “‘The Passionate Few’: Youth and Yiddishism in American Jewish Culture, 1964 to Present.” She describes the founding of Yugntruf (Call to Youth) in 1964. Like earlier activists, its leaders encouraged members to be “active consumers” of Yiddish culture. But for Yugntruf, the urgent need was for the creation of new Yiddish culture, for young people, by young people.

I thought of those determined Yugntrufniks when I recently spoke with Alma Roggenbuck, the charming and soft-spoken project manager for Generation J, an international Yiddish youth camp in Weimar, Germany, now in its second year. Language learning is at the center of the program, but even more so, participants are tasked with creating new Yiddish culture, to see themselves as stakeholders and creators, even if they’ve only just begun to learn the language.

Generation J first came on my radar in May, when I was in Warsaw. I was out for drinks with my friend Sasha Lurje, who had just finished teaching Yiddish song to the students at Generation J’s 2022 session. There are some really wonderful, transformative Yiddish retreats around the world, and Sasha has taught and performed at many of them. But this one was different. Sasha gushed about the sense of community among the participants, about the diversity among them and the ways they were learning to navigate across differences. I was intrigued.

Roggenbuck told me that when she was in the Jewish studies department at her university, she didn’t start with any particular interest in Yiddish. But when she studied the language, and then got involved with Yiddish Summer Weimar, “it opened a whole world for me that was so meaningful.” The genesis of Generation J was in part Roggenbuck’s desire to bring more of her peers to the cultural richness of Yiddish Summer Weimar. Most of the participants in Generation J have been European, with only a small number of North Americans, which is why I don’t think I had heard much about it until this spring. The program is small (under 40 people) and diverse, drawing participants across many axes of identity: Jewish and non, secular and religious, Hasidic native Yiddish speakers and secular heritage Yiddish speakers, and more.

“Bringing together a diverse group doesn’t mean all is harmony,” she said, “but I think it’s important that we create a space where these conflicts are addressed,” and figure out what that might mean. Roggenbuck credited her experience in queer politics. “In the queer community, one thing I learned is that a lot of conflict is actually coming from the stress that we’re feeling living in a hostile society as well as a history of trauma that we inherit. Thinking about these Jewish topics, and conflict that comes with diversity, that experience in queer politics can be applied to Yiddish communities.”

Roggenbuck describes Generation J as “diasporist hakhshara, a program designed to prepare us for life in diaspora,” including, as she points out, life in the modern state of Israel. One of the participants in GJ’s first year was Joelle Milman, a 27-year-old American originally from Los Angeles. Milman spoke about her time at GJ as magical and personally transformative. She always knew she had been named for her great-great-grandfather, a Yiddish speaker and Bundist, but had spent her youth detouring around anything related to the language. After graduating from college, she moved to Israel along with her family. There, by chance, after doing everything she could to avoid Yiddish, she picked up The Dybbuk and found herself reversing course. Soon afterward she attended the inaugural session of Generation J. The program’s cultural offerings showed her a whole other way of being Jewish. As she told me recently, “It showed me a treasure chest and I didn’t even know what was inside. But once I opened it, I was like, of course. This is my treasure.”

Adah Hetko is an American Yiddishist who attended GJ in 2022 as a Yiddish culture pedagogy fellow. In the last couple of years, Hetko has become a fixture on the Yiddish scene as a singer-songwriter. As she told me about her time at GJ, fellows met as a group several times and “developed workshops that we led for other participants toward the end of the program. My workshop was on writing new protest songs … I split the participants who came to my workshop into two small groups. Each group collaborated to write a song. Although I didn’t require it, both groups created new Yiddish text for their songs.”

Hetko was one of just a few North Americans and she loved being part of a deeply multilingual environment, where she got to speak Yiddish, including Hasidic Yiddish, every day. She also emphasized the very special creative aspects of the program. GJ was “designed such that we explored our personal connections to Yiddish culture and used that self-knowledge and further insights gained from engaging with other participants to make art, rather than stopping at passive consumption of Yiddish language or culture, or the absorption of codified knowledge or skills.”

The leader of the pedagogy fellowship was a mutual friend of ours, Avia Moore, and it was Moore who invited Hetko to Generation J. Moore is a multitalented theater maker, photographer, and dance teacher, who also happens to be the brand new artistic director of Klezkanada. Seeing Moore in her new role is an amazing moment for reflection, bringing me back to many years ago, when we first met at Klezkanada. Both of us have gone on to be our own nodes on the Yiddishland network, making and remaking the essential connections of community in so many unexpected ways.

ALSO: The Workers Circle will host an evening of Yiddish stories and poetry about abortion, in translation, on July 27. More information and register hereKlezkanada is offering a 2 1/2-day Digital Intensive Program for those who can’t be at the in-person retreat this August. The intensive includes music classes, Yiddish classes, concerts, and more. July 28-Aug. 1. More information and register here … There are still a few spots left for the Workers Circle “Trip to Yiddishland.” The weeklong retreat features Yiddish language and music classes, dancing, swimming, and a gorgeous lakeside location. Aug. 15-21. More information here … The Jewish Music Institute and Five Leaves Bookshop in London will present “Yahrzeit 70 Words-Music-Film: Remembering the Soviet Yiddish Writers,” commemorating the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee murdered on Aug. 12, 1952. Aug. 31, 6-9 p.m. London, U.K. time. More information here … Finally, not to panic anyone, but it’s almost time to buy a new Jewish calendar. I just came across this beautiful bilingual calendar showcasing Yiddish children’s poems, with accompanying Hebrew translations. The cost is 50 shekels. Order here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.