"So, you're learning another dead language?" This was the ongoing joke in my house when I transitioned from my five years of Latin to my first summer of Yiddish.
Yiddish — a dead language? How could that be? I grew up surrounded by Yinglish and fondly recall the day I came home from school in 8th grade asking my parents why my friends didn't understand polk-es (thighs) and why I was becoming so tsemisht(confused)!
At the ripe age of 13, I realized I was innately equipped with something that most of my peers were not — Yiddish — and all thetsuris and nachas that comes with it!
Growing up, Yiddish was a large part of my identity, whether I knew it or not. But after reading Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky, I made a conscious decision to make Yiddish a larger and more prominent, perhaps even permanent, part of my life.
A quick Google search in 2008 yielded the multiple summer Yiddish programs that I sought, and with just one month to go before the application deadline, I scrambled to gather recommendation letters and transcripts while writing multiple essays that would hopefully win me a golden ticket to the Steiner Summer Program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
That summer at the Book Center made a lasting impression and instilled in me a contagious enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit. Fast forward three years to today, and I now find myself immersed in the ever-growing resurgence of Yiddish. As the new director of the Steiner Summer Program, it is my job to make Yiddish exciting and appealing to the young 20-somethings of the world, looking for 18 matriculating students each summer, all of whom go through a rigorous application and selection process in order to prove their penchant for Yiddish and its culture.
The program is multifaceted, and with each new year, the structure changes in order to best cater to the incoming students. This summer's program featured three hours of beginner and continuing-language instruction in the morning, a 11/2-hour culture, history and literature course taught by several renowned guest faculty, and finally, a research project that culminated in the submission of a scholarly paper and a presentation during a two-day conference open to the public at the Yiddish Book Center.
On top of the course work, students also had the opportunity to attend countless cultural and academic events at the Yiddish Book Center as well as travel to New York City for four days, where we attended programs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, toured Borough Park and the Lower East Side, and experienced contemporary and historical Yiddish culture there. Beyond that, these 18 students made lifelong friendships.
When I speak of my involvement in Yiddish and with the Book Center, people are always amazed that college students are interested in studying Yiddish. They ask, "Why?" For so many of us, Yiddish is a portal into a world that once felt very distant, mostly because our grandparents and great-grandparents didn't teach Yiddish to their children.
We, the young 20-somethings of the world, have pursued Yiddish for different reasons, whether simply to learn a new language, continue our studies in linguistics or comparative literature, learn about the preservation initiatives being taken by the Book Center and elsewhere, find a new connection to our Jewish identity, or to be able to translate the old photographs and postcards we find in our bubbe's basement.
So, is Yiddish a dead language? Absolutely not. With multiple institutions and organizations offering Yiddish language and culture courses and programming, Yiddish has become remarkably accessible. Beyond that, Yiddish is the "it" thing to do. Not only are we — the 20-somethings and beyond — passionate about the study and continuation of Yiddish, we are now part of a growing Yiddish network that provides incredible opportunities throughout the world, be they social or professional, academic or just for fun.
People still constantly ask me why I study Yiddish, and I respond with my now well-rehearsed explanation of how I feel a connection to Yiddish, and how I am finding ways to incorporate it into my personal life as well as my academic field of choral music.
I also shoot them a smile and share my new joke, "You know, there is another perk — I speak Yiddish so my parents won't understand."
Rachel Surden, who grew up in Ardmore, is pursuing a master's degree in conducting and choral music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.