Blog

On Learning Yiddish in a Pandemic

Faith Hillis

In mid-March, my world shrank to the blocks surrounding my apartment. It was pure mayhem at grocery stores, but the rest of life entered a state of eerie suspension. The university at which I teach postponed final exams and then the start of the spring quarter. Meetings, conferences, and yoga classes disappeared from my calendar as organizations scrambled to move their activities online.

However, one community in which I was involved—the close-knit world of Yiddish teachers and learners—took no respite for COVID-19. In the first week of the crisis, a Yiddish discussion circle organized by Vaybertaytsh, the feminist podcast founded by Sandy Fox, brought me into my first Zoom room. By the time April turned to May, there was an embarrassment of riches of online Yiddish programming: intensive grammar seminars, open mic nights, singing workshops, even a group reading the recently-translated Harry Potter together. One Sunday in late May, I realized that I had signed up for virtual Yiddishland events that would consume my entire day, including a Yiddish-language yoga class, a celebration of Sholem Aleichem, and a cooking workshop.

I am clearly not the only Yiddish enthusiast who has grown more engaged with the language and culture during the COVID-19 crisis. New York’s YIVO Institute reports that traffic on its website nearly tripled this spring. Over 12,000 students—some from as far away as Indonesia and Zimbabwe—have enrolled in its free classes, an increase of 220%.

What explains the remarkable vitality of Yiddish in the era of COVID-19? The longstanding online infrastructure built by Yiddish enthusiasts—including long-distance classes at the Workers’ Circle and the Paris Yiddish Center—Medem Library, the Yiddish Book Center’s large and growing digital collections, and In geveb—allowed teachers and learners of the language to adapt quickly to the strange new realities brought about by the pandemic. But the current Yiddish renaissance is not merely a testament to the resourcefulness of linguistic activists. My quarantine study of Yiddish taught me that the language and culture have profound wisdoms to offer for the present moment. Studying Yiddish taught me how to survive—and even thrive—in a time of adversity.

My experience in the first weeks of the COVID crisis was one of alienation and despair. Every day provided painful new reminders of the fault lines that divided our society and of the difficulty of building social solidarity. On St. Patrick’s Day, drunken hordes thronged the streets in anticipation of imminent bar closures, invading the space of neighbors struggling to observe social distancing guidelines. Then Black and brown patients began piling up in ICUs, accounting for more than three-quarters of fatalities in my home city of Chicago. All the while, Instacart and Amazon deliveries accumulated in my apartment lobby, material manifestations of the risk that young and healthy middle-class people had chosen to outsource to the less prosperous.

When I began my study of Yiddish this spring, I wasn’t expecting to find relief from my anguish. I merely hoped to take advantage of the time that had been liberated by my long commute ending. I had been trying to learn Yiddish for several years, managing to squeeze in an adult education class here and a summer intensive there. However, my language study inevitably lost out to more urgent priorities. The beginning of the quarantine period meant that I finally had the time that I needed to make real progress. I was therefore delighted when Jessica Kirzane agreed to allow me to audit her class at the University of Chicago, where I also teach.

Soon after the class began in early April, I noticed my mood improving. Class meetings and homework offered structure to long days at home, and our Zoom sessions gave me the most sustained contact that I had had with people outside my family in weeks. More importantly still, my increasing comfort speaking Yiddish endowed me with the confidence to frequent the chat rooms, seminars, and events rapidly proliferating online.

It was a curious experience to meet fellow Yiddish learners online. On the one hand, intermittent technical difficulties provided reminders of the distance that separated us. On the other hand, the intimacy that came with the ability to peer into a stranger’s home through their computer camera made me feel as if I knew my new interlocutors much better than I actually did. The carpet-covered wall in Moscow, the bubblegum-pink bedroom in the Midwest, and the carefully curated library in London all gave me insights into who these people were and how they moved through the world.

The curious sense of familiarity that resulted, alongside the anxious mood of those weeks, made the conversations that unfolded in Yiddish Zoom rooms unusually honest and searing. Participants shared their fears for their health and for the welfare of their families. Americans and Britons seethed with anger about the incompetence of their elected leaders. These conversations often veered onto dark terrain, but they also celebrated simple joys. A Belgian spoke of the solace she gained from her daily walk to a park. A New Englander described the radiance of her backyard, now bursting with spring flowers.

As we shared our experiences, the windows beside which my interlocutors sat told stories of their own. It was sunny in Lithuania, overcast in France, and late at night in Japan. I had not left my living room, yet it suddenly seemed as if I inhabited the entire world. Sharing anxieties and hopes with near strangers who already seemed like friends, I began to feel the sense of solidarity I had been so sorely missing.

As the spring progressed, I learned that there were deep cultural precedents for the sense of anxious connection that I found in Yiddish-speaking Zoom rooms. In early May I attended an intensive language seminar run by the Paris Yiddish Center Medem Library. In a session taught by Ri Turner, we examined the Yiddish press’ coverage of Halley’s Comet in 1910. A French scientist had predicted that as the comet’s tail entered the atmosphere, its gaseous emissions would snuff out life on earth. Although his colleagues soon contradicted his dire predictions, the Yiddish press around the world remained fixated on his apocalyptic vision.

Seminar attendees immediately remarked that the panic set off by the comet was about much more than this unusual celestial event. It reflected a broader sense of cultural pessimism catalyzed by the era’s rapid pace of social and technological change, growing antisemitism, and intensifying geopolitical conflicts. The scientist had catastrophically misinterpreted his evidence, but the sense of foreboding expressed in his prediction captured the zeitgeist. Moreover, those who amplified his anxieties offered a perfectly rational response to a world that appeared to be falling apart around them.

Yet, as some seminar participants observed, the intense anxieties expressed in the Yiddish press offered a unique kind of communal bonding. Uniting behind their panic about the impending end of the world, Yiddish speakers from Russia to New York shared a common emotional experience that continued to connect them even after the comet passed. Their initial fear eventually morphed into a sense of betrayal, if not disappointment, when it became clear that annihilation was not imminent, after all. Eventually, the collective mood in the Yiddish press became one of self-deprecation, as journalists and readers made light of the folly of their own thinking.

A participant Zooming in from England wondered aloud if our own incomplete knowledge about COVID-19 had produced a similar form of mass hysteria that would appear misguided in hindsight. Another from the Midwest asked to what extent our response to the virus revealed broader social and political anxieties. We did not agree on the answers to these questions, but like the readers of the Yiddish press more than a century ago, our collective difficulty coping with the challenges of the present moment had forged new connections between us. At the end of the seminar, a thunderstorm swept through Paris, bringing cool and refreshing air after an unseasonably hot day.

Yiddish thus taught me the power of anxious connection—that honest discussions of fear and anguish do not detract from community-building, but can in fact serve as a foundation for new solidarities. On a more interior level, my Yiddish studies also offered me deep insight about how to organize my life and to manage my emotions.

In late May I attended a seminar on Ashkenazi cuisine organized by the Gefilteria. Its instructors remarked that the Eastern European traditions of wasting nothing and making the simple glorious are well suited for quarantine life. Proceeding to ferment vegetables and render schmaltz with great enthusiasm, they argued for the economic and psychological benefits of preparing one’s own kitchen staples. I was astonished to learn that I could make the expensive farmer’s cheese that I sometimes buy at stores in under thirty minutes using only milk and vinegar.

The Yiddish cultural wisdom that true happiness is defined by celebrating simple pleasures and prioritizing what is truly essential transcends the kitchen. The 1938 film Mamele, which is available in its entirety on YouTube, follows an unmarried woman played by Molly Picon as she struggles to care for her ungrateful family after the death of her mother. The musical number “Abi gezunt” [A Little Health]” made a particularly strong impression on me. Picon sings to console herself as she completes endless domestic tasks—cooking, mopping, and ironing. “A quiet place to put your head down,” she trills, “A shoe, a sock, a dress with no patches, three or four dollars in your pocket. As long as you’re well, you can be happy.”

Picon’s character’s optimism is not naïve. The song acknowledges the reality of poverty and suffering. Yet it insists on the power of small, generative acts to counteract despair. On Picon’s advice, I began to prioritize quotidian practices that improved my surroundings and the lives of those around me. I scrubbed my home from top to bottom, repotted plants, and painted walls. I volunteered at an emergency food bank, hoping that it would help others find the same sense of security and good health in their homes that I had found in mine.

As my Yiddish class drew to a close, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. This episode, and the brutal attacks on protestors that followed, spurred me to reconsider the lessons that I thought I had learned during the pandemic. The joy and wisdom that I had gained through studying Yiddish were only possible because of the multiple privileges that I enjoyed—a job that allowed me to keep flexible hours and to work from home, my access to broadband internet, my economic security. The coping mechanisms that I had developed were themselves imbricated in our society’s resilient injustice and inequality.

In late May and early June, my energy again turned outward. I joined car caravan protests and organized with student groups mobilizing against racism on our campus. Yiddish took a back seat to what seemed more urgent matters. Yet in retrospect, I continued to look to Yiddish for insight. Curious to learn more about its traditions of radical protest, I decided to analyze a series of revolutionary songs from the last years of the Russian Empire for the final project for my class.

As I approached these songs, I was mindful that my interest in the Yiddish radical tradition might bring the same pitfalls as my quarantine language study. My revolutionary anthems, drawn from the Bundist and anarchist traditions, fiercely denounce capitalism, state oppression, and the police. Singing them in tsarist Russia was a risky endeavor, punishable by prison and even death. Yet the people who love and sing these songs today are for the most part middle-class people like me. Some use them to evoke experiences of suffering that they have not personally endured, others to connect to their heritage. Is there a way of cherishing these songs and celebrating their intentions that avoids revolutionary cosplay, on the one hand, and inward-looking nostalgia, on the other?

I found the answer to my questions in the text of the songs themselves. To be sure, they invoke the difficulty and the specificity of the Jewish experience, but they do so in order to transcend it—to harness the experience of Yiddish-speaking Jews in service of the liberation of all humanity. These songs are ultimately not about calling-in; they are about reaching out across divisions, understanding the experiences of other groups, and joining with them in a universal struggle for freedom.

“To the Working Women” (Arbeter froyen), written by the anarchist button-maker Dovid Edelshtot at the turn of the twentieth century, offers a case in point. Edelshtot laments the difficult plight of female factory workers and domestic laborers, while also bemoaning the fact that they have not yet joined the front lines of the movement to build “the temple of freedom, of human happiness.” Citing the contributions that Russian women had already made to the revolutionary movement, Edelshot encourages his Jewish sisters to follow their heroic example.

Edelshtot’s song revolves around contrasts, acknowledging the significance of the fissures that divide men from women, Russians from Jews, and workers engaged in different industries. But he enumerates these categories not to reify them, but to overcome them. It is the mobilization of people from different walks of life in the pursuit of a universal mission of emancipation, he suggests, that infuses the revolutionary movement with its moral power and political significance.

Another song, “In ale gasn/Daloy politsey” [In all the streets/Down with the police], offers us a glimpse of a revolution like that envisioned by Edelshtot in progress. Its opening lines follow the narrator as he walks the streets of a city, overhearing residents organizing strikes and plotting to topple “Little Tsar Nicholas” and the rest of the ruling classes. However, the revolutionary moment described in the song is only partially defined by the crowds in the streets. It is also brought forth by the transgression of the boundaries around which Arbeter froyen revolves. Words drawn from the Russian revolutionary lexicon (“zabastovka” [strike], “doloi samoderzhavets”[down with the autocrat]) infiltrate the Yiddish as the melody gives way to joyous cries that envision the ideal world of the post-revolutionary future: “Kozakn, zhandarmen, arop fun di ferd/ Der rusisher keyser ligt shoyn in dr’erd!” [Cossacks, gendarmes, Get down off your horses/ The Russian tsar lies dead and buried]. Here the struggle to free Jewish workers has become subsumed in a broader effort to emancipate all tsarist subjects from capitalism, an oppressive police state, and the corroding influence of ethnic hatred.

In spite of the distance that separates the concerns of these authors and the protestors thronging streets around the world today, there are striking parallels between the organizational tactics and ethical claims of these two movements for revolutionary change. The authors of my songs emphasize the importance of being precise about the nature of the oppression that ails society and attuned to the ways in which it is informed by the intersection of class, gender, and racial/ethnic identities. At the same time, they identify the emancipation of the most oppressed as an issue of urgent concern to all humanity. This agenda is entirely consonant with the Movement For Black Lives, which centers the “the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people” while encouraging a politics of solidarity that has now given rise to a multiracial movement mobilized against racial capitalism and state violence.

Far from an invitation to romantic escapism at a moment of crisis, the Yiddish radical tradition should thus be read as a call to action. It demands that those of us who hold privilege interrogate how it has deformed us, take risks to dismantle it, and stand in solidarity with those fighting for their liberation and for the transformation of the systems that oppress us all. It calls on us, as Yiddish enthusiasts and as citizens, to affirm that Black Lives Matter.

A group of Yiddish activists have taken up this task in the most literal sense, creating a Google doc of Yiddish neologisms such as “Black Lives Matter,” “excessive force,” and “intersectionality.” But there is clearly a growing consensus in the Yiddishist community that the task ahead transcends the realm of forming a new lexicon. When I returned to the Vaybertaytsh discussion group in early June, the mood was more anxious than ever as the group discussed the uprisings unfolding in our respective cities. However, the participants, mostly white Jews from North America and Europe, also expressed greater clarity on how to move forward than I had heard in discussions of the pandemic.

Many recounted what they had done to support protests while freely acknowledging the inadequacy of their efforts. This work had pushed many of us beyond our comfort zones, forcing us to confront the dangers of a deadly virus as well as our own roles in sustaining the even more deadly plague of systemic racism. Yet in working together to identify and dismantle the forces of oppression, we were honoring a grand tradition in Yiddish radicalism and the urgent demands of the moment.

This summer is bound to be one of uncertainty and unrest. I expect that some of it will be spent in the streets, but I will also be sitting in front of my computer, taking a super-intensive Yiddish class that was originally scheduled to be held in Warsaw. May the weather remain fair for protestors in the streets around the world and for my teachers, who will be beaming in from several countries. And may I continue to discover surprising ways in which learning Yiddish is more entangled in the struggle for a happier, freer, and more just world than I had originally realized.

MLA STYLE
Hillis, Faith. “On Learning Yiddish in a Pandemic.” In geveb, June 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/on-learning-yiddish-in-a-pandemic.
CHICAGO STYLE
Hillis, Faith. “On Learning Yiddish in a Pandemic.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Sep 28, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Faith Hillis

Faith Hillis is Associate Professor of Russian History at the University of Chicago. Her next book, Utopia's Discontents: Russian Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom, 1830-1930, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2021.