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The Farbindungen Yiddish Studies Conference: A Collaborative Project to Share Scholarship and Create Connections

Chana Toth-Sewell, Caleb Sher, Carolyn Beard and Sophia Shoulson

INTRODUCTION

The third annu­al Farbindun­gen Yid­dish Stud­ies Con­fer­ence will be tak­ing place online from Feb­ru­ary 18 – 19th, 2024. The theme is Shtumer alef: Begin­nings, Silences, Part­ner­ships. High­lights include keynote speech­es by Miryem-Khaye Siegel and Ayelet Brinn in addi­tion to a full sched­ule of work­shops and pan­els in Yid­dish and Eng­lish fea­tur­ing ear­ly career schol­ars, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, and stu­dents. Orga­niz­ers Car­olyn Beard, Caleb Sher, and Sophia Shoul­son dis­cuss the ori­gins of the ini­tia­tive, this year’s offer­ings, and the future of Yid­dish stud­ies with Chana Toth-Sewell. 

Chana Toth-Sewell: For those who may not be familiar with Farbindungen, what is it? Is it open to the public? How can people participate?

Caleb Sher (CS): Farbindungen is an annual, virtual conference in Yiddish Studies. Submissions and attendance are totally free, and very much open to the public. Our goal is to make a space for people who might otherwise not get to participate in these kinds of conferences to share their ideas with an interested and supportive community—so, grad students, but also advanced undergraduates, early-career scholars and professionals, as well as independent scholars and community members. The conference is mostly academic in tone, but we always strive to practice our academics in a way that is accessible to a wider audience. There’s too much cool stuff in the Yiddish world—it would be a shame to confine it to the walls of the university. It’s too late to submit for this year’s conference (there’s always leshone habo), but if people want to attend, all they need to do is register at bit.ly/registerfarbindungen24.

What brought each of you to Farbindungen? How does the conference fit into your work with Yiddish?

Carolyn Beard (CB): Farbindungen is a collaborative project that grew out of a desire to create a space for graduate students and early career scholars to share their research and create connections in Yiddish Studies. After meeting incredible early career Yiddishists at the 2021 Mayrent Institute Yiddish Object seminar, I reached out to participants to see if anyone was interested in organizing a Yiddish Studies conference for graduate students and early career scholars. A few weeks later, an organizing committee gathered on Zoom to draft the conference structure, write up a funding proposal, and name our new project. I had the honor of serving as chair and co-chair for the 2022 and 2023 conferences. With Sophia and Caleb taking the helm as co-chairs this year, I’m now providing support as a member of the organizing committee.

Sophia Shoulson (S): I was one of the people initially contacted by Carolyn after the Yiddish Object seminar in the summer of 2021. At the time, I had absolutely no idea what planning a virtual conference entailed, but it sounded like an interesting and fun challenge. It also seemed like a great excuse to stay in touch with other graduate students and early career scholars working with Yiddish because, at the time, I was one of very few graduate students at Johns Hopkins working on Yiddish, and the only one explicitly doing a degree in Yiddish, so I was feeling a little isolated (not to mention it was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic). Our Yiddishist cohort in Baltimore has now grown to the point that the Stulman Program in Jewish Studies at Hopkins is able to host Farbindungen this year! I co-chaired the conference alongside Carolyn last year, and am co-chairing again this year with Caleb. The conference has been a great way to see what my peers are up to, which is both enjoyable and super motivating.

CS: I actually had the great pleasure of beginning my Farbindungen journey as a presenter! It was during our first year, and at the time I was visiting my older brother in Barcelona. Talking about Yiddish memes to an audience from across the world, in a tiny study several thousand kilometers from home was certainly an experience! I’ve been involved in the committee in one capacity or another since then. For me, Farbindungen is the most concrete manifestation of my commitment to doing Yiddish studies publicly and accessibly. Over the course of my studies, I thought a lot about the public humanities, so it’s nice to actually do it for once!

Could you speak to the meaning(s) of the term Farbindungen? How does this word reflect the mission of the conference and your commitments as its organizers?

CB: As the organizing committee began to develop this project, we knew that we needed to give it a name. We came up with a few options, but Farbindungen was the unanimous winner. The term — which means “connections” — had a great tie-in to our inaugural theme of networks, but more generally recognizes the conference as a space for graduate student and early career scholars to build relationships with peers, colleagues, and mentors in the field.

S: The name is certainly reflective of the origins of the conference at the height of the pandemic, when we were all starved of emotional and intellectual enrichment. It also remains the case (as it has for centuries) that we, the speakers, researchers, and appreciators of Yiddish find ourselves scattered across the globe, making connections incredibly important but also very difficult to maintain. We don’t have a huge budget to throw around; ultimately, connections are what the organizers have to offer.

CS: I think there’s also something to be said for how the name reflects the fact that we are a born-digital conference. We started when we had no choice but to be online, and we’ve chosen to stay online since in part because the farbindungen we’ve been able to make just wouldn’t be anywhere near as far reaching offline. It can be exhausting living increasingly digital lives (to me at least), but Farbindungen is one of the few digital spaces that make me really grateful for the internet!

This year’s theme is “Shtumer alef: Beginnings, Silences, Partnerships.” With this framing in mind, what is the genesis of Farbindungen? Whom, or what, do you count among its influences or ancestors?

CB: Reading the conference through the lens of this year’s theme, “Shtumer alef: Beginnings, Silences, Partnerships,” Farbindungen was a definitely a response to the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the institutional isolation experienced by many graduate students and early career scholars in Yiddish Studies. As a PhD student at the University of Toronto, I am fortunate to have a cohort of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who work on and in Yiddish. However, many of my peers and colleagues who are at other institutions (or are not affiliated with institutions) count themselves as the only Yiddishists in their local academic circles. Through Farbindungen, we strive to make a space for graduate students and early career scholars to build relationships, present their scholarship, and become a community or cohort of scholars.

Collaborative projects like Farbindungen have existed throughout the history of the study of Yiddish language, literature, and culture. Sunny Yudkoff (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and the Mayrent Institution Graduate Student Seminar were sources of inspiration at the inception of the conference. Though Farbindungen is organized and run by graduate students and early career scholars, we have been immensely fortunate to have strong faculty and mentor support over the past three years. Saul Naom Zaritt (Harvard University) was an early advocate for Farbindungen and our first faculty mentor, and Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) and Sam Spinner and Neta Stahl (Johns Hopkins University) have served as our formal faculty mentors over the last two years. We continue to benefit from the tireless support of our formal and informal mentors, the faculty and professionals in Yiddish Studies who support us in many ways — whether that’s by attending the conference, serving as panel moderators, or retweeting us!

S: In some ways, this year’s theme feels like a bit of a break with our past themes (2022: Farbindungen and 2023: Yiddish Futures). Shtumer alef feels more abstract, maybe even a little cryptic, but ultimately, I think it is very much in line with the original intent of Farbindungen. We want to invite people into our growing network and make them feel welcome. We want to create an expansive understanding and practice of Yiddish culture and Yiddish studies that opens up even more ground to cover in the future.

In terms of influences, in the very recent past I would certainly point to In geveb as an inspiration. The fact that an online journal of Yiddish studies exists is so cool, especially because it makes a point of offering both academic and more public-facing content. Another personal influence is the salon in Bertha Kling’s household in the Bronx in the first half of the twentieth century. As a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center I worked a bit on the Bronx Bohemians blog about Bertha Kling and her circle, and even though the format and modality are different, I like to think what we’re offering is not all that different than what she offered in her living room: a warm space, a few resources, and a captive audience. (Also, if Kling had taken her cue from us, Miriam Karpilove would have just been able to log on to Zoom from Connecticut.)

What are the silences and gaps that you would like Farbindungen to address within Yiddish studies?

CS: I sometimes think about it in terms of the oft-repeated claim that barely 2% of Yiddish literature has been translated: there’s just so many topics out there—writers, histories, places—that have yet to find their champion. One of the best things about a conference that strives to be as open as we do is that people submit papers on topics I would never even think of, topics that maybe aren’t on the radar of academics—for example, last year we had a fantastic panel with three papers reading echoes of radical or alternative Jewish futures in songs and figures ranging from Daniel Kahn and Daloy politsey to Mickey Katz. The long musical history of the future, I suppose. So for me, it’s more about being open to how people will interpret our themes! That seems to have paid off so far.

S: Exactly. At the end of our call for proposals this year, we challenged our applicants to speak to the gaps and silences in our own interpretation of the theme. We’ve done that in past years as well, but it seemed particularly important for Shtumer alef. Speaking just for myself, I have no interest in proclaiming a singular, comprehensive framework for Yiddish studies. To me, it is much more compelling to see what other people want to talk about when given the space to do so.

What do participants have to look forward to this year? Are there keynote speakers or other special events?

CS: We’re super excited to host Miryem-Khaye Siegel and Ayelet Brinn for this year’s keynote address. With star names like that, you can’t go wrong. Also an excellent line-up of papers and workshops to help uncover the secrets of the shtumer alef.

CB: One of the things I love about Farbindungen is that there are different kinds of sessions that participants can attend. If folks are looking for long-form lectures from established scholars with moderated discussion, there’s the keynote panel. If folks are interested in short-form presentations from up-and-coming scholars in the field, we offer multiple paper panels. If folks are looking to learn in an interactive environment, I would recommend attending a workshop. Of course, if folks want to connect with others in more casual settings, there are kave shtiblekh (discussion circles) offered in English and Yiddish.

Farbindungen offers programming in Yiddish and English. To what extent is increasing contemporary scholarship in Yiddish, about Yiddish, a goal of the conference? Are there any particularly exciting Yiddish-language projects, panels, or workshops that you wish to highlight for the audience?

S: Organizing this conference is all about striking a balance between what we coordinators would like to see, and what our growing community of participants and supporters would like us to offer. As a conference for early career scholars, we aim to be a safe space for our presenters to step out of their comfort zones a little, and that could mean presenting for the first time in any language, or presenting for the first time in Yiddish. And as one of the only conferences focused entirely on Yiddish and Yiddish studies, we take seriously the responsibility of offering opportunities not available at other conferences. Our first year, we got a lot of responses on our exit survey asking us to organize events entirely in Yiddish, so our second year (2023) we gave applicants the option to submit proposals for papers and workshops in English or Yiddish. At the end of the day, we’re beholden to the applications we actually receive, but in 2023 we ended up hearing four papers in Yiddish. This year, we’re excited to offer a panel session with three papers delivered in Yiddish, as well as a workshop facilitated in Yiddish. We’ll also have an opportunity to shmooze more casually at our Yiddish kave shtibl, which we aim to make inviting to participants with various degrees of comfort speaking Yiddish.

CS: I also want to acknowledge that it’s a pretty impressive achievement to present an academic paper in a language other than your first—and one that can be super intimidating. We’re always eager to provide resources and help to people who want to propose or present in Yiddish. More than anything, though, we’re grateful to all the presenters who’ve trusted us to build a supportive space in which they can do so, and to our audiences who have by and large been on board! In addition to confidence, I think it takes a certain generosity of spirit to be willing to make mistakes in front of an audience, and to work through those mistakes as an audience. It’s that kind of spirit that we hope to bring to the community we are building, and we are always looking for ways to foster it.

CB: If folks are specifically looking for Yiddish-language content, in addition to the kave shtibl, I would recommend that they tune in for the Yiddish-language paper panel Yidish mekhuts yidish on Sunday the 18th of February at 11AM ET and attend Hinde Burstein’s Yiddish-language workshop “Silencing and voice in early 20th century Yiddish poems by women” on Monday the 19th of February at 9AM ET.

How has Farbindungen evolved since the inaugural conference in 2022? How do you hope and anticipate that it will continue to develop going forward?

S: It’s been so fun to watch more people get involved in Farbindungen over the last few years. The first year we were kind of flying by the seats of our pants, and Carolyn did an incredible job leading us through what was, at least for me, an entirely new experience. Since then, we’ve had presenters give papers in consecutive years, and we’ve also had past presenters (like Caleb!) join the organizing committee and help plan subsequent conferences! We love welcoming new presenters, keynote speakers, and faculty moderators each year, but at this point, it’s getting difficult to find people who haven’t already gotten involved in some capacity! It’s also been great to add offerings in Yiddish for the second and third iterations of the conference after not having them at the first conference. As you might guess from our packed schedule, we had a truly staggering number of submissions this year.

In terms of further developments, it’s important to us to keep the conference online for the foreseeable future. We want the conference to be as accessible as possible, and we’re aware that only a fraction of our community has access to institutional funding for conference travel. We’re also thrilled to have so many participants not based in North America, and we want to continue to accommodate an international community as best as possible. To that end, you may have noticed that Farbindungen has had a different host institution each of the last three years, and eventually we would love to bring it to a non-North American host institution.

CS: We also grew big time from 2022 to 2023—we went up from 250 registrations in our first year to 380 last year, with nearly 100 people attending our keynote. We had participants from 6 out of 7 continents, too—we just need those Antarctica Yiddishists to come on out, so we can truly live up to our claims to be a global network! It’s cool to see the interest in a more public conference like this grow, both from people working in academics and the wider audience. As to how we’d like to develop going forward, we’ve been bouncing around ideas as a committee about putting on smaller-scale events throughout the year, like lectures or workshops, so that people can stay engaged and in community. So keep an eye out, hopefully 2024 should have some fun stuff in store!

CB: Thinking about the future of Farbindungen, we’re always looking to welcome new people to the organizing committee. It can be a low or high time commitment, and folks are welcome to step up for a year or a season and then step back the next. If you are interested in joining the Farbindungen organizing committee, just send us an email at [email protected]. We’re also always interested in connecting with faculty and community mentors!

How can interested people learn more about Farbindungen and engage after the conference?

CS: Not to be cliché, but the best thing to do is like, follow, and subscribe on our social media! You can find us on X (@farbindungen), Instagram (@farbindungenconference), Bluesky (@farbindungen.bsky.social), YouTube (@farbindungen), and to a lesser extent Facebook. Anything we do—whether it’s next year’s conference or special events between conferences, we’ll be sure to update on one of the above platforms.

S: As in past years, we’ll send out an exit survey after the conference. We welcome any and all feedback, and the form will give you the option to let us know if you’d like to help us organize future conferences! Also, our website has plenty of info about past conferences, and will continue to be updated with info about future events.

MLA STYLE
Toth-Sewell, Chana, Caleb Sher, Carolyn Beard, and Sophia Shoulson. “The Farbindungen Yiddish Studies Conference: A Collaborative Project to Share Scholarship and Create Connections.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/farbindungen.
CHICAGO STYLE
Toth-Sewell, Chana, Caleb Sher, Carolyn Beard, and Sophia Shoulson. “The Farbindungen Yiddish Studies Conference: A Collaborative Project to Share Scholarship and Create Connections.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Chana Toth-Sewell
Caleb Sher

Caleb Sher is currently the Richard S. Herman Senior Bibliography Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, MA.

Carolyn Beard

Carolyn Beard is a Master of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies comparative Jewish and Christian thought in modernity.

Sophia Shoulson

Sophia Shoulson is a PhD student in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins University.