NEW YORK (AP / CBSNewYork) – A group of American college students stands in a semicircle, clapping and hopping on one foot as they sing in Yiddish: “Az der rebe tantst, tantsn ale khsidim!”
In English, the lyrics mean: “When the rebbe dances, so do all the Hasidim.”
This isn’t music appreciation or even a class at a synagogue. It’s the first semester of Yiddish at Emory University in Atlanta = one of just a handful of college programs across the country studying the Germanic-based language of Eastern European Jews.
The language came close to dying out after the Holocaust as millions of Yiddish speakers either perished in Nazi concentration camps or fled to other countries where their native tongue was not welcome. Emory and other universities like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and McGill University in Canada are working to bring the language back, and with it, an appreciation for the rich history of European Jewish culture and art.
“If we want to preserve this, we need to do so actively and consciously,” said Miriam Udel, a Yiddish professor at Emory who uses song to teach the language. “The generation that passively knows Yiddish is dying out. There are treasures that need to be preserved because we’ll lose access to them if we let Yiddish die.”
Experts estimate there are between 1 million and 2 million native Yiddish speakers in the world, but only about 500,000 speak it in the home – mostly orthodox Jews. When YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City began offering summer programs in Yiddish in 1968, they were the only such program in the world.
Now, they compete with summer intensive Yiddish programs in Tel Aviv, Israel; Ottawa, Canada; Indiana and Arizona, said YIVO’s dean, Paul Glasser. About 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada now offer some Yiddish courses, though just a few of them have degrees in the language.
The interest has grown because of the younger Jewish generation, which doesn’t feel their parents’ embarrassment that their family spoke Yiddish rather than English, Glasser said.
“Eighteen-year-olds today don’t have that,” he said. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. No one can question their American-ness.”
Emory student Matthew Birnbaum, a junior, said he took Udel’s Yiddish class because he feels a personal connection to the language – his grandparents still speak it.
“It’s taught me a lot about my own roots and where my people have come from,” he said. “It’s been a really interesting learning experience, not just from the language perspective but also from the historical perspective.”
It’s not just college classes where the interest in Yiddish has grown.
Klezmer music has made a comeback with young musicians like Canadian Yiddish hip-hop artist Socalled – whose real name is Josh Dolgin – and Daniel Kahn, a New York-based folk singer who is recording with some of the most popular Yiddish performers in the world.
At the Folksbiene national Yiddish theater and the New Yiddish Rep theater company, both in New York City, young actors flood auditions for “Gimpl Tam” and “The Learning Play of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok, Son of Sara, of Berditchev.” The Congress for Jewish Culture holds coffee houses monthly where young Yiddish musicians perform and bring in guest speakers like graphic novel artist Ben Katchor, hoping to appeal to a younger audience.
A search for Yiddish on Facebook produces dozens of links to groups like “Di Kats der Payats (The Cat in the Hat in Yiddish)” and “Yiddish Slang Dictionary.”
“This is what everyone in Yiddish is trying to do: to get to the younger generations and show people what’s out there,” said Shane Baker, president of the congress and a non-Jewish actor who appears in Yiddish productions at Folkspiene and New Yiddish Rep. “They used to say in the family: `Speak Yiddish so the children don’t understand if you’re talking about something serious or arguing.’ Now a hook is: `Speak Yiddish so your parents won’t know what you’re saying.”’
At Emory, Udel’s students spend a semester learning Yiddish grammar through songs and reading before performing the music a cappella at Atlanta nursing homes and Emory’s Jewish student center. The performances give them more confidence in their language abilities and help them connect with older Yiddish speakers, she said.
All the students in this semester’s class are Jewish, Udel said, but she’s had non-Jews – or goyim – in past years.
The class had only a handful of students when upperclassmen registered for courses over the summer, but the class filled up during freshman registration, Udel said.
Emory freshman Elizabeth Friedman, 18, said she signed up because she was unsure what to take during her first semester at college. She said the class, which has become like a family, is a fun respite from her “dense” pre-business coursework.
“That is why I love this class – there’s so much interaction, so much teamwork and much talking, it’s like you’re learning so much without feeling the stress,” the Los Angeles native said. “In the final, I realized how much I learned from the beginning because I was never naturally good at languages.”
What’s your favorite Yiddish phrase? Share it in the comments section below!
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