Nov 30, 2023
Ahead of Queer Yiddish Camp and Rad Yiddish’s joint event “A Cabaret Fundraiser for a Lefty/Queer/Yiddish Future” coming up on Zoom, Sunday December 3rd, 2 – 4pm ET, three co-organizers freygl gertsovski, Sorke Schneider, and Willow Rosenberg sat down to chat about what brings them to this cultural organizing work and their visions for the lefty queer Yiddish future.
(1) How did Queer Yiddish Camp form and when? What does Queer Yiddish Camp do?
Queer and trans students, who were meeting through various Yiddish programs, were dissatisfied with the lack of care towards trans students and the lack of pedagogical materials reflecting our lived experiences. Some teachers had the audacity to say that our pronouns and genders don’t exist in Yiddish, that queer and trans people don’t exist in Yiddish, and that there isn’t literature about us — that we only read stories about khosns & kales because that’s classic Yiddish literature.
I’m really lucky that in my first ever Yiddish program I took an elective with Antia Norich on women’s Yiddish literature in translation. From the beginning of my Yiddish studies I was exposed to marginalized Yiddish stories, queer, disabled, and modern. I came to expect more from Yiddish than classic stories about the shtetl; I knew from the start that, even a century ago, writers, often women and genderqueer, were writing about abortion, sexuality, mental health, sexism, and other social justice topics, so it was more than possible to include it in the curriculum.
We queer and trans Yiddish learners dreamed of Yiddish classes taught by queer and allied faculty, where marginalized identities were not just accepted but celebrated. So we created Queer Yiddish Camp, which ran in May 2022 after six months of program planning. In this program, 17 queer faculty taught five levels of Yiddish classes and various Yiddish cultural and history classes including participatory Yiddish dance and vocal classes.
After that we started teaming up with Rad Yiddish regularly on their programs like Queer Yiddishist Shmueskrayz (conversation practice circles).
Queer Yiddish Shmueskrayz began during the height of lockdown. It was freygl’s idea; fae posted on Facebook asking: “If someone started a Queer Yiddish Shmueskrayz, would you come? Would you be interested in being involved?” and I happened to be the first person to respond. From there I became one of the co-organizers of the project. We held bi-monthly shmueskrayzn over Zoom 2020-2022. Through the shmueskrayzn and the queer yiddishkayt Facebook group, we were building a community. In these synchronous and asynchronous spaces we were sharing links, sharing knowledge, giving advice, and Queer Yiddish camp built on that community: it blossomed into a two week intensive where people had an opportunity to study with all queer faculty all different aspects of Yiddishkayt, queer Yiddishkayt, radical Yiddishkayt, and further build community. After that, we’ve continued to have periodic online gatherings. We also collaborate with like-minded groups to continue to make queer lefty Yiddish spaces available online and to continue to grow this community. We’ve had some in-person meetups as well, but I would say the real heart of Queer Yiddish Camp’s work is the creation, expansion, and exploration of an online space.
(2) How did Rad Yiddish form and when? What does Rad Yiddish do?
I moved back to Toronto in 2019 from a small West Coast city, in part because the queer and radical Yiddishists I met when I started studying Yiddish all seemed to be on the East Coast, or at least in bigger cities, and it was clear to me these were people I needed to keep being in community with. Shortly upon my arrival I got connected to Red Yiddish, a lefty biweekly meet up run by members of the United Jewish People’s Order. As with some of my previous Yiddish teachers, this group exposed me to new Yiddish spheres and aspects of Yiddish history I didn’t previously know about. I received a fascinating history lesson from Ester Riter about what kids from the United Jewish Fraternal Order shules used to learn, through these old books she’s kept for decades. For example, we read short stories from the readers that Yiddish shule kids were using in the 1930s, stories about strikes, in which strikebreakers and cops were the antagonists; stories about where the rubber in your erasers and rubber balls come from (answer: the labor of enslaved Africans, whose brutal working conditions are described in great detail). Ester is a sociologist and historian of lefty Jewish history in Canada, and she would regale us with stories about how it was growing up as a Yiddish-speaking youth on the left.
When the pandemic hit, I didn’t want it to spell the end of this special community of people practicing Yiddish together and applying a social justice lens to it. I started an online version of what we’d been doing, looking at Yiddish materials with lefty, feminist, or anti-racist content, focusing as always on making it inclusive to people of all levels of Yiddish experience including none, which meant finding or creating translations and transliterations of our source materials. From the beginning I felt it should be community-led. At first I co-led it with some regulars from the Toronto community, but, as it was online, people from all over the world started joining. Each session was led or co-led by someone different. Sarah Biskowitz attended one of our early events and became a co-organizer with me for a couple years, and later, someone at the Museum of Jewish Montreal connected us with a Montreal Yiddishist so we’d be eligible for the museum’s microgrant, and that’s when Asa Brunet-Jailly joined, who still organizes with us.
Rad Yiddish puts on online events that are politically and culturally lefty. Historically, Rad Yiddish has been ad-hoc and open ended; when someone wants to run a leyenkrayz or present something, they can do it on any topic in the radical Yiddish landscape. Sometimes these are holiday events like games for Nitl Nakht or a Purim celebration with prizes for best leftist Yiddish costume. We hold community events with a lefty radical connection.
It’s still very pedagogical and we’re still doing deep cultural and historic learning, though it’s not a traditional Yiddish language class. We also always present material in Yiddish oysyes, transliteration, and translation. This gives people who might not be taking Yiddish formally a way to access the language from where they are.
That’s probably one of the major differences between these programs. Queer Yiddish Camp, though non-traditional in a lot of ways, had Yiddish language classes with an instructor who provided a syllabus. Rad Yiddish events have been more open-ended. Rad Yiddish is like Yiddish free school, and Queer Yiddish Camp is like a radical yeshiva.
(3) How did you first start organizing with Queer Yiddish Camp, Rad Yiddish or a related project and what are your current roles?
In November 2021, freygl asked if I could help run Queer Yiddish Camp’s bank account and I jumped at the opportunity to support. Because in my day job I’m an editor, I volunteered to edit communications, and because I serve on a volunteer arts board in my town, I had other skills I could also bring to the table. My work kept expanding from there and by January I was the co-organizer of Queer Yiddish Camp. It was really fun and exciting!
Joining the Rad Yiddish organizing team happened because there was so much overlap in our leadership that the Queer Yiddishist Shmueskrayz event series became an official Rad Yiddish event, and then a joint event by both organizations. Now I work with communications, program planning, financial management, and logistics coordination like writing radical recipes for the newsletter and booking access professionals for our events.
I first got involved by responding to one of freygl’s posts in the queer yiddishkayt Facebook group looking for people to help build a Discord server for Queer Yiddish (not everyone’s on social media, and folks in the community were requesting an alternative). I had a lot of experience with Discord and offered to help. Later as Rad Yiddish and Queer Yiddish Camp were transitioning to a Sociocracy leadership model, freygl asked me to be an organizer.
Now I’ve taken on additional online administration of the websites, the queer yiddishkayt Facebook group – a lot of what goes on behind building community spaces – as well as graphic design, tasks I can do from bed when I can’t get out of bed because of disabilities. I’ve also started to organize our newer events including co-hosting the upcoming Cabaret Fundraiser on December 3 with Sorke.
I wear a lot of hats. I am often thinking on a strategic level from ideation through to planning to our long term goals, pulling things together, seeing that our operations are running smoothly, and our organizing members have what they need. I also get to be a creative producer planning the events, sometimes being a facilitator or co-host, and building community from the inside out of these organizations.
(4) What needs are these organizations addressing? What gaps are they filling? How are these organizations different from other Yiddish organizations?
Queer Yiddish Camp and Rad Yiddish both formed online. While they may not continue to be exclusively online in the future, that is their default mode, to be online-first. Other organizations may have pivoted to being entirely online during the beginning of the pandemic and are now occasionally doing something online, or perhaps not at all, but we want to continue to be a resource for keeping our geographically-dispersed community connected in a format that many find more accessible and affirming.
Accessibility is one of our founding principles. There are a lot of people who would love to be part of other Yiddish organizations, but are not, because of barriers such as programming not being geographically accessible, financially accessible, nor accessible from a disability justice standpoint. We have a pay-what-you-can model and are upfront about it.
Almost no organizations are willing to do that. You have to personally ask for a discount and get approved, and that’s not dignifying. We even made our most costly program to date, Queer Yiddish Camp, pay-what-you-can down to $0, and that’s exactly what several people paid, no questions asked. We don’t make people go through the undignifying process of proving or justifying why they are asking for a scholarship. If you say you need it, we believe you.
Queer Yiddish Camp is unique for being queer-centering. The folks who come to our events are not necessarily going to go to other Yiddish programs, because they’re not comfortable in those spaces so we are reaching those people.
Since we are made up of an organizing collective of queer trans disabled folks, of various backgrounds and Yiddish learning levels, we know what it means to experience a lack of accessibility, and to feel a lack of belonging in certain Yiddish spaces. Staying open to feedback about how our spaces can continue to improve inclusivity and accessibility and making tangible efforts to meet people’s needs is going to help people feel more comfortable and connected and feel a sense of belonging.
To that end, Queer Yiddish Camp, as far as I know, was the first and possibly still only organization to provide trilingual English-Yiddish-ASL interpretation. It wasn’t because we were trying to be a super unique or trendy organization or set any records; it was just that we care enough to ask people what their accessibility needs are in our event sign-ups and program intake forms. When a few students said they need ASL we didn’t automatically respond “well that’s not possible,” “we don’t have the budget,” “that isn’t how it’s done,” or “that’s not how Yiddish is taught.”
Instead, we approached it from a sense of asking what it would take to make it a reality, researching, taking the time, making accessibility not just something we pay lip service to, but something that’s considered in the budget and logistical planning, the takhles. We looked into the costs and realized we were going to have to fundraise for it, so we did. We found three Yiddish-English-ASL interpreters; they happen to all live in New York City. They were fabulous for Queer Yiddish Camp and the ASL speakers were really happy to be able to take Yiddish in a way that was accessible to them.
(5) How does being crip, disabled or neurodivergent connect to your Yiddish cultural organizing? How do you see disability justice influencing Yiddish cultural organizing?
My physical disabilities and neuro-spiciness definitely inform the ways that I can and want to organize. Our focus on online spaces that are accessible both monetarily and physically, that have sign language interpreters, etc. is really important for someone like me who spent most of her twenties in bed because no one would tell her what was wrong. My diagnoses are still very new to me, as is acknowledging my position as someone who is disabled and what it’s like to work with that understanding of myself. I only started getting diagnoses after I joined these organizations, so not that long ago. I haven’t totally connected my disabilities to my external work and communities; it’s been very internal thus far. I’m still figuring out what I need accessibility-wise in organizing and what to ask for. The first time I actually reported a disability in terms of “I need accommodations” for taking an online test was a couple weeks ago. Acknowledging that I’m allowed to ask for accommodation and not just pretend I’m fine has been huge. Being a part of these organizations has helped affirm that, but I’m still learning and still processing.
I’ve had the privilege of understanding how to navigate mainstream academic institutions and perform certain mainstream expectations of what knowledge acquisition and success should look like, even though learning disabilities continue to be a struggle for me. Learning and cultural spaces are inaccessible to me financially, socially, and in various other ways. I have long had to advocate for myself in these spaces and I feel a kinship with all who struggle to navigate or find belonging in these spaces, and to make sure I advocate just as hard for their access needs as well.
Inclusion and accessibility are not just a checklist, but about a holistic way of approaching our work, in which we are excited by those on the margins claiming a stake in it, and perhaps changing it from what we initially imagined it was going to be. It’s about not being afraid that this change is somehow going to erase tradition and lineage, but rather it will build on it, bring more people into it, and make it more inclusive and accessible for the widest possible group of people.
I don’t live in a major urban center, so that’s a kind of geographic inaccessibility that I experienced for a long time in my Yiddishkayt life before getting involved with these organizations.
Queer Yiddish Camp and Rad Yiddish value online community as a deep and valid mode of being in community together, rather than supplemental or secondary to in-person community and I see disability justice as further underscoring the embracing of identities which historically may have been undervalued by the mainstream, and leaning into the beauty of those identities.
In our presentation, “The Future of Yiddish is Disabled,” at Farbindungen in February 2023, we talked about disability justice helping to underscore the ideas that we are making space for ourselves in a world that is not just going to give us space.
(6) Why does it matter to you that there are explicitly queer and or lefty spaces within Yiddishkayt?
I think it’s always good to have queer and leftist spaces within any culture. The loudest voices and biggest platforms in Ashkenazi culture and Jewish culture more broadly are at best right of center in their politics, so it’s especially important to showcase that such politics don’t represent all of us, and in fact they don’t represent large portions of Yiddishist communities, now and historically. My grandparents were communists and Yiddishists, and yet that specific culture sometimes gets lost and glossed over by the mainstream Jewish community as some try to assimilate into Christian capitalist society.
To me, it’s also about historical continuity, reminding people that Yiddish has a queer history; it’s not like suddenly a bunch of queer people started playing together in the Klezmatics in the seventies and queer Yiddishkayt was born. There have always been queer people and queer subcultures in the Yiddish world.
Growing up where I did in New York City, I knew that left wing politics were a big part of Yiddish. I grew up in the part of Manhattan where Yiddish was associated more with the Forverts, and a little less with Boro Park. I think we need to remember that leftyness didn’t begin and end with a certain iteration of the Jewish Workers Bund. As we sit around the proverbial campfire and sing Yiddish communist songs from the twenties, we must remember that lefty Yiddishkayt didn’t stop then; it isn’t frozen in time, but has carried into the present and future. Yiddish still has a lot to say about contemporary left-wing politics.
In the same vein, I think we need to remember that there’s no default identity within Yiddishists, that Yiddishists come in many many varieties. When we have explicitly queer and lefty spaces in Yiddishkayt, it can help empower people to create other kinds of liberatory spaces that they need; it opens possibilities.
Explicitly queer and lefty spades are a way to help people find those with shared identities and shared understandings, and to build community as they’re learning Yiddish. It allows people to know that there are Yiddish spaces where they can feel safe(r) and more comfortable being their whole selves as they try to connect with this language, its culture, and its histories, which for most of us are our own histories. In the journey of (re)connecting to Yiddish, with all the complicated feelings and at times traumatic histories it can bring up, it’s important that the learning environment itself is not contributing negatively to that experience, but is creating a supportive container for the exploration and reconnection to happen.
(9) What is your vision for the queer lefty yiddish future?
It is a future that is in all ways accessible and accepting, friendly and loving, that says “come and join us; we’d love to have you”. There’s room for us all here together and we’re gonna work together to make a future that works for us. Warm, embracing community, that keeps going forward.
Reframing expectations about what life can look like, what community can look like, what society can look like. I’m always reminded of that quote from Ursula K. LeGuin. It was during a speech at the National Book Awards in 2014. She said, “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the Divine Right of Kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. And very often in our art, the art of words.” It has always resonated with me and it’s a way of framing this kind of work we do, especially this kind of artistic work like the cabaret, as pushing back on the idea that capitalism is the only way, that the society we live in is the only way, and that nothing can be changed.
The queer lefty Yiddish future is one where our Yiddish cultural organizing is not separate from the ways we show up in solidarity for all marginalized groups anywhere; in which we are rooted in our diasporic cultural identities as queer trans crip weirdos of various racialized backgrounds living, working, organizing, playing in multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multilingual communities; where Yiddish is one of many; that organizing politically as Yiddishists is once again a common activity; in which liberation for one means liberation for all; and where many futures are possible.
(10) What can people expect from Queer Yiddish Camp and Rad Yiddish next?
We are going to collaborate with a few of our partner organizations that we’ve worked with in the past. In the works we have a zingeray of lefty and labor songs, ones that are less commonly heard — so even If you think you know all the Yiddish songs, these ones are deep cuts, and hopefully there will be something new for everyone.
We’ve been producing Yiddish cultural events online for three and a half years and we are interested in branching into some in-person options. We will be collaborating with one of our partners who, like Rad Yiddish, are also based in Tkarón:to/toronto on adding some in-person meetups for lefty and queer Yiddishists, to practice Yiddish, and to sing Yiddish in a cozy, supportive, heymish environment. We are also planning to have another Queer Yiddish Shmueskrayz in the spring, open to Yiddishists of all Yiddish fluencies.
We also can’t wait to see you at the Cabaret Fundraiser on Zoom December 3rd, 2 pm EST which Willow and Sorke will be cohosting! There will be singers, dancers, comedians, radical Yiddish poetry recitations, some of it old Yiddish poetry, some of it new material written by the performers themselves. We have almost entirely all queer acts, and all of them are fabulous.
We’ve announced the performers on all our socials, so follow Rad Yiddish on Facebook and Queer Yiddish Camp on both Facebook and Insta, and you can buy by-donation tickets at https://www.tickettailor.com/events/radyiddish/1025964.
We are actively fundraising to support the growth of both of our organizations so we can continue to offer year-round programming, have a reserve fund for paying for accessibility professionals, and reach more people. Further, it is pay-what-you-can, no one turned away.
We have CART captioning and ASL booked. If you have any access needs the event description doesn’t address, do be in touch. Come enjoy the show! We would love for you to create the queer/lefty/Yiddish future with us!