Feb 17, 2021
When Morris Winchevsky wrote the lyrics to Di Tsukunft, he imagined a better future: “dos lebn [vet vern] laykhter, gringer, ” (life [will become] lighter, easier). It’s safe to say he was not picturing anything like the year 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives, including Yiddish language education. As a Yiddish student, I wanted to document these changes, and conducted a Loyt di studentn poll among fellow students. Between late December 2020 and mid-January 2021, seventy students responded with their stories and thoughts on Yiddish pandemic learning. Despite pandemic challenges, students overwhelmingly emphasized their dedicated efforts to preserve and build a vibrant digital world of Yiddish learning.
The opinions expressed by the respondents were diverse and sometimes contradicted each other. For example, after the 2020 YIVO summer program switched to virtual instruction, one respondent withdrew their enrollment to avoid excessive screen time. Another respondent, however, was able to participate in the program only because it was online. Several respondents who began learning Yiddish during the pandemic found exciting new forms of community through digital Yiddish. On the other hand, seasoned Yiddish students deeply missed their in-person communities. Virtual Yiddish study was a better experience than in-person instruction for some, worse for others, and a mixed bag for most.
For almost all respondents, learning Yiddish has provided a respite during this difficult time. Judith Liskin-Gasparro called the increased accessibility of Yiddish instruction due to the virtual format “the tiny silver lining of the enormous global cloud of sickness, death, and poverty.” During a time of lockdowns and limited recreational opportunities, connecting with other Yiddish students offers not only academic benefits but also essential social interaction. Fred La Polla said, “Yiddish has been one of the few fun outlets for meeting new people...”
Even though Yiddish students could talk to each other virtually, they couldn’t sing together. We students love Yiddish songs because their lyrics help us learn the language, and their messages speak to us emotionally and politically. While Zoom can not accommodate group singing, students still enjoyed Yiddish songs through social media, virtual concerts, and playlists. In her masterful reflection “On Learning Yiddish in a Pandemic” for In geveb this summer, Faith Hillis described the renewed relevancy of Abi gezunt [As long as one is healthy] and In ale di gasn — Daloy Politsey [In all the streets — Down with the police], the latter of which was celebrated for its anti-police, anti-capitalist call to action in TikTok videos, crafts on Etsy, and more.
In a TikTok video from December 12, 2020, London-based TikTok creator Josh Cohen (@josco224) shares his love for leftist Yiddish songs with Daloy Politsey as the background music in a parody of Spotify Unwrapped.
I’d like to highlight a couple Yiddish folk songs that echo the experiences of students learning Yiddish virtually. Although the pandemic conditions of 2020 are quite unique, many Yiddish folk songs do speak to struggles such as financial hardship and physical isolation. Studying Yiddish can be difficult when a student’s basic human needs are unmet. The song Dire gelt [Rent Money], which decries the injustice of greedy landlords and inadequate housing, would surely resonate with the countless people in 2020 who were abandoned by governments withholding aid. The pandemic also took a steep toll on mental health. Those of us with access to food and shelter may have coped by overeating, oversleeping, and doomscrolling, instead of studying. Doomscrolling may be a new phenomenon, but the old Chasidic folk song Esn est zikh [Eating is easy] perfectly reflects the pandemic malaise mood when facing academic obligations as it croons esn est zikh, shlofn shoft zikh, vos zol men ton az es lernt zikh nisht? [eating is easy, sleeping is easy, what should one do when studying is hard?].
As I contemplate my own experiences as a Yiddish student in 2020, I recall both my gratitude for our community and my despair from living in an uncertain, suffering world. While reading the responses to my poll, my mind flashed back to the band Burikes’ music video of Morris Winchevsky’s Di tsukunft.
Filmed pre-pandemic in February, it was posted March 19, 2020, during the first week of widespread lockdowns in the US. The song’s future-oriented optimism struck me as an accurate encapsulation of 2020 Yiddish students’ attitude. As I marveled at the resilience of the respondents, their dedication to the Yiddish language, and their commitment to creating community, I realized that they possessed the most fickle, intangible, “virtual” thing of all: hope.
The year 2020 has not been the lighter or easier time that Di Tsukunft hoped for. Winchevsky also wrote: O, di velt vet vern frayer, frayer, shener, yinger, nayer [O, the world will become freer, freer, more beautiful, younger, and newer]. The Yiddish world did become younger in 2020: many respondents who started studying Yiddish during the pandemic were between the ages of 15 and 35. It is also newer, thanks to the proliferation of innovative content on a variety of platforms: new online groups such as Rad Yiddish (which I co-lead) and the Workers Circle College Network, and well-attended digital events about the intersection of Yiddish with current issues such as systemic racism. However, it is hard to describe any aspect of 2020, with its enormous COVID-19 death toll, cell phone recordings of police murders of Black Americans, and fascist power grabs, as freer. Like Winchevsky, Yiddish students of 2020 believed in a better future: They worked hard to improve their Yiddish and used Yiddish to try to improve the world, through projects such as the Black Lives Matter in Yiddish initiative. Dedicated to a better future for Yiddishists and for all, their work is only just beginning.
As one respondent, put it “I am SO FIRED UP to learn as much as I can before we can all get together in person again.”
How old are you?
People of all ages studied Yiddish during the pandemic, as the age range of the seventy respondents demonstrates. Forty respondents were 15-45, and 29 respondents were 45-75. The most commonly selected age brackets were 20-25 and 35-45 (with 11 respondents each) and 65-75 (with 15 respondents). Five respondents were under 20, and four respondents were over 75.
Where do you live?
Forty-five US respondents identified twenty-two different states where they live. Six respondents live in California, and, remarkably, eight in the city of Seattle. Outside the US, five respondents live in Canada, seventeen in Europe (including 9 in the UK), one in Australia, and two in Brazil.
Before the pandemic, did you study Yiddish culture and/or language? If so, how? Select whichever answer(s) apply.
Over a third of respondents studied Yiddish language and/or culture on their own before the pandemic, and one-third had attended in-person programs, classes, or events. Fourteen percent had participated in online programming before the pandemic. Over a third of respondents had not studied Yiddish language or culture at all before the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, how have you studied Yiddish culture and/or language? Select whichever answer(s) apply.
Eighty percent of respondents attended online programs or classes on Yiddish language and/or culture during the pandemic. Forty percent attended online Yiddish events such as reading circles and concerts during the pandemic. Half studied on their own. Five respondents participated in online tutoring.
Do you feel that you've experienced certain advantages or new opportunities because of the pandemic? Have you done or learned something you wouldn’t have otherwise?
Almost every respondent said that the pandemic dramatically increased their Yiddish learning. Several respondents partly credited increased free time, especially because they did not have to commute to work or to Yiddish programming. Even those who had limited time made Yiddish a priority, such as respondent Elisabeth van der Steenhoven, a member of the COVID-Committee of the Ministry of Health in the Netherlands, who was learning Yiddish every “moment I wasn’t fighting the pandemic.”
The most commonly cited new opportunity was the access to a myriad of online classes—for everyone, everywhere. Suddenly, students who lived in places without any in-person Yiddish programming or even speakers of the language could just as easily attend events as those living in Yiddish hotspots. Joseph Stein explained: “The availability of online classes is truly a game changer. Living in Colorado I have *very* few opportunities to learn Yiddish in person.” David Katz concurred: “The Zoom world has brought Yiddish closer to me. Before the pandemic, the cost of travel to centers of Yiddish culture… was prohibitive. Now I speak with people almost everyday in Yiddish.” Another respondent, Jordan Wax, described how an anonymous sponsor volunteered to finance his Yiddish lessons, and that “there's never been that kind of support for my learning in my regional landscape—being… more connected internationally allowed for that connection, which was such a blessing.”
Online classes were described as more convenient in several other ways. One respondent notes, “I taught a Yiddish poetry [class] this summer… my students could jump on the call from vacation or [while] waiting at the mechanic's.” If a Yiddish student could not attend an event, they were often recorded, noted Myra Spiegel: “I am so glad I will be able to watch [events] again, and see the ones I missed.” These recorded events constitute a treasure trove of musical performances and academic talks, which I hope will be available for free, forever online.
Some institutions and individuals had been offering online programming since before the pandemic. However, the vast majority of respondents only began participating during the pandemic. One respondent who had studied Yiddish virtually before explained that “the pandemic normalized online classes and improved the technology...” Clearly, there has been a dramatic increase in increased the production of and participation in online Yiddish programming. Another respondent referred to the pandemic as an “impetus” for their virtual Yiddish involvement.
Many celebrated their new connections with other Yiddish students and teachers all over the world. One respondent reported, “I feel like I found my people, online, during the pandemic. Who would have thought?!” Because classes were online, respondents had access to more classes at more levels from highly regarded teachers and experts, even if they lived across the globe from each other. Uri Schreter explained: “I've had the opportunity to meet and even collaborate with people I've been hoping to meet for years, and whom I imagine it would have taken me many more years (if at all) to actually meet in person...”
Respondents specifically cited the YIVO summer program, Trip to Yiddishland, KlezKanada, Yiddish New York, Worker’s Circle classes, the Yiddish Summer Seminar from Warsaw, and informal groups like reading circles. One respondent said, “I've also generally been really impressed with the quality of programming… most people/organizations I've interacted with in online Yiddishland have done a really awesome job of moving things online and doing the best they can.” Importantly, online programming was also more financially accessible, especially because participants did not have to pay for travel and lodging.
Respondents not only connected to the global Yiddish community, but also to familiar places and people. Myra Spiegel described re-connecting to a Yiddish reading group in a city she had previously lived in, and Cameron Bernstein joined her local Yiddish community for the first time through online events. Another respondent said, “I was able to take a course along with my mother who lives in a different city… We haven’t been able to see each other since the pandemic started, so ‘seeing’ each other online while speaking our mameloshn was pretty awesome.”
Rena Oppenheimer described the world-expanding experience of a collaborative project with YIVO summer program classmates: “Making a beautiful collaborative video project across space and time felt like a testament to what's suddenly possible during the pandemic… It feels like space-time travel… drawing on resilience of queer Yiddish-speaking ancestors, marking the joys and struggles of being alive in this time for ourselves and for future queer folx.”
Has the pandemic brought about extra challenges or frustrations? Have you missed out on a Yiddish learning experience because of the pandemic?
Despite the advantages of online Yiddish instruction, it failed to replicate the social and academic benefits of in-person Yiddish gatherings; according to many respondents, they missed the camaraderie and access to casual conversations. For example, digital Yiddish language classes do not allow for verbal practice as much as in-person classes. Respondents long to chat with other students before and after class. Making or maintaining social connections online can be difficult. One respondent said, “It’s not possible to meet new people and much more difficult even to chat to people I know online, compared to at in-person events.” Some respondents had trouble focusing during online classes due to a lack of daily structure during the pandemic, exacerbated by Zoom fatigue. Online classes can also fill up quickly and be expensive.
Respondents also missed speaking Yiddish with older native speakers. First of all, meeting in person with senior Yiddish speakers was almost impossible due to health concerns. Said one student, “I have not been able to spend time with Yiddish-speaking family members who are eager to speak the language with me because they are elderly and at high risk from COVID.” Moreover, some older Yiddish speakers did not attend virtual events because of technological challenges; for instance, many of those usually in attendance at Gustavo Emos’ Yiddish reading group in Brazil“weren’t able to continue to participate because of difficulties related to computer usage,”to Emos’ dismay.
For Yiddish students wanting to conduct research, the impossibility of travel and inaccessibility of archives posed challenges. For example, Rayyan M. explained, “a main reason I wanted to learn Yiddish was to peruse some of the books and newspapers we have in our extensive Judaica collection [at the University of Florida]. Sadly, I was not able to access them due to changed library times and distance from campus over the past year.”
Yiddish students lamented the loss of various Yiddish activities and events. Learners of Yiddish music mourned the disappearance of group musical collaboration and performance. Yiddish music fans missed attending live shows. Other staple events in Yiddishland that have been digitally re-formatted did not feel the same to their loyal participants. Some social and academic programs were simply canceled. Several respondents mourned the absence of in-person Yiddish summer programs. Said one, “It was disappointing to not go to the summer programs in person! I think my Yiddish would have improved more if they’d been in-person, and socially they’d have been more fun as well.”
Because they could not participate in the Worker’s Circle Trip to Yiddishland due to the pandemic, one respondent felt “redoubled in my desire to go… one day!”
How has the pandemic affected your plans and goals for the future as a Yiddish student?
Some respondents cited the pandemic as the reason they started studying Yiddish. A respondent named Ash explained, “I think the pandemic has spurred me to finally do it, after years of saying ‘oh, I wish’.” Many report that the pandemic “intensified,” “strengthened,” or accelerated their Yiddish learning. Yonatan “Ber” Zunger described: “I’ve gone from ‘this is something I’d like to do one day’; to having taken my first year’s courses, gotten to roughly an A2 level, and am thinking about how to become properly fluent.”
One respondent, Tegan, only continued studying Yiddish because of the pandemic, explaining: “I took the last final for my last Yiddish class at university in March of 2020… I didn’t plan on continuing to study Yiddish, at least for a while, since it wouldn’t have been possible for me to travel to any in-person classes off campus. Now that everything’s online, I’ve been able to… continue taking classes through the Workers Circle.”
Other respondents reported no change in their future goals and plans due to the pandemic. One respondent noted, “After two Yiddish classes, I am probably done. I have reached the point where it would be too much work to go further.”
Most respondents pledge to continue their Yiddish learning, often with more determination than ever. As Tegan said, “My obsession with Yiddish doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and I’m more and more certain it will be a force in my life for a long time.” A few plan to continue with online classes, with one respondent citing “the schedule flexibility and the much larger selection” as an impetus. Most are enthusiastic about returning to in-person activities, especially as the pandemic has opened their eyes to the wide array of Yiddish programming available.
For some, their experiences learning Yiddish during the pandemic have inspired lifelong changes. Explained Cameron Bernstein: “The pandemic gave me the time to bring Yiddish into my life as a regular ‘practice,’ and probably solidified a lifelong connection.” A couple respondents indicated that they are inspired to modify their careers to incorporate more Yiddish. Uri Schreter shared: “This hasn’t been just an increase or an improvement, but quite literally a fundamental shift in how I view myself in the world, what [is] my professional focus and passion.” On the other hand, Maya Ward-Lowery said that her pandemic Yiddish experiences “made me keen to pursue learning things I find interesting and not worry as much about it being useful or leading to a career,” which I find to be a lovely sentiment.
I am confident the pandemic will have lasting impacts on Yiddish students’ lives, and will forever change Yiddish culture overall. The pandemic has widened the Yiddish world, making it more open and convenient. Still, many find interacting on a screen awkward and lonely in some ways. They long for the intimacy, engagement, and liveliness of in-person classes and events. We all hope for the end of the pandemic soon. I am excited by the possibility of one day combining digital and in-person Yiddish to build a multilayered Yiddish world that is more accessible, more dynamic, and stronger than ever.
What can we learn from Yiddish student experiences during 2020? Online Yiddish classes and events must continue, as they allow many students to participate who otherwise could not. They democratize Yiddish learning, making it more global, cheaper, and easier in various ways. Still, in-person events offer unique opportunities for those in attendance. They should also be streamed and recorded for all to see. In order to be inclusive, Yiddish institutions need to provide scholarships, support students with accessibility needs, and take advantage of technology.
I cannot wait for it to be safe to speak and dance and, of course, sing together everywhere. As we experience a difficult winter, I urge my fellow students to maintain hope and keep working for a better future. As Morris Winchevsky wrote, “be brave in the ranks… to free and renew our old world.”