Jun 13, 2023
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.