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News and Opinion

Youngish and Yiddish

-- John Oliver Mason

At the Raven nightclub on Sansom Street, the Fabulous Shpielkehs get ready to perform. The concert is sponsored by Youngish and Yiddish, a group dedicated to teaching the Yiddish language to a new generation, the great-grandchildren of the Jewish immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe speaking Yiddish.

Beth Becker took the beginner’s Yiddish class last year. “My grandparents and parents speak it,” she says. “My dad actually went to school for Yiddish, instead of Hebrew school he went to Yiddish school. I never learned it, they did not teach it to me. For my generation, it was not something that our parents taught us. It was something our parents used when they did not want us to understand. They did not think it was important for us to learn it. It is something I wanted to get back, I think it is a very important aspect to Judaism.”

It has been said that Yiddish is a dying language, like Latin; Becker says, “I think if people let it die, then eventually the only people who speak it will, but if more people speak it, and more people teach it to their children and continue it, and continue Yiddish newspapers, Yiddish literature and Yiddish music, then it will never die.

Mark Chaitowitz, one of the associate founders of Youngish and Yiddish, says of his helping put together the program, “I started learning Yiddish independently a year and a half ago. At that time I was not aware of anybody else interested in learning about Yiddish and Yiddish culture. At that time, I met Evelyn Tauben, who was really the key person in getting this whole organization together. She expressed interest in starting some kind of Yiddish cultural activities in the city. I said I would be happy to get involved, and the rest is history.”

Of the program Chaitowitz says,

"It has been surprisingly diverse, and surprisingly interesting. What has been most interesting is the level of local talent we have here in Philadelphia that has gotten involved. What has also been surprising is how much interest there is from young people, interest in klezmer music and Yiddish culture and learning the Yiddish language."

Heading the Youngish and Yiddish program is Evelyn Tauben, who has a Master’s degree in Art History from Temple University, and is employed part-time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “I grew up in Montreal,” she says, “where there is a pretty substantial Yiddish community. We learned Yiddish in school, from elementary through high school, and we had Yiddish theatre. I come from a family where Yiddish was part of our identity and our culture. We went to Klez Kamp in the Catskills, and my parents helped found Klez Kanada.

"I have been living in Philly for a couple of years," says Tauben, "and I was just surprised there was not that many Yiddish cultural activities happening in Center City and certainly not targeting a wide-ranging audience. Also, the more I talked to my friends in the area, the more I came to realize they really do not know the whole world around Yiddish, and they did not know there was such a thing as Yiddish theatre, literature, and films. I decided I wanted to do something about it, to bring it to my peers and show them there is this whole other side of Jewish identity and culture."

Of the perceived decline of Yiddish in America, Tauben says,

"I focus on optimism. I came from a world where Yiddish never felt dead. It felt very present and very real. Montreal is a very different place, in the Jewish world internationally and especially compared to [other]) North American Jewish communities. My friends’ grandparents, when they came here [to America],) wanted to be American and wanted to speak English. To me, that idea is foreign. My grandparents spoke their native language to each other, Yiddish and Polish."
The Yiddish language and culture, she says, were not passed down.

Of the Youngish and Yiddish program, Tauben says, "We started by planning a whole series of programs, because we felt like we needed to launch ourselves and get in the minds of young adults." The first event, she recalls, was a concert in March featuring the klezmer-hip-hop DJ Socalled from Montreal, and Susan Watts, a fourth-generation klezmer musician. Another event featured Michael Wex, author of the book Born to Kvetch: "He looks at the roots of Yiddish language and culture," Tauben says. Another author featured was Sam Apple, who wrote Schlepping Through The Alps.

Other activities include Yiddish classes; "We did not realize how popular they would be," she adds. "The students really loved it, they really connected with it, and they basically begged to continue. So this fall we started two more Yiddish classes: Beginner 1 and Beginner 2." Another upcoming event, she adds, is a book event with a French author who wrote a graphic novel about Klezmer. "We are looking at a wide array of activities," she says, "to cover all aspects of culture, and to appeal to people at different levels," such as theatre and concerts.

For further information, e-mail info@youngishandyiddish.org.

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