May 06, 2021
I started working at the beginning of a global quarantine last year, after two years of my personal quarantine. I was on maternity leave, raising my daughter during the day, finishing my dissertation at night, and “attending” various online courses — from Esperanto to metaphysics. My personal quarantine was also compounded by moving to a new city in a new country on a new continent without any friends or relatives, who all remained in Europe. Yiddish became the thread that helped me build new connections in San Diego. Paula Teitelbaum, whom I know from the YIVO Summer Program, connected me with Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, the founder of the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America (YAAANA), and I became actively involved in her organization´s activities.
Yiddish appeared in my life five years ago, and it was the last in the list of languages I used daily. I spoke to my daughter in Russian, FaceTimed my relatives in Ukrainian, communicated with my husband in Italian, chatted in English outdoors, corresponded with friends in Spanish, and wrote my monograph in German. I used Yiddish passively for reading. But in early spring 2020, Jana offered me the opportunity to teach Yiddish lessons for her organization. I had to teach it online, since it was March 15, 2020 — the beginning of quarantine in San Diego. I chose a theme corresponding to our moment: Yiddish in the Times of Plague.
At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, I opened Zoom to start the class and checked my email inbox. It was filled with new messages requesting a link for the meeting. My head started spinning. I vaguely greeted the audience already in the Zoom call and frantically sent the link to new students. Then I wanted to open my presentation, but I couldn’t find it on my computer! After a few clicks back and forth, I realized where it was — I couldn’t share it on Zoom because I had minimized it before.
These five minutes seemed like an eternity to me. I felt like I was failing on the spot. When my lesson finally got underway, it was still not easy to show the presentation, facilitate the conversation, and at the same time follow the chat with my right eye and the inbox with my left eye. However, the time flew by quickly as we discussed topics that were new to everyone. This lesson was a pilot project for our organization, and I, a Yiddishist without Jewish roots — which often surprises my relatives and students — became the first Yiddish teacher of YAAANA.
Gradually, we added new teachers and new courses. Of course, learning online has many disadvantages. If there were any problems with the Internet or a computer, then the students could not get to the class. If my connection was cut off, I could not log back in for 10 minutes. In addition to technical problems, online teaching reduces my concentration and impairs my vision. After online lessons, the feeling of fatigue is much more noticeable. Among the classes I teach is yoga in Yiddish. During yoga exercises, students’ postures are not always visible if the cameras are not aligned correctly. And I could only provide verbal adjustments, not physical ones.
Despite the disadvantages, teaching online has its strengths. It is very convenient for me to have various teaching materials (for example, In eynem), texts (especially from the Yiddish Book Center), dictionaries (Stutshkov´s Oytser and verterbukh.org), and encyclopedias (YIVO) online and quickly share them with students. Using general chat helps students learn new words. Individual chat helps to resolve organizational issues. Additionally, you can use video channels (Day by Day or Yiddish Word of the Day from Forverts) or listen to songs, while at the same time reading the song’s lyrics on the screen. For example, one of my students,Batsheva, performed songs from the textbook to the class. In addition, online courses allow for much greater geographical diversity; students can attend my classes from the USA, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Mexico, and Australia.
Despite the pandemic, Yiddish culture flourished online. In the spring, we staged an online wedding performance on a virtual cemetery background. The custom of marrying in a cemetery originated among Ashkenazi Jews, among whom it was known as the shvartze khasene (“black wedding”). These weddings were supposed to awaken divine mercy and prevent the plague. The performance was attended by the kale and khosn, the badkhn, and Yiddish singers and actors, among whom was my friend from the Yiddish summer school in Vilnius, Mikhl Yashinsky. My role was to talk about the tradition of the shvartze khasene in Yiddish and English, using excerpts from Mendele Mokher Sforim’s story “Fishke der krumer” and the film “The Light Ahead”, directed by Edgar Ulmer. Over the summer, we hosted the Mame Loshn Festival of Female Creativity. The festival was dedicated to forgotten Yiddish female writers and the themes of racism, feminism, transgender issues, and the transmission of Yiddish to future generations. I helped to organize and conduct interviews with Miriam Trinh and Sosye Fox, whom I know from the Yiddish summer school in Tel Aviv.
In the fall of 2020, Jana directed an online experimental Zoom play “Korone un der nayer ‘normal’ ” (“Corona and the new ‘normal‘”) as part of the Yiddish Vokh – Ale Vokh 2020, a loosely adapted version of Leah Hoffman’s “Kraft” (“Power”). I played a personification of Instagram and we met almost daily with the troupe for rehearsals. Although you could read your part on screen as an actor, you still need to speak, change the background, and turn the sound on or off at the right time; the coordination required is no less than in in-person rehearsals. We performed the Zoom play again at London’s Yiddish Open Mic Café. In December 2020, we organized our first Intensive Winter Yiddish Program, where I taught intermediate-level Yiddish with Katya Kuznetsova, whom I know from Moscow’s Sefer center. In June 2021, we will run an Intensive Summer Yiddish Language and Culture Program, a follow-up to our successful Spring Intensive.
Since November 2020 YAAANA has been building children’s programming in Yiddish as well. I am developing a yoga class for children in simple Yiddish related to the animal world. It is easier and more fun for children to repeat movements if they make familiar animal sounds. I can do these classes with my two-year-old daughter, who really enjoys the exercises, even if she is embarrassed by the strange faces on the screen.
While my goal has been to bring Yiddish into the lives of others, it has also found its way into my non-Jewish home. Our apartment is full of handwritten vocabulary or printed texts in Yiddish. My students know my daughter and send her Yiddish music and books. My husband has started to celebrate Khanike, Purim, and Sukes. Yiddish has gradually entered my family’s life, breaking up our quarantine routine with new activities, acquaintances, holidays, and experiences.