Language and Trust in a Perilous Time: Translating COVID-19 Public Health Information into Yiddish in Hasidic Communities

Rhona Seidelman


When the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic hit in ear­ly 2020, a team of schol­ars led by Prof. Krisz­ta Eszter Szen­droi and Prof. Lily Kahn of Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don was in the midst of a long-term inter­na­tion­al study on con­tem­po­rary uses of Yid­dish in Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties. As the Hasidim suf­fered ter­ri­bly from the pan­dem­ic — par­tic­u­lar­ly in the emer­gency con­di­tions of ear­ly 2020 — Profs. Szen­droi and Kahn real­ized that they and their col­leagues could be of use. Work­ing in coop­er­a­tion with health and police orga­ni­za­tions, the UCL group trans­lat­ed offi­cial COVID-19 guide­lines into Yid­dish to help the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties have access to crit­i­cal and rapid­ly chang­ing pub­lic health infor­ma­tion. In Novem­ber 2020 the UCL schol­ars Lily Kahn, Krisz­ta Eszter Szen­droi, Sonya Yam­pol­skaya, Zoë Belk and Eli Bene­dict dis­cussed their impor­tant work dur­ing the pan­dem­ic with Rhona Sei­del­man, a his­to­ri­an of pub­lic health who has writ­ten about the impact of lan­guage bar­ri­ers in med­ical settings.

Rhona Seidelman: Can you each tell me who you are and where you’re from?

Lily Kahn: I’m a professor of Hebrew and Jewish languages in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL. My main research interests are Ashkenazi Hebrew, Yiddish, and the relationship between Hebrew and Yiddish in Eastern Europe both historically and today, especially with our current project on contemporary Hasidic Yiddish and minority and endangered languages more generally. I co-edit a series on grammars of world and minority languages and another on textbooks of world and minority languages with a colleague at UCL. My two major focuses are language revitalization and translation studies.

RS: And how did you get to Yiddish studies?

LK: When I started doing my BA in Hebrew and Jewish studies, I wanted to study as many languages as I could. Yiddish was one of the options, so I decided to start studying it because I had an Ashkenazi family background. I fell in love with it as soon as I started. So here I am.

Sonya Yampolskaya: I do sociolinguistics, and when you research Hebrew of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Eastern Europe, you cannot avoid Yiddish. So that’s why Yiddish came into my life step-by-step.

Unfortunately, after only one month of my field work on Hasidic Yiddish in London, which was supposed to last at least a year, the pandemic began. I had only started doing my field research in Stamford Hill, a Hasidic part of London.

RS: When you say socio-linguistics, that means understanding the social context of a language?

SY: Yes. For example, one of the topics we are working on now is T-V distinction, which means different forms of address and language politeness. How would you address a rabbi, or your zeyde? And also, when do you use Yiddish and when do you switch to loshn koydesh, to Hebrew? When do you use English? What are the intermediate varieties when English blends with Yiddish and loshn koydesh, or Yiddish blends with Hebrew words? We’re interested in these different types of discourses—when and why they are used, and by whom.

Kriszta Eszter Szendroi: I’m a professor of linguistics at UCL. I’m at the same university as Lily, but in the linguistics department, which is a different faculty altogether. My background is in different areas of linguistics. I had nothing to do with Jewish languages or Yiddish until about four years ago. It was a complete accident that I learned that Hasidim speak the language as a community language up to this day whereas other Yiddish-speaking communities do not anymore. I was very intrigued as a linguist by the fact that Yiddish is a living vernacular in these secluded communities. When I looked up the expert on Yiddish at UCL, I found Lily, and that’s how our collaboration started.

Zoë Belk:My background is theoretical syntax and my PhD work at UCL was about attributive adjectives, mostly in English. When I finished my PhD, Kriszta was just starting an earlier iteration of the UCL Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish project, with a smaller grant from the British Academy and that’s when I joined the team.

On the project, I’ve been helping to do the more formal theoretical linguistics side of things. That means designing questionnaires, trying to figure out what’s happening with case and gender in the language, or with the pronoun system. We’re going to be working on a questionnaire focused on verbs and their effect on the sentence.

Eli Benedict: I grew up in a Hasidic community in B’nai B’rak, Israel. I lived inside the community for the first twenty years of my life. And then I left the community and I started to work in a place called Yung Yidish. It’s our archives/museum/culture center for Yiddish in Tel Aviv. I met Professor Kriszta Szendroi and Zoë when they came to Yung Yidish. Eventually I became a part of the project, doing interviews in person and also on Skype.

RS: I’d be interested in hearing how the Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish project that you were working on in Stamford Hill got started.

KES: When I first started working with Lily on Yiddish, she explained to me that there’s an original dialectal difference. What is being taught in the university setting has its origins in a different dialect than Hasidic speakers’ dialect.

But as we examined the language more closely, we discovered that the difference is not just dialectical. The language has also changed considerably since World War II. What we now call Contemporary Hasidic Yiddish is a language that has very distinct grammatical characteristics compared to the standard language or other pre-war stages of the language. First, we demonstrated that language development in Stamford Hill, then Lily and I wrote this grant to try and extend our work to all the Hasidic communities worldwide. We asked for funding to do extensive fieldwork because contemporary Hasidic Yiddish is basically an undocumented language.

Other people work on it, of course, but no one has done this kind of systematic study of all the geographical areas. 1 1 For recent work on Hasidic Yiddish linguistics, see for example the special issue of The Journal of Jewish Identities devoted to American Hasidic Yiddish (Vol. 6, No. 1, May 2018), as well as Isaac L. Bleaman, “Implicit Standardization in a Minority Language Community: Real-Time Syntactic Change” Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence 2020, 3: 35; Dalit Assouline, “Linguistic outcomes of a Hasidi renewal: The case of Skver,” Language & Communication 2015, Vo. 42: 141-146; Dalit Assounline, “Haredi Yiddish in Israel and the United States,” Languages in Jewish Communities: Past and Present, Benjamin Hary, Sarah Bunin Benor, eds, DeGruyter, 2018: 472-488; Ayala Fader, “The Semiotic Ideologies of Yiddish and English Literacies in Hasidic Homes and Schools in Brooklyn,” Navigating Languages, Literacies and Identities. Dinah Volk, Eve Gregory, Vally Lytra, eds.Taylor & Francis, 2016; Isaac Bleaman, “Outcomes of Minority Language Maintenance: Variation and Change in New York Yiddish,” PhD Dissertation, New York University, 2018. We wanted to study both the formal aspects of the grammar and the social context for the language. This is where Zoë and Sonya come in. Zoë works on the formal aspects — how the grammar has changed. Sonya deals with questions like how the language is being used nowadays in the communities, what the attitude towards Yiddish in the communities is, and so on. The two approaches complement each other.

RS: The centers of Hasidism today are London, New York, Antwerp, and Israel?

KES: And Montreal.

RS: Was your research initially working on all of these communities, or was it just focused on Stamford Hill?

KES: At the beginning, the first, smaller grant was for Stamford Hill, and then we received the larger grant and now it’s worldwide. That’s when the full team was put together

LK: From the beginning, we always wanted to write this kind of major grant proposal and look at all of the different communities worldwide. We started with this pilot study that Kriszta had gotten funding for, but we had in mind the team that we wanted to have while we were working on the ground. Then when we received the larger grant, the team was more or less in place.

RS: And so you were well on your way with field work, and then the pandemic hit?

LK: Mm-hmm. The project had been going for just under a year and in the first few months, Zoë and Eli had done field work in Israel, Montreal, and New York. Kriszta and I went to New York right around the end of when Zoë and Eli were there.

ZB: The day we left New York was the day the first case was diagnosed there.

LK: It was the end of February. We had no idea what was coming, but we were happy that we had all this data from New York. We were thinking that we would go on to get data from Antwerp. But as soon as the lockdown hit, we thought, well, that’s it. We don’t know what’s going to happen now or whether we’re going to be able to do anymore. So, we were thinking that we would just work with the data we had already collected. That’s when we got involved with the COVID translations, which was completely unexpected. We didn’t think at the beginning of the pandemic that we would be doing that.

RS: How did that idea come about? When did you realize that you’d be making a switch?

KES: It was precipitated by the fact that Zoë and Eli were near Kiryas Tosh [a Hasidic Jewish community in the town of Boisbriand, Quebec]. Also, in London, there were various media reports of the Hasidic communities being very disproportionately affected by COVID. Like everyone else, we were basically in shock about what was happening. A week or two before, we had all been having fun in New York together.

ZB: At this time we had just started having meetings twice a week, with the whole group — the four of us and the three research assistants, Eli, Shifra Hiley, and Izzy Posen, both of whom also grew up in Hasidic communities. Because the Hasidic communities were so hard hit at the beginning, all three of them were bringing news from what was happening with their relatives and their friends in Stamford Hill and then Israel. And so, we were kind of all panicking. What do we do?

KES: The first two weeks of the pandemic, or maybe even longer, we just felt paralyzed. There was nothing you could do. You didn’t want to get out of your house. You were worried about everyone. And then I thought, well, this is the one thing we can do. We can try and help communicate between the authorities and the people — which is not, strictly speaking, a linguistic issue; it’s more subtle than that.

It is the case that there are people in these communities who just don’t speak English well enough to understand English government advice. But even for those who do understand English, we wanted to speak to people in the language that they would feel most comfortable in. And we also recognize the fact that, if the authorities were to approach Yiddishists to ask them to create translations, then those translations would be translated into standard Yiddish because that’s what Yiddishists think Yiddish is. It would be a literary Yiddish, which sounds archaic to Hasidic speakers, as if you translated things into Shakespearean English.

I contacted several people in London. I phoned the council where Hasidim live. They gave me some contacts and I contacted some general practitioner surgeries and the local hospital. Very quickly, word spread that we were doing this, and people started to look for us. The metropolitan police got in touch with us. They said, “Here is health advice. It’s in English. Can you translate it for us?” And we did.

RS: In the Stamford Hill community, how much English would people know? And how much would they be communicating with people outside of Yiddish speakers, to get this information, to know what was happening beyond the community?

SY: Most of them can have a short conversation or even a longer one in English. As for reading in English, they can to some extent, but they don’t do it usually. There are really a lot of people for whom it is difficult to understand written formal language. This is the first point. Secondly, many Hasidim perceive that announcements written in English are not necessarily relevant to them.

Thirdly, I think England is the first case when authorities tried to talk to Hasidim in Yiddish, which means it is an exceptional case. By writing in Yiddish to the Hasidic community, they are sending the message that they are trying to say a very important thing.

There is significant meaning implicit in conveying the information in Yiddish. Yiddish is a medium and a message. You can see this also, pragmatically, in how they spread this information. It was posted on the walls and on the doors of NHS buildings. Informational posters are the traditional way to post news for Hasidim. They don’t have TVs and they do not use Facebook, if they’re not OTD. 2 2 “Off the derech,” i.e., ex-Hasidic.

RS: Eli, can you explain how this is similar or different with regard to Hasidic communities in Israel and their relationship to Hebrew?

EB: In Israel, it’s a bit different from the United States or other English speaking countries, because Hebrew is integrated in Yiddish to a certain extent. So Hasidic Israelis feel more comfortable speaking Hebrew, than speaking English, for example. But again, it depends on which communities. Some communities — big Hasidic communities like Gur or Slonim — feel that we are now in Israel, we need to speak Hebrew since everyone is speaking Hebrew. But there are other groups, also big communities, that still do everything in Yiddish, like Belz, Vizhnits, and so on. It really depends on the community’s attitude towards the government. But even among groups where there might be less written in Yiddish, the conversation between members of those communities will be definitely in Yiddish. So the government did produce some ads in Yiddish about COVID, but it was mixed with Hebrew, because again, Hasidim in Israel are more comfortable with Hebrew.

Our job was not only to translate but also to carry a message from the government to the people. That meant sometimes that we had to soften the message. For example, in Kiryas Tosh, near Montreal, when the government sent us the material, the tone was off. In English it was probably normal. But, if you translated word by word to Yiddish, the tone would be abrasive. They used the term community, over and over again: The community needs to be closed, the entrance to the community will be closed. When you refer this way to Hasidim in Yiddish, it sounds a bit antisemitic. So, in Yiddish, we suggested that the translation be, “The neighborhood will be closed.” In the same way, we were careful about checkpoints that they said they were creating in the interest of“the community.”

SY: And police. Politsey is a much more threatening word in Yiddish than in English.

RS: So, when you say you had to soften, you mean you had to find the subtleties, but also maybe to make it less frightening?

EB: In some places, but in other instances we also made it stronger. You can’t say to Hasidic people, “These are the recommendations about going to weddings.” Hasidim are more receptive to “allowed” or “not allowed.” They won’t respond to recommendations. So we needed to strengthen the tone in some instances and to soften the tone in others.

KES: We didn’t change the meaning of government instructions, but we did sometimes change wording in a way that got the intended meaning across more clearly for a Hasidic context. In England, for instance, the rule was that only immediate families were allowed to attend funerals. Now, say that to a British person who is not Jewish, and immediate family means a handful of people. But if you don’t actually explain exactly what is meant by that specifically to Hasidim, then it can be interpreted in a way that is not what the government intends. Because we knew that the rule could be potentially prone to such misinterpretations, we were very specific.

We explained that to the police. We told them, “Don’t say immediate family, say not more than a specific number of people.” We also explained to the police the notion of minyanim. We told them that people would gather and how it would play out. And we told them about the yontoyvim: when they were coming, what to expect, and how they should give out advice specific to the community. So, there was more than translation; there was a kind of interpretation in ways that were relevant for the community. And we negotiated all this with the people that we translated for. We said to them, “Look, we are translating this in this specific way. Because, in this community, that’s how it’s going to be interpreted.”

RS: Were you translating health guidelines for the coronavirus only in Stamford Hill, or elsewhere too?

KES: As Zoë mentioned earlier, she and Eli were in lockdown in Canada. So once we realized there was such interest for translations of health guidelines in London, Zoë suggested she get in touch with the authorities there. They jumped at the possibility. Kiryas Tosh was literally locked down. People could not get in and out. I think it has not happened anywhere else.

ZB: Kiryas Tosh is a little village, maybe 3000 or 4,000 people. It’s just outside of Boisbriand, which is north of Montreal. It’s entirely Hasidic.

KES: For Peysekh, I think they had actual checkpoints and no one was allowed in or out.

ZB: There’s only one road in or out. So they just closed that road.

RS: And those decisions were made by the community, or by the police and the municipal government?

ZB: The local health authority made that call. They realized that there was a big outbreak in Tosh. They actually closed down any town in Quebec that had a similar outbreak. And then they set up these checkpoints. But, it was the local health authority, rather than the police or the community itself.

KES: Through our contacts, we also monitored the situation on the ground. So, for instance, when Tosh went under full lockdown, we asked all our contacts with family in Tosh to give us feedback on how this was being organized on the ground. And we were sort of thinking, okay, if there’s a problem we will have the information to be helpful. There were voices in the community saying that the lockdown was antisemitic. We were thinking there could be community-specific issues that it would be helpful to track. And then, if we got information, we would feed it back to the authorities — use the channel that we had become to try and help communication. But, in the end, there was no need for that.

SY: I just wanted to add a small, obvious thing. It’s so obvious that we didn’t say it before. But the very apparent association for the Hasidim inside the communities with regard to lockdown is to World War II. When their community is closed by police, they think of the war. They have a huge fear of those things.

RS: This explains why it is so important to soften the language, to help communicate why this situation is different. Kriszta, when you were talking about the image of those posters in Yiddish with the NHS symbol, and Her Majesty’s Government, that really stood out to me as something very special. Had there ever been something like this before, with these official seals, in Yiddish?

KES: In Britain, the attitude is actually extremely positive towards minority languages in general. I was knocking on doors that opened themselves. I was welcomed. They were just hoping that someone would do this. In Israel, the army issued a phrase book to the soldiers who went into Bnei Brak for Peysekh, explaining how to greet the locals in Yiddish. It gives the impression that you’re reaching out. I think that’s what we were trying to convey in our translation work — certainly in Britain, but also in Montreal.

In terms of precedent, when there was an election a few years ago in Stamford Hill, the local Labour politician was canvassing in Yiddish. There were Yiddish posters up in the neighborhood.

RS: That feels to me like something different though. That’s people trying to actively recruit for their own purpose, rather than reaching out for…

LK: …getting information out. Something else that we did that the authorities were very receptive of and willing to work with us on was that we added in community specific information about mikves, the study house, minyanim, and other things that weren’t included in the original guidelines, but that we thought this community would really need to know. The general guidelines give advice like, “Don’t go to the pub.” Including things relevant to the community helped give people reading it the impression that it was actually addressed to them, and that this information was relevant to them.

RS: You weren’t just translating word for word, as you say — for instance, bars and movie theaters are closed. You were explaining: This is what it means within your community. Could you tell me what exactly this entailed? You did posters? An advertisement in a magazine? You translated information you were making available publicly for community health? Did you also have material specifically for doctor-patient encounters?

KES: One doctor approached us and asked for specific things to be translated for her. She disseminated that information in her own neighborhood in Manchester to other doctors. We also did an official translation for Doctors of the World, a website that British doctors use a lot, because it contains health information in many minority languages. If they get a patient and they cannot communicate about their illness, then they go to this website and they try to use some of the translations that are available.

We volunteered to do a translation in Yiddish for that website. We also did some posters. And then, because we felt so frustrated about the terrible situation in Stamford Hill, at some point, we just paid for a two-page advert in the local weekly magazine, because we wanted to get through. And we got in touch with an influential blogger in Stamford Hill. We tried to disseminate the information that we had through various forums that we could think of.

RS: In ordinary circumstances, what language would people in Stamford HIll be speaking when they go to see doctors?

ZB: Yiddish isn’t used in medical contexts very much. When you’re talking about technical language, and especially about medical terminology, most people use the English terms. Not only do they use the English terms, but they switch to English to communicate about these things. So even if two people both speak Yiddish natively, when they’re talking about health concerns, quite often they’ll speak about them in English because that’s just the medical language.

So translating was a challenge because you’ve got this tension. Do you just use the English words that everybody knows and uses? And if so, well, what’s the point in actually translating? Or do you try and find Yiddish equivalents that people might be less familiar with, but that might better serve people who don’t speak any English? We had to find a compromise between those two.

LK: Because the Hasidic community is so international, that creates linguistic complications. Someone from Israel who is living in Stamford Hill but hasn’t been there for a long time really might not know those terms in English. It’s an interesting situation where you have a lot of multilingualism. Some people are more familiar with the English terms. Some people wouldn’t know the English terms at all. Probably a lot of people will know the Yiddish terms. So we usually ended up at a compromise where either we would include a Yiddish term and then put the English term in brackets, or we would put in two Yiddish terms, one Germanic-derived and one Hebrew-derived so that if someone knew modern Hebrew, they would understand that term. We’re very lucky in our team because we have a native speaker of Israeli Hasidic Yiddish and we have two speakers from Stamford Hill. So we tried to make sure that we reached solutions that worked for everybody.

RS: On a practical level, can you give an accounting of all the activities you did?

KES: We did full translations of health advice in Britain two different times, because the advice changed constantly. So for instance, for the Doctors of the World website, I think we reached six versions, or was it seven?

ZB: Maybe even more.

LK: Every time the regulations changed, we’d have to update it again.

RS: Up until August you were getting these requests?

KES: August was a bit of an outlier, but until June, it was pretty much all the time. And a practical problem was that everything had to be done right away.

Usually the advice came in on Monday and by Tuesday they were already trying to send police on the streets to enforce it. So it came in very handy that we had a worldwide team because someone was always awake.

RS: Around the clock.

KES: The file was constantly being worked on. We developed a working method whereby two people, usually Zoë and Eli, did a draft translation, and then other members of the team, usually Lily, Sonya and Shiffy, would go through a second time. Then we would discuss any questions. So there were several reiterations, and I was coordinating it all. But we had to have very fast turnarounds as well as being extremely precise.

RS: You yourselves were also dealing with the pandemic as you were doing this, which I imagine also shaped the experience. One of the things you wrote about in the blog was the term “social distancing” and how this was relatively new, for all of us.

LK: And actually, in terms of terminology, like social distancing: One of the stereotypes about Yiddish — not just about Hasidic Yiddish, but Yiddish in general — is that it is an old-fashioned language from the 19th century, so it must not have any neologisms.

KES: It was an amazing experience to go through this together and it was very tough, but I also have to say that I think it was very different on a personal level for those of us on the team who are not from a Hasidic background and for those who are. To witness the situation in the Hasidic communities and to be so helpless because you’re outside and you cannot even just go and hug your family anymore, that made you want to be part of their pain in a way that you can not be. I felt that that was really tough on some of the members of the team.

EB: We also did voice recordings for the same public health rules. We managed to find someone from the Hasidic community who would do a video recording for Doctors of the World because they requested it.

RS: How did they use the audio recordings?

KES: They put it on their website for people to listen to. Hasidic communities rely heavily on phone lines as a source of information. I think the recording was intended to be used for such purposes, though I don’t know for certain. For the video, we found somebody who has a very high standing in the community and who was willing to use his own voice on a video, which lends credibility. You can imagine that for a member of the community, hearing the health guidelines from one of their own was probably very powerful.

RS: It goes back to what Sonya was saying about the comfort and the trust that’s coming through in the language itself.

KES: I think trust is the right word there.

RS: Can you tell us a bit more about how the Hasidic communities were affected, and how it may have been different from what you were experiencing of the pandemic yourselves?

KES: The communities in New York and London were earliest hit.

ZB: It came right after Purim.

KES: Jewish communities everywhere, especially Haredi Jewish communities, were hit very hard very early on. The way of life in these communities is extremely social, which was conducive to spreading. The general attitude in the media at the time was that Hasidic communities were very slow to act and that the leaders were not standing up for them. I don’t want to go into this too much, but as we saw it unfolding on the ground, it was definitely a mixed picture. There were community leaders who were very much trying to do the right thing. At the same time, this was when national governments were waiting to see what would happen and not doing anything. Britain was three weeks later to go into lockdown than it should have been.

In retrospect, the communities were blamed for more than they should have been. Purim was extremely unfortunate, but nobody knew what was going on during Purim. Nobody knew. And then when Peysekh came, the communities respected the Peysekh public health guidelines. We were in constant contact with the police at the time and they fed back to us all the information they had. Through our contacts, we were asking people to see whether the rules were actually being observed on the ground. As far as London goes, I think increasingly they were. I did also look at some numbers afterwards through the national office of statistics about deaths in the community. They have to be estimated to some extent, but it looks like the whole borough of Hackney was massively hit by COVID very early on. Hasidim live there; therefore they were also hit very hard. So there’s a lot of blame when actually our understanding is not that precise. And we certainly saw on the ground extremely good advice. For instance, the London Hatzola the Stamford Hill ambulance service, was going out of their way to communicate with the police and with members. At the same time, they were also angry with some of their own leaders for not taking a stronger stand.

SY: Those rules were designed with other communities in mind. The people who wrote them were imagining this classic family: mother, father, two kids, that’s it. Two bedroom apartment. None of this is the case with Hasidim. There are usually many more children, and the price they have to pay for just staying at home is higher. Your usual practice is that in the morning, you bring them to kheyder and to their grandma. You don’t have all those kids for 24 hours straight.

But to live this way when everyone is inside for a half year is hardly possible. So it was just that with their way of living, you really cannot follow all these rules.

RS: And is it also possible for people living in apartments? Because there’s a huge difference between the impact of these public health guidelines if you have a house with a yard, or if you’re in a smaller apartment.

SY: Most families live in a section of the house with a yard. It depends. Usually the families I saw had two sleeping rooms, one living room, and that’s it. There are obviously families with larger houses, but they are the minority. Most of them are short of space and money in comparison to the middle of London.

ZB: I think it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: These families don’t have the luxury of sitting their kids down in front of the TV or Netflix. They’ve got six, eight, ten kids at home and not only can they not send their kids out on the street to play, but they can’t really do anything at all. We know families where the kids are supposed to be learning over the phone during the day, but they maybe have two phones between a family of six or eight kids. This means that most of the kids don’t have anything to do all day long. So the practical impact is just so completely different for these communities.

LK: Now [in November 2020] in the UK, the media has constantly been talking about how we can save Christmas. We have to guarantee that everyone has a normal Christmas, families have to be able to see each other for Christmas. It is somehow taken for granted: obviously this must be done. Maybe it’s not going to work out, but there’s a whole entire national government in charge of over 70 million people working to make those possible, because a Christmas gathering is seen as a thing that everyone must be able to have.

Whereas the Jewish community, for Peysekh, went in the space of three weeks from not knowing about this virus to all of a sudden not being able to have Peysekh. That was not only true for the Hasidic community, but also especially for them, because some progressive shuls switched over to having Zoom seders. I think that’s not really recognized either. This holiday is just as big as Christmas; this gigantic shift had to be made and was made quite effectively. If people compared it to the majority situation and said, “Well, would you be happy not to be able to see any of your family for Christmas?” then what was done was actually quite a big achievement.

RS: You’re all reminding us that this was really, really early in the pandemic and how different it was then — that this was a new virus, and that a certain terror came with that. Kriszta, as you’re pointing out, there may be things that the community could have done better, but how you could have done better at that particular time is very different from how you could be doing it better now when we know so much more.

KES: I couldn’t agree more. I mean, people got ill at Purim and they were dead by Peysekh. The community was in shock. And they were very much trying to do things. We heard about a number of different grassroots initiatives in Stamford Hill and elsewhere that were trying to help and support people in the Hasidic community who were recovering from Covid or shielding at home.

RS: In the blog you wrote about linguistic decisions that you had to make, or word choices, like the word for cough and the word for essential hekhrekh, which had gender implications. Could you tell us a bit about a few of those decisions that you made and how you reached them?

ZB: Eli is hugely helpful with the translation, as a native Yiddish speaker, but he’s also male and Israeli, so his Yiddish is not necessarily the same as what you would hear in Stamford Hill. So Eli and I would give it a first pass together. I had a bit more insight into the connotations and nuances of the English and would explain those to Eli, who would give us more of the Yiddish and its nuances. Then we would send it to the Stamford Hill speakers — Shiffy or Izzy, the other two research assistants — and that’s where the disagreements would arise.

One of them would flag something and say, “Oh, nobody would say that,” or “I don’t know that word.” And so we’d have to have conversations about which words to choose and how to make the translation the most accessible to people.

LK: Hustn and histn are two variants of the word cough. We had arguments about variants like these. One person would say, I would never say that, that’s not a word. And the other one would say, no, I would only say that.

And in that case, it’s such an important word for the context that we needed to pick one that we thought everyone would be happy with. I don’t think we had a clear picture. It seems like they’re both used in the different communities, and we just had to pick. There were other cases that had to do with gender. There are some words — particularly those from loshn koydesh, the Hebrew and Aramaic component of Yiddish — that women would be much less likely to know because they are words that come up in a male context, such as a yeshiva.

When Eli and Zoë’s first round translation came to Shiffy with the word hekrekh, Shiffy argued, “No, women will not understand that word.” It was a word that we intended to communicate that you could only go out for “necessities” or “essentials.” Hekhrekh was the closest equivalent to the English that we could think of , but not everyone would understand it, so we needed to find another way of paraphrasing it. We were always able to find a solution in the end. That was why it was good having a team. Eli was happy with hekhrekh, and I knew that word. My background is in standard Yiddish, and I also speak Hebrew. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that somebody wouldn’t know that word.

So it was really useful having different speakers from different background, so that we could arrive at solutions that we hoped would work for everyone.

ZB: One other challenge that we haven’t really talked about is that although Hasidic Yiddish is a written language — everybody that we’ve spoken to who speaks Yiddish can read and write in Yiddish — it doesn’t have a standardized writing system. We had a lot of disagreements about spelling, even whether something was one word or more than one.

RS: Did you have any experience within the Yiddish project that you had been working on before the pandemic of doing medical translations or health translations? Or was this something new?

KES: No, we had no experience whatsoever. I had a lot of sleepless nights about that.

RS: Why the sleepless nights?

KES: Because of the responsibility. You cannot imagine how many times we went through the texts. I always made sure that I kept track of who had seen what version and that the final version was seen by everyone twice. If somebody put in a change and then somebody took it out, I would make those two people talk and I watched while they talked.

Consensus among the group was essential. Lily speaks standard Yiddish. So that was a baseline because while Izzy, Eli, and Shiffy are native speakers of the language, so obviously they know best, they are not linguists. And translations can be extremely tricky.

Sometimes I had to ask Zoë, “Did you explain to Eli exactly what they mean by ‘not more than 14 days, but not less than 15 and a half’?” It was very complicated and precise. So we had to go through many versions to make sure that we didn’t make mistakes. I would sooner have just not translated a sentence than put a mistake in.

LK: The originals were hard to understand. In fact, some of the documents that we had —

ZB: The one with the wedding? There was a rule over the summer that weddings were allowed, with a certain number of people, but wedding receptions permitted a different number of people.

LK: And the rules were different if it was inside or outside. The original wording that we got was very confusing. We all had to discuss what it meant so that we could make sure we were translating it right. Each of us came up with a completely different understanding. In the end, Zoë went back to the person we got it from — this one I’m thinking of was from a doctor — and asked them. It actually turned out that none of us was right.

RS: I think that that’s something that’s so indicative of the upheaval caused by the pandemic. You’re all getting official information in a language that you’re all completely fluent in or a native speaker of. And the instructions were still so confusing.

KES: Sometimes we would receive text on Monday, I would send it to Zoë and Eli, and they would start translating. But by the time it reached Izzy and everyone else, the people that sent me the original would come back to me and say, “No, no, actually we reworded it to make it clearer.” It was so important that every single word was good enough. It was never going to be perfect, but at least there had to be no major misunderstandings.

RS: Have you felt the need to continue with this or to add to what you’ve done as the pandemic has changed?

ZB: A lot of our translations were reactive rather than proactive. We took the first step and contacted people, but after that, mostly people were contacting us to get more translations. Since April or May we haven’t been looking for more work on this, so it’s petered out.

LK: We’re really just waiting to see if the organizations that used the translations before need to get in touch again, if there are changes. 3 3Editors’ note: Lily Kahn added a further update in May 2021: We have continued with the translations during the later stages of the pandemic, and most recently we’ve been working on translations of vaccine information. We are completing some Yiddish infographics on the vaccines for the British Society for Immunology as well as some other information about vaccines for the NHS and an individual GP.

RS: Is there anything that anyone else would like to add that you want to be known about the project or about this work?

KES: It’s an amazing mix of academics and research assistants. We really learned from each other. And this specific part of the project, related to COVID, would not have been possible if our team didn’t have this mix.

ZB: The Hasidic community has a reputation for being very closed and being very against outsiders, but throughout all of the field work that we’ve been doing, and also with the translations, we’ve had almost nothing but warm and welcoming people invite us into their homes. People are happy to talk to us, not just about the language, but about their lives.

RS: Thank you so much. Thank you for your wonderful work in Yiddish and especially with this project that is so moving and important. I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to speak and I hope we see better days ahead.

KES: Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of this.

RS: With my work on the history of pandemics, this is what I keep telling my kids. This will end. This will end at some point.

Seidelman, Rhona. “Language and Trust in a Perilous Time: Translating COVID-19 Public Health Information into Yiddish in Hasidic Communities.” In geveb, June 2021:
Seidelman, Rhona. “Language and Trust in a Perilous Time: Translating COVID-19 Public Health Information into Yiddish in Hasidic Communities.” In geveb (June 2021): Accessed Jun 25, 2024.


Rhona Seidelman

Rhona Seidelman is the Schusterman Chair of Israel Studies and a professor of History at the University of Oklahoma.