Using Yiddish in Working with Older Adults: A Conversation

Benna Kessler, Victoria McNeill, Jay Lewkowitz and Tamara Gleason Freidberg

Edited by The Editors


Our ped­a­gogy sec­tion often focus­es on teach­ing pop­u­la­tions who are learn­ing Yid­dish for the first time, often as young adults in uni­ver­si­ty cours­es or com­mu­ni­ty cours­es. But Yid­dish ped­a­gogy is at home in a vari­ety of con­texts, from retirees turn­ing to Yid­dish to enrich their intel­lec­tu­al lives and build com­mu­ni­ty to clubs and read­ing groups cater­ing to a vari­ety of ages and stages, to chil­dren learn­ing Yid­dish through sto­ry and song, and so much more. 

In this con­ver­sa­tion, we turn our atten­tion specif­i­cal­ly to those who are using Yid­dish in work­ing with old­er adults. We want­ed to learn more about where and how Yid­dish is used with this pop­u­la­tion and offer some advice for In geveb read­ers who are look­ing for advice on inter­act­ing with this pop­u­la­tion in/​with Yiddish.

We are grate­ful to all of our par­tic­i­pants for tak­ing the time to share their thoughts with us.

If you have ideas of sim­i­lar top­ics we should cov­er or con­ver­sa­tions we should be hav­ing in the ped­a­gogy sec­tion of In geveb, please write to us.

Can you describe how you use Yiddish language or culture in working with older adults?

Victoria McNeill: As a music therapist working in the Jewish community, I have explored a wide range of Yiddish songs and Klezmer music to foster community, musical engagement, and reminiscence with Jewish seniors with dementia. I came to this work as an outsider and was educated by my group members on the songs that were important to their lives. This served as a launching point to further explore the significant melodies, songs, and musical traditions of Yiddish culture. With my group members as experts on Yiddish culture, they were empowered and proud to educate me, and I was able to expand my knowledge as a musician to better serve their wellness needs.

Benna Kessler: I run the activity and program department at a Jewish retirement community in Chicago. Each week I lead a Yiddish group. We alternate between Yiddish music one week and Yiddish reading and conversation the next. Each music week I prepare songs that revolve around a particular topic (food, weddings, labor, etc), singer/performer, or holiday. At this point I have prepared over 70 presentations on different topics. Each reading and conversation week I prepare a question for us to discuss, and a chapter of whichever book we are reading at the moment. We have read Motl Peyse Dem Khazns, parts of Zikhroynes fun a yidisher revolutsyonern by Puah Rakovsky, and are currently reading Yudl Mark’s Ale Mames Zaynen Sheyn. The music group is by design accessible to all, even those who don’t know any Yiddish. The reading and conversation group is less accessible to non-speakers, but we have a number of non-speaker (and non-understander!) participants who show up anyway because they feel a connection to the language or just enjoy hearing the stories (I translate everything into English as we go).

Jay Lewkowitz: I conduct a weekly, hour long Zoom for CJE Senior Life - Cyberclub. This program began during Covid, and continues to the present. The format is the viewing of some Yiddish content primarily taken from YouTube. Music, klezmer, Yiddish theater songs, Yiddish classic songs, performances of various kinds. Literary - Yiddish authors being read aloud with subtitles. Film - clips from Yiddish films of the 1930s and 40s; comedy acts, cantorial performances and National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene. Jewish holidays become a part of the programming with Yiddish content. This becomes a subject for the group’s discussion. Often, something brought up in the group becomes the subject of the following week’s hour. Primarily, I am the one speaking in Yiddish. Of the regular participants there are two or three that actually speak in Yiddish. In that situation, conversation takes place in Yiddish. Those who speak English in the conversation understand the Yiddish being spoken, but are reluctant to speak. When there is a new participant I always ask what brings them to Yiddish. Common responses express the nostalgic connection. “I just like hearing it. It reminds me of my _____ parents, grandparents, youth.” Regular participants include a recent citizen of Ukrainian origin, a child survivor, and two children of survivors.

Tamara Gleason Freidberg: I facilitate a Yiddish Workshop at the Holocaust Survivor’s Centre (HSC) in London. The HSC is a part of Jewish Care and is dedicated to bringing a variety of cultural and social programs to older adults who were affected by the Holocaust. Some of the members learned Yiddish at home and survived the camps or learned Yiddish in the camps; others came to London with the kindertransport; while others migrated before the War. Some of the members require care while other members are 97 years old and fully independent. The Yiddish workshop I facilitate twice a month takes place entirely in Yiddish and aims at discussing current politics, listening to Yiddish music, Jewish history, or any other topic that interests the participants. Since a lot of the participants learned Yiddish at home, the workshop is a dynamic process in which I teach them certain aspects of Yiddish literature that most of them did not learn as some of them came from Hasidic backgrounds, and in return they teach me many aspects of Yiddish culture or language I have not heard before. For example, they’ve taught me the Yiddish words for some fruits that do not come from Polish and I did not learn while learning standard Yiddish. I discuss and show them what is happening in today’s Yiddish world like Yidlife Crisis episodes, new Yiddish singers, or new books and they teach me about older Yiddish singers I have not heard before like David Bagley or Leo Fuld.

What are some particular challenges and rewards of working with this population?

Victoria McNeill: In working with Yiddish speaking seniors, I of course ended up working with Holocaust survivors. In some instances, one song that brought joy to a member brought traumatic memories for others. For people with Dementia, the repair needed to navigate these moments required therapeutic and counseling skills beyond the scope of what many clinicians may come to music therapy with. In these moments, it was key to have familiar faces in the room, other professionals who know the individual, and a stabilizing musical experience to bring the individual back to the group and out of their trauma loop. It was awful to realize the ways beautiful traditions that once brought comfort had turned for these folks.

Benna Kessler: I love working with older adults. Learning about the lives they’ve lived helps me better understand and remember the history I learned in school. It is especially rewarding to hear about the lives of older Yiddish speakers from Europe- particularly those who were born before the war- and to hear about what life was like when they were children. Yiddish has also allowed me to connect with Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors in a way that others cannot. I have worked with several survivors who were otherwise reluctant to talk about their experiences during the war, but who have shared their stories with me because of the connection we made through Yiddish. That has been an immense honor and privilege. Because of the nature of my work, I feel very close to the people I work with, and so it is often very painful for me when they inevitably pass away. I feel this most keenly with those who speak Yiddish because of what they represent to me.

Jay Lewkowitz: My father was a survivor of the Łódź ghetto, Auschwitz, and a death march. My mother and her family came to the United States in 1937. My grandparents spoke Yiddish to each other and to their children. Family gatherings were 75% in Yiddish. It was in college that I befriended several other children of survivors, and we began to speak to each other in Yiddish. During college I would write to my mother in Yiddish and she would reply, including the corrections of my spelling. Working in Yiddish is a nostalgic journey for me. It is a way to keep the culture that was so ruthlessly attacked still alive.

The challenge is to conduct a group whose members are from various levels of Yiddish fluency, and who have different expectations. Looking for new content is a challenge as well.

Tamara Gleason Freidberg: I think some of the challenges we tend to think are particular to older people’s behavior are similar to those you would encounter in any informal education setting (even sometimes at synagogue!) and some of the challenges are indeed related to the particular population. I would say that as in any informal setting, some of the members are eager to talk and gossip with their friends, and that has created a lot of disruption in my sessions if I, or my guests, want to stubbornly stick to the plan but if you play around it or provide a space for these interactions to take place it is perfectly fine. The main challenge particular to the population is when one of the members is developing memory loss and their behavior is confusing for the rest of the members and to me. Another challenge I encounter is when the members ask too many personal questions to a guest about their Jewish identity or non-Jewish identity and the guest’s interest in Yiddish. Finally, a challenge I have encountered is that most of the members do not feel as emotionally engaged when I speak standard Yiddish and they have requested I should use the Polish pronunciation which I have found difficult to do.

Working with this population has been a true blessing for me. As any other immigrant I have struggled to adapt to England culturally and linguistically and the members have taught me very important things about English culture. The fact that they were immigrants themselves, and in dramatically disadvantaged positions, has always helped me to see them as role models. I think one of the aspects I love most about Yiddish is the transgenerational contact that takes place between speakers who would not interact otherwise. Thanks to Yiddish I have interacted with toddlers, adolescents, younger adults, and older adults I would have never met.

What has been surprising for you?

Victoria McNeill: I was surprised to learn how many Yiddish phrases are a part of the English vernacular. I also loved to see that way people come alive when met with traditions that are familiar to them. There is a great deal of validation to be experienced in the music we know, being met with the things that anchor us in family, tradition, and identity. Yiddish language and song were pillars for me in connecting with the seniors I worked with.

Benna Kessler: Nothing has been terribly surprising, to be honest. But what has been very rewarding has been seeing people whose Yiddish was quite tsebrokhn at the beginning of our Yiddish group who are now speaking and reading much more fluently as they get a chance to practice. They themselves are often surprised at the words they come up with that they probably haven’t used in 50, 60, 70- plus years.

Jay Lewkowitz: I have been surprised by the amount of visitors to our Zoom that were second and third generation Americans. The fact that Yiddish had a relevance to people who were several generations past their original immigrant connection was not expected.

Tamara Gleason Freidberg: I think that what was very surprising when I first started coming and facilitating the group, around seven years ago, when many more Holocaust survivors were alive and attended the session, was how they openly discussed their experiences in the concentration camps. They would tell very graphic or moving stories about how they survived and since some of them met in the camps or on their trip to London as survivors they would share common memories. This has changed over the years as many of the members have died which is of course difficult for me as I have developed a relationship with them over the years. I was also surprised this Purim when the members started reciting a Purim folklore rhyme they had learned at home that I then encountered in a Purim teaching resource that Arun Viswanath put together.

How do you think Yiddish is beneficial or enriching for this population in particular?

Victoria McNeill: The music of our childhood, what our parents listened to, and the music we explored in our 20s is what anchors us in identity and place throughout our lives. For the people I worked with, Yiddish language and song re-established identity, moments, and community during our sessions. These moments fostered genuine play and enthusiasm for people living with a debilitating disease.

Benna Kessler: Yiddish allows older adults to connect with their history and reminisce about their past. And to Victoria’s point: music especially is what I like to call “the great equalizer,” especially for individuals with dementia. Someone who cannot remember the day of the week or what they ate for lunch or how to brush their teeth can often remember all the lyrics to a song from their childhood. This is true not just of Yiddish music, of course, but the double whammy of music plus the nostalgic influence of Yiddish can be especially comforting.

Separately, in my leyenkrayz, the members have greatly enjoyed being introduced to Yiddish texts that they would otherwise never have read.

Jay Lewkowitz: Reminiscence is a way for seniors to connect with positive periods in their lives. It is also a source of validation of their sense of selves, a reinforcement of their identity.

Tamara Gleason Freidberg: I think that Yiddish has brought them an opportunity to speak a language they would not speak in another setting, think about their childhoods in a positive way, get to know people with whom they share things in common, and learn about Yiddish culture nowadays. Some of the members have expressed relief and surprise upon learning that there are secular Jewish children who speak Yiddish at home.

What kind of training would you suggest for a Yiddishist who wants to start engaging with an older population? What advice do you have?

Victoria McNeill: There are so many fantastic resources online and in the people around you. Learn from that and don’t be afraid to try. It is your authenticity and joy that comes through when working with older adults. Also, take what they say to you seriously. They know what they like best. Older folks deserve to be empowered and cultural identity is one that we can anchor ourselves in when other aspects of our independent lives start to shift.

Benna Kessler: My advice is: don’t be afraid of older adults! With any luck you’ll be one yourself some day. They just want to be treated and spoken to like adults, and, like Victoria said, taken seriously. If you are planning on spending time with individuals with dementia, I would highly recommend taking some time to learn about dementia and how to respond and engage with someone who may say or do things that don’t always make sense to you. If you feel comfortable it will help make the person you’re working with feel comfortable, and vice versa.

Jay Lewkowitz: Hands-on is the best. Should someone be interested in engaging with an older population, volunteering would be a good way to do so. Presuming that the Yiddishist was interested in older adults, some emotional draw is already present. By volunteering at a long term care facility, adult day care, community center, you are under the supervision of a senior care professional who would help fine tune the volunteer’s interest in the senior population. Ideally, some reading would be a part of the training of the volunteer. However, just being yourself is what the seniors will respond to - no matter the content.

Tamara Gleason Freidberg: I agree with Benna Kessler and would follow her advice to a tee. I would also suggest learning a little bit about ageism and what are the biases and stereotypes that we carry and we have to be self-critical when engaging with a population frequently othered by younger generations. Unfortunately, I have encountered a lot of ageism among Yiddishists my age, mainly in Yiddish summer programs. This is not to say that some younger Yiddishists are more ageist than younger adults who are learning any other language, but I do think that Yiddish culture and literature programs allow more transgenerational contact that is somehow absent in other language-intensive programs which results in the possibility of these biases to surface. However, it is interesting to think how the Yiddish language itself has been othered and negatively portrayed by the Jewish mainstream as something that only belongs to the “older generation”.

Kessler, Benna, Victoria McNeill, Jay Lewkowitz, and Tamara Gleason Freidberg . “Using Yiddish in Working with Older Adults: A Conversation.” In geveb, May 2024:
Kessler, Benna, Victoria McNeill, Jay Lewkowitz, and Tamara Gleason Freidberg . “Using Yiddish in Working with Older Adults: A Conversation.” In geveb (May 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Benna Kessler

Benna grew up speaking Yiddish at home with her mother. She has studied Yiddish at the YIVO Intensive Yiddish Summer Program and, most recently, at the Maison de la Culture Yiddish in Paris.

Victoria McNeill

Victoria McNeill (MMus, MTA) has been working as an accredited music therapist since 2014.

Jay Lewkowitz
Tamara Gleason Freidberg

Tamara Gleason Freidberg is a historian (MPhil by UNAM, Mexico) and a gerontologist (MSc by King’s College London). She is a PhD candidate in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UCL London.


The Editors