Yiddish club revives interest in language

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Bubkes. Chutzpah. Kibitz. Klutz. Kvetch. Maven. Meshugeh. Noodge. Nosh. Oy vey. Schlep. Schmeer. Schmooz. Spiel. Yenta. Chances are, you recognized and understood most of these Yiddish words. They are in use every day in the United States by many more than just the Jewish population. Pretty impressive for a language which had almost disappeared in the late 20th century.

Today, Yiddish is experiencing a revival: from the rescue of more than one million Yiddish books by Aaron Lansky to the efforts of a project sponsored by Steven Spielberg to digitize many of those books to Yiddish language programs at secular universities to the growing number of conversational Yiddish clubs across the world. The 10th conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs met this July in New Jersey and attracted more than 280 people to its four-day event.

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So when Borders in Creve Coeur set up for the regular Monday evening meeting of the Grenetzn Yiddish Club, they seriously underestimated the popularity of the group. The gathering quickly used up their designated four chairs and expanded to a group of eight, then, 10, 15, 18, 20 and finally 24 — for that evening. The group’s rapid growth and need to be able to have animated conversations actually sent them looking for a new space. (They now meet on Mondays at 7 p.m. at Covenant House.)

The group evolved from a Yiddish class several of the members attended through the Central Agency of Jewish Education taught by Ida Stack. When the class was discontinued approximately a year ago, the students decided they wanted to continue on together, even without a formal teacher. Arnold Kaplan and David Levine took over the logistics of keeping the class together.

They decided to meet at Borders in Creve Coeur, which welcomed the group. “We made a sign saying Yiddish Club and put it up on a table and met there for about one and a half hours once a week,” said Kaplan. “People would be in the store and wander by, see us talking Yiddish and then sit down and join us.” The group picked up by several members by word of mouth and friends bringing friends. They also have quite a contingent from Congregation B’nai Amoona. “Thelma Edelstein, who was leading two Yiddish conversation groups, one at Covenant House and one at Crown Center, was telling people at Covenant about our group, and some of them decided to come,” Kaplan said. “So little by little we have grown to about 25 people.”

Though Yiddish is not a national language, it was spoken by more than 10 million Jews around the world before World War II. Despite the different dialects of the language, Yiddish provided a common means of communication for the wave of Jewish immigrants arriving at the turn of the 20th century. Yiddish language newspapers, theaters, movies and books flourished. Yet many first-generation Americans were not taught to speak the language. They remember Yiddish as the way their parents and grandparents communicated with one another when they didn’t want the children to know what they were saying. Sometimes the children would pick up a phrase or two and a word here and there, but for the most part, fluency in the language was lost by that generation when the baby boom generation arrived.

Members of the Grenetzn Yiddish Club have a range of abilities and ages. Some consider Yiddish their mother-tongue (mameloshn) while others struggle to make a sentence. “All abilities are welcome, we’ll find a place for anyone,” Kaplan said. “We all love the language. It is very close to all our hearts. We want to maintain the language and to take pleasure from it.”

After a bit of schmoozing, the group does a little bit of learning, sometimes testing each other on the lesson learned the previous week. They use a variety of ways to brush up on their Yiddish skills. For instance, one member enjoys singing Yiddish songs. She teaches the words to the group. Then they explore the meaning of the song and listen to a recording of it. Another member brings children’s books to the group which they try to translate into Yiddish. Levine has a book of Yiddish stories, some over 100 years old, he shares with the group. “And then of course, we tell jokes in Yiddish,” Kaplan said. “Though sometimes we have to explain them.”

Kaplan’s decision to learn Yiddish is a tribute to his grandmother. “She was a very loving, wonderful influence in my life,” Kaplan said. “When she died, I of course missed her and miss her to this day. One way I had to connect with her memory was through Yiddish.”

Tovah Enger is one of the younger members of group. She remembers her father’s parents using Yiddish. “My bubby and zeyde used to speak Yiddish at the dining room table as a secret code,” Enger said. She has spent more time with her zeyde since her bubby died. Sometimes he forgets she doesn’t know Yiddish and starts speaking in the language. “I really want to understand him and converse with him,” said Enger.

Barbara Land remembers her grandparents speaking Yiddish when she was growing up and never learning the language herself. “I decided to give it a try,” said Land. “I’ve really enjoyed it. It is such a great group of people. The more I listen the more I learn. It isn’t just the language, it is the experiences some of members share with us as well.”

Marcy Cornfeld remembers growing up totally surrounded by Yiddish. “We grew up in University City with Yiddish all around us.,” said Cornfeld. “Yiddish was upstairs and downstairs. My grandparents lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. My grandparents and their friends always spoke Yiddish. When I went to the Kosher butcher, they were speaking Yiddish. When I moved to Creve Coeur, I used to hear people speaking Yiddish when I would shop at Pratzel’s before the High Holidays. Today you don’t hear people speaking Yiddish anymore and it is such a loss.”

About 10 years ago Cornfeld’s sister Judith Newmark suggested they take a Yiddish course together offered by CAJE. “I told her we were too busy to take a class,” said Cornfeld. “She said if we don’t take it now when are we going to do it. She was right.” The sisters enrolled in the beginning Yiddish class and their mother, Goldie Jackoway, enrolled in the advanced class. “My mother is totally fluent in Yiddish and didn’t really need the class,” said Cornfeld. Eventually the two classes merged, and the daughters really enjoyed being in class with their mother. Today all three of them are part of the Grenetzn Yiddish Club.

“Growing up with Yiddish all around us, I picked up a few words and phrases,” said Cornfeld. “As my kids grew older I discovered the most expressive words I had for expressing my love for them were Yiddish. I had grown up with all the loving words and compliments in my life coming from Yiddish. I knew more Yiddish than I had realized.”

While the desire to learn Yiddish brings people to the group, they gain much more explained Enger. “It is more than Yiddish,” said Enger. “It is history. It is our personal history. It is our people’s history. It is St. Louis history in the early years. It is more than just a language, Yiddish is the connection.”

For more information on the Grenetzn Yiddish Club, send an e-mail to [email protected] and asked to be put on their e-mail list.