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Riding the Yiddish Resurgence: Gratz Encounters Renewed Interest in Yiddish Language and Culture

When perpetrators of the Holocaust obliterated more than 6 million Jewish men, women and children, they also nearly wiped out a language that had been in use for 1,000 years.

Yiddish was ubiquitous among Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust, but the murder of 6 million Jews also meant the elimination of 6 million Yiddish speakers, said Rita Ratson, professor of Yiddish at Gratz. Survivors seeking refuge often voluntarily gave up the language in order to assimilate into new cultures, in new locations.

When Ratson developed a new Yiddish language and culture program at Gratz, more than two decades ago, her students tended to be older. However, she has seen a great resurgence in interest among the younger generation. “Through these years there have been high school, undergraduate, graduate, and even, post graduate students, all studying together.  The mix has worked so well….like a shtetl...everyone very interested in learning the language of their heritage,” said Ratson.

In her beginning, intermediate and advanced Yiddish courses, Ratson sees students enthusiastically returning to the language of their heritage. Besides learning to speak the language, the coursework includes instruction in reading and writing the Yiddish alphabet, traditional songs, expressions, idioms, vocabulary, and conversation about Yiddish culture.

“The further we get from the horrible period of the Holocaust, the more comfortable Jews are going back to learning about their culture and language,” Ratson said. “Around the world, we are seeing younger people seeking out Yiddish instruction because they want to know and understand their heritage. Because of this, we are seeing the worlds of Yiddish music, theater and literature coming back to life.”

The Yiddish courses are part of a broader effort at Gratz to reconnect with Yiddish language and culture, said Lori Cohen, director of adult Jewish learning at Gratz. Cohen organized a trip to New York City in July for 54 community members to attend a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

“It was a hit with community members,” Cohen said of the trip. “The available seats filled so quickly that, unfortunately, we had to turn some people away”

In October, Gratz hosted a Lunch & Learn event featuring Vivi Lachs, a London-based writer/performer who made a stop atGratz as part of an international book tour. Lachs spoke about her new book, “Whitechapel Noise,” which explores the London shtetl of Whitechapel—once home to about 150,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews and a mecca of cultural history captured in Yiddish songs of the period. Watch a snippet of Lachs’ performance.

About 100 people attended the event, or twice the usual turnout, Cohen said. She believes the recent spikes in interest about Yiddish events is indicative of a cultural renaissance.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of interest in Yiddish,” she said. “There aren’t many local places where you can find traditional Yiddish education, and that’s a niche we’re happy to fill.”

—  JANUARY 2019

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