Nov 24, 2017
Each summer, students gather together across the world to learn Yiddish language and culture. After studying at the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program at Tel Aviv University a couple years ago, this past summer I was lucky enough to work as a resident assistant for the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. During the seven-week program, I watched students go from learning alef-beys to speaking stuttering sentences to joking around in Yiddish at kave-sho [coffee hour]. Of course, because miracles are only for seven branched menorahs and not college students, no one became fluent after the seven weeks (perhaps it would have been different were the program stuffed into eight days, since we remain in golus [diaspora] after all!). So, in proper American-Yiddishist tradition, Steiner student Noam Green and I sat together early this September to talk about Yiddish—the language, the language learning community and the places where such community forms—in English. In the months following we kept this conversation going over the internet, which eventually produced the conversation below. We discuss queers, Hasidim, board games, and anxiety about excessive anxiety; in short, all that comes with the territory of devoting one marvelous summer to Yiddish language learning. —Tova Benjamin
p.s. Applications for the 2018 Steiner program are open now! Apply here. (Note: the YBC had nothing to do with this personal plug and whole-hearted recommendation for a fully subsidized Yiddish summer program among cows and corn).
Tova: The first thing that both of us wanted to talk about was just how many queer people end up coming to the Steiner Summer Program. I think only three out of eighteen students this year didn’t explicitly identify as queer. Is that right?
Noam: Let me see—I did the math at one point when I was trying to see if there was going to be any queer drama this summer. (There wasn’t.) However, I’d say that three quarters of the people in the program were queer. But I don’t want to make assumptions about anybody.
Tova: Yes! I think that’s a safe assumption. And I know Steiner’s had an overwhelming majority of queer students in previous years. The program doesn’t bill itself like: “Heeey! Queer Yiddish program! Queer students apply!” so why are so many queer people applying? But I think there’s a larger question here about Yiddish and queerness more generally: why are so many queer people interested in contemporary Yiddish?
Noam: Yes, there is definitely a bigger question about whether there is an inherent queerness to Yiddish. I’d say that most of the people I know who are interested in Yiddish are queer, but that might also be because I hang out with a lot of queer people. I feel as if there is a definite overlap in the people that are drawn to Yiddish as an alternative to “mainstream Judaism/mainstream academic Judaism” and queerness. Maybe it’s because their experiences as queer humans could have informed their desire to find community outside of the Jewish mainstream.
Tova: When you talk to people who are queer or politically involved, especially as activists, a lot of them will say “I’m interested in a Jewish culture that isn’t necessarily mainstream or Zionist.” That political orientation surely overlaps with queerness—though it doesn’t have to.
Noam: Yeah, well we [Steiner] were in Western Mass also.
Tova: That’s true! We were in the so-called “queer utopia” of Western Mass.
Noam: Yeah there really is this sort of utopian feel to the Book Center, and there are a lot of layers to that, but in terms of physical location there are also types of people who are attracted to spending their summer in Western Mass as opposed to Israel and types of people who would even choose Western Mass over New York City. Western Mass is super dreamy: lots of grassy fields, farmland, patches of forest, really picturesque and serene. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the reasons the Yiddish Book Center was built on Hampshire College’s campus was the area’s resemblance to certain shtetl landscapes. I just think that physical location may subliminally impact the people who are drawn to the program. Western Massachusetts is a pretty queer place!
Tova: Do you feel like there was room for explicit queerness at the Yiddish Book Center? If so, why or why not?
Noam: That’s definitely a tough question. What’s special to me about Steiner is that you simultaneously have a Yiddish summer program “in the home,” at the Hampshire dorms, and then you have a Yiddish summer program in an institution, at the Yiddish Book Center. I found that given the nature of the Steiner program where you get to live and build amazing, beautiful community with awesome humans who care about the same things you care about, there was definitely room made for explicit queerness, most probably because the majority of the students were queer. It was really unique to build a home/dorm room communities with other students and with other queer, Yiddish-inclined humans. The sense of an overlapping queer and Yiddish community included members of the book center’s staff, which was awesome. It was something I noticed in high school when I did the Great Jewish Books program at the Book Center and which really pleasantly surprised me. I really looked up to it and definitely idealized this queer Yiddish utopia which I perceived the Yiddish Book Center to be. It’s funny looking back at it, but also was so great and important to me developmentally! So yes, I’d say there was room for explicit queerness at Steiner, both “in the home” and at the Book Center, but in very different ways.
Tova: What a turn of events!
Noam: Yeah! Coming to Steiner and living there was so special because of that. The type of community that was built among the students and with you, Tova, was very intimate. I also felt like so much of our time was spent unpacking different issues, topics, and identities. We would have these long conversations about queerness and Judaism that would go on for hours. Within the walls of the Yiddish Book Center it was obviously different, a more professional and “public” environment. That being said, I feel like that intimacy and queerness did seep in. When I think back, we were just these queer punks chasing each other through the book stacks and trying to read ourselves into what we found there. Also being an intern in a workplace with all these cool queers hanging around was awesome. Steiner felt like an institutionally queer space, even though davke it probably wasn’t the institution, but the participants and key members of staff as individuals that allowed for the temporary creation of a queer space this summer? (Maybe in ways that don’t happen other summers with different configurations of people?) Did the admissions team know it? Do the people branding and marketing it know it?
Tova: [laughing] I have no idea.
Noam: It’s a good question! If someone reading this has an answer, please let me know.
I feel like queerness can be a place and just as you can say queerness comes in a spectrum, I feel like diaspora is also a spectrum. The way I see it, the Yiddish Book Center, maybe inadvertently, places Diaspora at the center. They don’t so much make it about “here” vs. “there,” but it’s more like “this is us, this is Yiddish and we’re presenting what we have to you.” And that’s a unique thing. Do you think there was room for explicit queerness at the Yiddish Book Center?
Tova: I think the Yiddish Book Center has a lot of room for different expression of identity because the workplace is structured so as to allow open and ongoing conversations about pedagogy. My impression is that the staff is certainly aware and sensitive to issues of identity, but also allows for critique and suggestions from students which is really important. Also summer programs in the middle of the woods are probably the ideal romantic context, and I’ve never been asked to police any student relationships. But even as young love thrives during this seven-week alternate Yiddish reality, there definitely isn’t an institutionally ideologically-driven desire for Yiddish romance—which can’t be said for other Jewish programs for young people that have an explicit anxiety about Jewish continuity, like Birthright. I never got the implicit impression I was to helping to build “The New Yiddish Nation.” [laughing]
Noam: That was actually something I was thinking about. It’s funny that you mentioned Birthright because it’s totally something I wanted to bring up with you. Like what you mentioned about Great Jewish Books, they are open to the fact of sexuality, and also to thinking about the long-term health of Yiddish, but it’s not in like the weird way many mainstream Jewish institutions treat young Jews as vessels of continuity, where they want you to procreate and make Jewish babies and repopulate Israel. I think Jewish institutions that don’t have those expectations of young people are the exception, where they treat you as just another demographic. Simply by virtue of Steiner being a program largely comprised of young Jews that doesn’t hyperfocus on Jewish continuity (in the traditional sense), it’s queering the paradigm of Jewish college summer programs.
As an RA do you feel like you had a different, zoomed-out view of the dynamics of the program? Also with your background as someone who already speaks Yiddish [as opposed to the students who were at the program to learn the language]?
Tova: As someone who grew up in a pretty insular religious Jewish environment, the Yiddish Book Center was the first time I encountered so many people who were very aware of being Jewish but didn’t define that by religion or even by encounters with the Jewish religion. It surprised me how much a lot of the Steiner students cared about Jewishness because it’s a language program. Most of the students there identified as Jewish explicitly, there were maybe two or three people who didn’t. More than just learning the language, people seemed to come because of questions of identity, questions of religiosity, though that was more subtle, not as explicit. That struck me because I don’t necessarily associate Yiddish with religiosity even though it’s hard to dissociate Yiddish from Judaism.
Noam: I totally get that.
Tova: I would say it isn’t a “Jew Club” at the Yiddish Book Center, which could easily happen. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to any of the programs, you don’t even have to know anything about Judaism to go to the programs. Of course, it does attract more Jews than non-Jews.
I often struggle with the impulse to single out Yiddish as something more than a language. Especially if you’re interested in Yiddish as an academic or in a scholarly way, then it feels cringey to say “Yiddish is Jewishness,” or that a Yiddish program is a place for people to explore their Jewish identity or their Jewish queer identities, but it also is that for so many people. I don’t know how to reconcile those two things.
Noam: I had similar thoughts throughout the summer—sometimes I would feel so overwhelmed by how we put so much on this language, how Yiddish students have such high expectations for what it can be and what it can do. It can feel exhausting. I guess I had a few periods of cynicism this summer where I would feel like studying Yiddish can be self-indulgent. Especially in regards to how “Ashkenormative” American Judaism is already. I found myself wishing for Yiddish to just be a language. Nevertheless, I also think it’s beautiful and special that people can come to this place and learn about themselves through learning this super niche language.
Tova: During the [Steiner] program, we would have these conversations late into the night (which we called “the 2017 Czernowitz Conferences”!) where people would talk about Yiddish and Judaism and the relationship between the two. When I first got into academic Yiddish it reminded me how much I like being a part of a community. But that’s also where the academic/personal line has the potential to blur, conflating personal identity and scholarship and creating an “us” vs. “them” insider culture.
Encountering this secular academic community of Judaism also felt a little Neo-Hasidic at times. It’s always amusing for me to notice how some of the Yiddish world overlaps with something like modern Chabad, and during the summer I kept thinking, ‘This is a Chabad shliakh’s [emissary’s] dream,’ or a Hillel’s dream, because all a Chabad shliakh or the Hillel on campus wants is a bunch of young, liberal arts college students who are really interested in culture and Judaism and want to know everything about the history and rituals. Sometimes it got a little weird because it felt like I was a Chabad shaliakh—just having students asking me questions like, “What’s this Jewish thing? What does this brokhe [blessing] mean?” Certain times I had to step back and remind myself that I wasn’t there to proselytize or to spread Judaism, I was just there to speak Yiddish to people. But explaining the Yiddish language does often overlap with explaining religious Judaism. For example, we would do Shabbos potlucks, and there was always a question of, do I make kiddush? Do I light candles? I’m not religious anymore, so I wasn’t sure how to approach a Shabbos meal. But that’s a part of the territory: learning about a living language and tradition, and not just a language of books.
Noam: Would you have done any of those [rituals] had you not been at the program?
Tova: Probably not. I mean I do Shabbos sometimes with my friends.
Noam: Wow. Something that I sort of sense in the Yiddish community but can’t really speak to is a slight fetishization of the Hasidic community. Like every year at Steiner we go to NYC to experience “living” Yiddish and to get cultural context for what we’re doing all summer. One part of that was a visit to Hasidic Williamsburg which is a fascinating and fun experience, but also challenging in terms of thinking about how, as a secular organization, to do that respectfully, or if it’s even possible. In that context and in general Yiddish classroom settings, there’s an idealizing of Hasidim who “still speak Yiddish.”
Tova: There’s definitely a lot of idealization around the idea of “the last living speakers,” but then I think about how the Yiddish academic world used to think Hasidic Yiddish was “dirty Yiddish,” they didn’t want anything to do with it. Dovid Katz, either in his book or in a lecture, I don’t remember, spoke about how once the editor of the Forverts took photos of Hasidic Williamsburg because he thought that it would be gone soon and Katz said something along the lines of “If only the editor would have taken a picture of his own office.”
Noam: That’s so sad!
Tova: How would Hasidic culture come up in the classroom?
Noam: I’m trying to think back—it wasn’t so much in the classroom because my professor had us interact with Yiddish culture primarily through classic poems and songs, so it was more secular nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers. When we were reading certain stories in Yiddish, like Chelm stories or stories from the shtetl or about famous rabbis, that sort of appeared.
Tova: Right. Outside of class, we would have Yiddish game nights and end up using Hasidic board games from Williamsburg. A lot of these were gathered by the program director, who has a scholarly and personal relationship with the Williamsburg community in a really respectful way. In that instance, I appreciated how Steiner incorporated those board games, or learning contemporary religious songs in addition to twentieth century classics. It felt like an effort to see Yiddish bridge secular Yiddish spaces and other Yiddish-speaking communities. The Williamsburg visit is tricky; I think most Yiddish programs within proximity to Hasidic communities are unsure of what their relationship to such Yiddish-speaking communities should be. If you’re learning Russian you’d want to visit Russia where the language is used and Williamsburg can be a physical location for what otherwise might be a virtual, disparate language of academia or books. But, at the same time, there’s the uncomfortable reality that such interactions are necessarily voyeuristic.
Noam: Yeah, I agree with you. In my opinion, as much as I wish it weren’t so, the status of Yiddish in 2017 feels to me in many ways like “I’ll take what I can get.” That being said, we are always looking for new Yiddish pedagogical tools like Yiddish games, but the fact of the matter is that there aren’t enough people making new things. Who knows—maybe some Steiner graduates will help solve that problem in the future.
Tova: Bli ayan hara!
Noam: And the only people producing Yiddish board games, which can be used as academic tools, are in Hasidic communities. We use the same board games at Columbia University, where I studied Yiddish before coming to Steiner. I think that publications like In geveb [Ed. We did not sponsor this comment!] are doing a really awesome job of giving us more, too. I want to learn from materials from the past, but if we want objects that relate to contemporary leisure activities and contemporary pedagogical strategies, we often find ourselves learning from Hasidic tools without a self-reflective exploration of whether these are the most appropriate tools for our contexts. We shouldn’t have to settle and hopefully future Steiner students, future readers of In geveb are going to be the ones who are actually making sure that we don’t settle. Not to diminish the treasure trove of Yiddish art and culture that has been produced in the past. Until a Yiddish cultural renaissance takes place, I know I’m happy enough with the art that already exists.
Tova: On that note too, there’s nothing that I love more than the fact that Yiddish brings together liberal arts college students and Hasidim. The two can be from totally different cultural perspectives and backgrounds and yet they converge over the very fact of Yiddish. In that sense, Yiddish can be a way to initiate conversations that might have otherwise been impossible. The shared language forces Hasidim to encounter academics or queers or culturally different folks and vice versa; the two groups have to consider the other as people.
Noam: I totally agree with you. I feel like the tension at this point is almost implied. In studying Yiddish you’re going to be straddling that line.
Tova: The religious/secular line. That brings me to the next thing I wanted to talk about: fluency.
It feels as if the language’s tenuous existence forces a different standard of Yiddish fluency. For starters, having an immersive Yiddish program is very difficult. I mean, even what we’re doing right now: this interview is for a Yiddish journal, but we’re talking in English. Could we have this same conversation in Yiddish? Post-vernacularity, blah blah blah. But it’s very difficult to have an immersive Yiddish program. So hiring an RA who speaks Yiddish (me) was supposed to simulate that experience. And even if I’m fluent in the language and culture, I still make plenty of mistakes, and there’s a lot of words I don’t know; yet that’s still considered fluency. I don’t know if you could make an elementary grammar mistake in a conversation in another language and be called fluent; (then again, other languages have less politicized grammar rules and standardizations accepted by all speakers of that language…)
Did you feel there was a certain level of fluency that was expected from you at Steiner, or did you acquire a certain level of fluency? Relatedly, do you think fluency in Yiddish is possible from a Yiddish summer language learning program?
Noam: Oh that’s a good question. A basic answer is yes, I left Steiner knowing more Yiddish than I came in with. I don’t know if it’s simply due to my own standards that I hold myself to, but I don’t consider myself fluent. I would consider myself to be a solid intermediate. I feel like I completed an intermediate language course—I’ve only spent a year speaking this language. But I think the fact of the matter is that there are no set standards for how you speak this language. I feel like more than anything, pre-existing power dynamics determine how someone is respected as a speaker of Yiddish. Like if you walk in speaking Yiddish with a strong American accent and a dictionary in one hand, but have a very strong foundation in “standardized” rules of grammar versus someone who has never sat in a Yiddish grammar class, like what does that mean? I don’t have the answer to that question.
Tova: Do you think that you could become fluent though? And if you did become fluent what would that look like? Would that mean more Yiddish language summer programs? Would that be classes at university? Would that be going to Workmen’s Circle? Yiddish Farm?
Noam: I think that realistically in terms of my life (I’m trying to graduate with two undergraduate degrees in four years), I don’t know if I can take more Yiddish language classes. I want to, though! That being said, I’m definitely not done with Yiddish. I’d love to reach a level of fluency. Taking all the Yiddish language classes offered at Columbia would be very satisfying and rewarding to me. I’d be able to say “I’m done.” Having that limit already set for me and then being able to reach it would be great.