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Reflecting and Inflecting Across the Young Yiddish Landscape: The 2022 Steiner Summer Yiddish Program and Our Age of Connection

Tyler Kliem

INTRODUCTION

Each sum­mer, the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts hosts the Stein­er Sum­mer Yid­dish Pro­gram for curi­ous twen­tysome­things: stu­dents and schol­ars, all blos­som­ing Yid­dishists. The program’s mis­sion is to sup­port inten­sive lan­guage study and intern­ships for its annu­al cohort. The 2022 pro­gram con­sist­ed of 16 domes­tic stu­dents — rang­ing from under­grad­u­ate Slavophiles, to inspir­ing change­mak­ers, to future PhDers, and to lit­téra­teurs, all liv­ing togeth­er in the dorms (aka Mods”) of Hamp­shire Col­lege near the Center.

Dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and sec­u­lar inter­est in Yid­dish formed the bond of last year’s cohort. Orga­niz­ing our com­mu­ni­ca­tions through Slack, Face­book Mes­sen­ger, Dis­cord, and Twit­ter, we not only main­tained (and main­tain) con­nec­tion in our own Stein­er bub­ble but also across Yid­dish and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties extend­ing from our own. As much as we love to chat about our dis­cov­er­ies in France, Latvia, and New York post-pro­gram, we’ve grown tired of the dig­i­tal. And that’s what made Stein­er even more inti­mate by com­par­i­son. The live-in expe­ri­ence of Stein­er — in bucol­ic west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts — altered our col­lec­tive per­cep­tion of what it meant to be in the moment. Though a group of Gen Z dig­i­tal natives, we found pro­found mean­ing in the oppor­tu­ni­ty for real life, in-per­son engage­ment with each oth­er and with Yid­dish. This real life expe­ri­ence was enhanced by — rather than lim­it­ed to — the dig­i­tal. But that’s not to say tech­nol­o­gy didn’t help us.

We were able to access the famed Bein­feld and Bochn­er Yid­dish-to-Eng­lish dic­tio­nary online, which we turned to to define fire­fly” when­ev­er we saw one — a laykht-bobele. We watched var­i­ous dig­i­tal­ly restored films, rang­ing from Der dibuk (1937) to Grine felder (1937) to Tevye (1939), open­ing Let­ter­boxd to write film reviews and log our watch­es. We played our anthem, The Klez­mat­ics’ Shnirele Perele, on repeat via Spo­ti­fy. We put up Yid­dish T‑shirt designs and holo­graph­ic stick­ers on Red­bub­ble, which attract­ed the atten­tion of Cen­ter staff, too. Tik­Tok in her hand, we had the one and only Queen Cameron Bern­stein in our prox­im­i­ty. And we asked our­selves, at moment’s notice on Slack, whether we want­ed to ven­ture to down­town Amherst to study, to hit up the local swim­ming hole for a dip, or to hike-then-ice cream to cleanse our minds.

What does it mean, now, to be a young per­son learn­ing Yid­dish in the dig­i­tal age — the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry world? And what makes the Stein­er pro­gram an ide­al place for dig­i­tal native bud­ding Yid­dishists? Short answer, to be expound­ed upon: It’s easy to get lost in each oth­er here. Our souls — con­nect­ed by age, pol­i­tics, queer­ness, hob­bies, fam­i­ly, and an increas­ing sense of doom for our 2023-era world — engaged in the spir­it of liv­ing, breath­ing Yid­dish. What made the pro­gram spe­cial was our uni­fi­ca­tion as friends, some­times assist­ed by the phones at our fingertips.

Below is a recap of this evolv­ing young Yid­dish land­scape, through the rec­ol­lec­tions of these 2022 pro­gram par­tic­i­pants — my most endur­ing friends, those I still long for every day of my life. This remem­brance of last sum­mer is one I hope In geveb read­ers will enjoy as they embark on their own sum­mer learn­ing in 2023.


Beginnings

On the first day of the program, I was anxious because I was the farthest away from home I’d ever been.

On the last day of the program, I saw the new home I’d curated in the Mods melt away in the distance — the merlot-colored door growing tinier as my mom’s truck lapped away, back to the unYiddish lands of Central Jersey. “I don’t want to go,” I broke to my parents in the car, my eyes glossy, all choked up.

Over seven weeks, Yiddish became central to how I understood my Jewishness, myself, and the world around me. And 15 others were here for me to make sense of it all. In the sizzling months of June and July, we were plodded down the halls of the Yiddish Book Center with a fervor to learn and nerd out over all things Yiddish.

This experience — the nature, people, support of Yiddishland — felt sacred. Living in Amherst’s Yiddishland was like the rolling hills of Tuscany met with all the splendor of a colorful, hip bohemia. Here, I enjoyed my first Shabbat picnic, strewn on itchy hospital-esque blankets outside. A lot of bike riding, to and from Trader Joe’s. Trampling on others’ toes while we danced to the rhythms of Yidstock, the Center’s annual klezmer and Yiddish music festival. A summer of friendship and independence infused with the study of Yiddish.

I spoke with a few of my program friends to get a sense of how they’ve come to understand the program like I have, how Yiddish has grown with them, and how they believe Yiddish will change as younger generations begin to nurture it.

The Program

Hayden August, a beginner student and alum of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had already worked at the Yiddish Book Center before landing there as a student. The environment drew him in. “What I got out of it was basically everything that I put into it,” he told me over Zoom between joyous laughter. “There was always something to do. [The time] feels so much shorter, but you also just want it to keep going.”

In the evenings, our resident advisors, Jake “Yankl” Krakovsky and Adah Hetko, would “meow” in the open windows of the Mods, inviting us for nature walks in the woods where we would belt Fun kosev biz kitev. Students in the other Mods would sashay over to ours for long discussions on Friday nights, on folding chairs, in the squalid dining room. But the Shabbat picnics were our primary collective moment. Amid the sound of our laughter and the serenade of Yiddish songs, citronella candles blazed as the sun lowered beyond the trees. We passed a pan of food and we indulged.

“That’s the particular thing that I’ve missed the most,” Dina Gorelik, an intermediate student and senior at Brandeis University, shared. “I haven’t yet had that feeling anywhere else, our weekly Shabbat dinners. It was always a really special way to end a long week of Yiddish learning.”

We, of course, had our giggles and silly adventures. We gobbled asparagus ice cream at the NEPM Asparagus Festival. One time outside the Mods, a neighbor’s dog chased me during my nightly trash run. And we experienced the tragic loss of the Mod mouse Miki Mayzl (Mickey Mouse, à la Yiddish), whose life we commemorated with Yankl reciting the mourner’s Kaddish for us near an open, golden pasture. Why learn Yiddish, or anything else, without the laughter and the tears?

Steiner brings such truths to the forefront, with a sort of crudeness of experience that isn’t personal — only warm. Everything seemed to happen for no reason at all, at least outside the classroom. While none of us came to the program for such spontaneity, I think we all came to find it the sincerest way to not only learn a language but to live together.

Josh Horowitz, a beginner student and alum of New York University, told me that despite this spontaneity, each moment of Yiddish mattered. “It’s not difficult in Steiner to see the point of what you’re doing. I think that’s a thrilling feeling. It’s a very addicting place.”

The Present

My German professor at my university — an eccentric woman, by no means an expert of Yiddish — recently told me she felt that there seems to be a “Yiddish Renaissance” nowadays, especially among young people. If that’s the case, it seems to me that programs such as Steiner, which not only teaches Yiddish but addresses students’ needs for carefree joviality, might be a significant contributing factor. In-person programs with YIVO or Tel Aviv University or the Paris Yiddish Center – Medem Library are, equally, producing cautious and curious young learners of Yiddish. Such programs will catapult secular Yiddish scholarship and culturemaking toward greater heights and significance for generations to come.

And for now, we’re excited that Yiddish already speaks to our generation — the digital generation.

Cameron Bernstein, Yiddish’s own TikTok-tuer, with whom our cohort got to interact while she was the Center’s Communications Fellow, was one source of inspiration for how our younger generation can engage, and be creative, with Yiddish. Dina was quick to praise people like Cameron, doing the good work: “Yiddish is growing beyond being the butt of the joke or the punchline. Little by little, we’re getting more and more Yiddish content.”

Rachel Agosto-Ginsburg, a beginner student and junior at Smith College, went a step further, sharing her belief that translation of older Yiddish texts into more digestible mediums such as TikToks will become more prevalent and meaningful in the future. But, of course, this is already happening. “The things someone like Cameron Bernstein does — she’ll translate texts into modern idioms so that they really connect with people. In modern internet culture, it’s going to be a big thing.”

Dina also remembered “YIDDISH MEAN GIRLS,” a collaborative translation and video project between Center alumni, which depicted the iconic phone call scene from the 2004 movie in Yiddish. Or @mamatriedyiddish, a mother sharing her experience trying to raise her kids in the language. These online channels and cultural contributors signal to us not only a demand for more online Yiddish content, but also that Yiddish has a place in contemporary Yiddish internet culture. And young people, like Gen Zers, are here to swallow it all up.

A chuckling Hayden reminded me that Yiddish content creation and consumption are only going to get better. “Gen Z, in particular, is perpetually on the internet. So if they pick up Yiddish, and they start using it in their day-to-day activities, then Yiddish will exist in online circles. There’s only going to be more of it.”

The Beyond

In about 20 years, it will mark 100 years since the Holocaust, which decimated Yiddish speakership. It’s my belief that in learning Yiddish, one of our goals should be to think of Yiddish in its aliveness and not only its catastrophes.

We should reflect on that past, of course, but we should also claim Yiddish culturemaking as our own and as something vibrant. Associating Yiddish only with death and destruction is not fair to the people that once spoke and disseminated it. It’s not fair to us, either.

Josh, who hopes to tie Yiddish into his future career, paused over Zoom, sighing. He discussed the responsibility of people now and in the future not to think of Yiddish as something exceptional, to otherize it as a language of death or the Holocaust, or even the opposite, as a language of survival. “I think it’d be good for the world in general to accept a less binary method of thinking about things. And Yiddish is only one of many, many things that would benefit from being thought about less binarily.”

“Holocaust memory is just so … messy,” Rachel, an aspiring Yiddish academic, told me. “I’d like to see the Holocaust decentralized as the focus of Yiddish studies, of Jewish studies.”

Steiner, of course, wasn’t the first or only occasion that gave us participants the lens to think critically about the future of Yiddish or its relationship to Holocaust memory. But through the program, many of us noted that the Holocaust’s centennial need not be the only framework for understanding Yiddish’s future or development. We can think about Yiddish in relation to the future, our futures. Yiddish is for all of us now, especially after Steiner.

All these recollections are just a small snippet of the joy and the discourse we found as Yiddish students over the summer. I know that Steiner opened a door for all of us. It inspired us to stay connected.

MLA STYLE
Kliem, Tyler. “Reflecting and Inflecting Across the Young Yiddish Landscape: The 2022 Steiner Summer Yiddish Program and Our Age of Connection.” In geveb, June 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/2022-steiner-summer-yiddish-program-and-our-age-of-connection.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kliem, Tyler. “Reflecting and Inflecting Across the Young Yiddish Landscape: The 2022 Steiner Summer Yiddish Program and Our Age of Connection.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed May 22, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tyler Kliem

Tyler Kliem is a writer, designer, translator, and researcher based at the University of Pennsylvania. I