Oct 31, 2017
This reflection is part of an occasional series about Yiddish summer programs that we will publish this year across our blog and pedagogy sections.
When I began learning Yiddish at twenty-five, I did not expect that the language would bring me back to a part of my life I had decidedly ended four years prior. From 1998 until 2011, I spent two months every summer at a Zionist sleepaway camp, as a camper and then as staff. I counted down the days to camp each year, aching to be reunited with the friends and the sense of freedom which characterized my camp experience. But when I graduated college, I swore that that summer would be my last. It was time to “grow up,” I told myself. In some ways, I never looked back: I have had little to do with that camp ever since, leaving the heavily political education I received there behind me, keeping only the best of memories and the closest of friends.
But then again, does a person writing a dissertation on Jewish summer camps really get to claim she has “moved on” from camp? And is it any surprise that that very same person would eagerly sign up for her first Yidish Vokh after only learning Yiddish for a total of two intensive weeks? I could just barely speak Yiddish coherently, but it hardly mattered. When camp calls, I answer.
The Yidish Vokh (from here on out, the “Vokh”) is a week-long Yiddish language retreat for all ages. The Vokh began in 1975, when Yiddish philologist Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter brought advanced students from the Uriel Weinreich Summer Program for a week in Camp Boiberik, allowing them the opportunity to exist in an immersive Yiddish space. The Vokh has evolved and expanded over the last forty-two years, becoming “the only Yiddish-speaking vacation spot where students, families, and seniors from all levels… can come together for a week to speak only Yiddish.” 1 1 Yugntruf Website, Accessed 10/1/17, https://yugntruf.org/yiddish-vokh/history/ For many non-hasidic Yiddish-speaking families, the Vokh is a mainstay of their yearly calendar, providing their children Yiddish-speaking friends to play and communicate with throughout the year. Sequestered at a summer camp in upstate New York, the Vokh allows participants to embrace nature, relax, and make new friends. At sleep-away camp, you can reinvent yourself, shedding the expectations of the everyday. At the Vokh, it can feel very much the same, except that that new version of yourself also must be ready to speak Yiddish twenty-four hours a day for a week.
When In geveb’s pedagogy editor Jessica Kirzane first asked me to write something about the Vokh, I was not sure if I could think of it in pedagogical terms. The Vokh is nothing like an academic Yiddish program, and it does not even compare to Yiddish Farm, which is undoubtedly the “campiest” of the Yiddish learning options. After all, the Vokh exists for people who already speak Yiddish, whether from the home or from a classroom. Although there are Yiddish classes at the Vokh, which participants can pay additional tuition to attend, they are not the bread and butter of the program, and they are not for beginners. Attendees often come with their partners, children, and sometimes their entire families. The Vokh is more like a vacation after an intensive Yiddish summer program, a place to hang out in the pool and idly lying on the grass chatting in Yiddish — just as Schaechter intended it.
But the more I sat with Jessica’s request, the more I came to see the Vokh as a pedagogical experience in the mold of the very same educational and ideological American Jewish summer camps I study day in and day out. For nearly a century, Jewish educators have promoted the idea that camps are the ideal site for Jewish education. In 1959, Leibush Lehrer, the director of the Sholem Aleichem Folkshul’s Camp Boiberik reflected that his and his staff’s objective “was to enrich the camp program” with educational activities. “Conditions for this, we felt, would be ideal. We would have the children under our control for 24 hours a day. Special programs could be conducted without interference; there would be no street and no friends to lure the children away from planned activities.” Boiberik, like hundreds of other Jewish camps from the 1920s through the current day, immersed campers in their vision of authentic Jewishness. At Jewish camps both then and now, educators aim to transform campers into authentic Jews with the lived experience as their conduit — through singing, dancing, working, eating, speaking, praying, cleaning, governing, kissing, and memorializing. At the Vokh, participants learn to expand their Yiddish in a very similar way, acquiring new words as they watercolor, raft, hike, and dance.
Of course, the Vokh differs from sleep-away camp in certain crucial ways. Most of its participants are adults, less impressionable than children and with full agency to choose whether or not they want to attend. The Vokh does not have a director and education staff that sits behind the scenes designing an intense, ideologically-imbued curriculum for the purpose of molding or transforming their participants. It is also shorter (and thereby less intense) than most Jewish summer camps, which typically take place over one or two month-long sessions. If it has an ideology, it is not a nationalist or religious one like those of the camps I study, but rather a communal one: when you learn Yiddish, the Vokh proposes, you can also choose to join, depending on your perspective, a family, a community, or a private club. As new speakers eat alongside Yiddish professors and dictionary editors, the Vokh fosters the feeling that learning the language does not have to just be about studying a literature and a culture of the past, but about joining and expanding a subculture of Yiddishists that is very much in the present. Unlike summer camp, the “cool kids” are hard to place (Are they the people who go every year? The most fluent speakers? The new people?), and the nerd table is, well, every table.
And yet the pedagogy the Vokh espouses, intentionally or not, is quite similar to that of summer camps. While most everyone is a Yiddish nerd, the Vokh requires a degree of “joining in” in order to learn and have fun, just like all summer camps under the sun, because learning is built into the social environment. Participants acquire new words and phrases as they attend workshops, lectures, and leyenkrayzn, and do yoga, play sports, watercolor, and write new folksongs. Participants speak on topics that do not typically come up in Yiddish classes, learning whole new sets of vocabulary. (Shout out to Noah Barrera’s Yiddish Sex Vocabulary varshtot). The new Yiddish dictionary had a permanent home on the porch of the eszal, and was in constant use by participants eager to find the word they needed in order to express themselves more clearly. The Vokh allows participants to achieve new levels of fluency through immersion, through speaking to people of different ages, backgrounds, and with different dialects. Participants get more and more comfortable speaking in Yiddish, both when hanging out and having fun, and in moments of tension and distress. (It would not be summer camp if there was not a little bit of drama).
Furthermore, as the proportion of Yiddish students and non-native speakers grows year after year, there has been a grassroots evolution of the Vokh’s pedagogy. In 2014, the Vokh held its very first “Grayz-Krayz,” an hour-long assembly in which two or three of the most fluent attendees (usually Yiddish academics from Yiddish-speaking families) present the most common mistakes they heard so far at the Vokh and show corrections. This year, both I and another participant came up with the same idea at the same meal at different tables: an intensive language program for what Yidish Vokhikers call the mitgeshlepte (people who get shlepped into the Yiddish world through their romantic partners and family members). The Mitgeshlepte Program would provide attendees the opportunity to learn Yiddish while being with their loved ones at the Vokh, and would perhaps most crucially offer them a group of fellow-mitgeshlepters as a support system. (The Yugntruf board, who runs the Vokh, is discussing the possibility seriously for next summer).
Looking back, I am not sure I learned too many new words at the Vokh, though I always feel more fluent in the weeks immediately afterward. That being said, when I got back to Brooklyn, I noticed something even better than a slightly expanded vocabulary: I found myself thinking in Yiddish. I did not stop thinking in Yiddish for three whole days, and I even had a bit of trouble speaking English (which was equal parts enthralling and embarrassing). So, here’s to the Yidish Vokh’s pedagogy. Sometimes the byproduct of recreation is the best education. As a lifelong lover of summer camp, I am glad that Yiddish brought camp back into my life. I look forward to counting down the days to it for years and years to come.