Mamalashen speakers brought the language alive at the conference in Green Tree

Mamalashen speakers brought the language alive at the conference in Green Tree

Susan Melnick, archivist with the Rauh Jewish Archives in Pittsburgh, spoke about her organization’s work archiving documents from the Jewish communities of western Pennsylvania. (Chronicle photos by Ohad Cadji)
Susan Melnick, archivist with the Rauh Jewish Archives in Pittsburgh, spoke about her organization’s work archiving documents from the Jewish communities of western Pennsylvania. (Chronicle photos by Ohad Cadji)

There was Refoyl the songwriter; Naftali the farmer; and Yoshi the storyteller.

In fact, if Tevye the milkman and Gimpel the fool had strolled through the halls of the Doubletree Hilton in Green Tree this past weekend, they would have felt right at home.

The hotel came alive with the sound of Yiddish as scholars and entertainers — not to mention those who just wanted to immerse themselves in the language and culture — converged in Pittsburgh this past weekend for the 15th International Yiddish Conference and Retreat.

Members of Yiddish Laybt, Pittsburgh’s Yiddish club, played host to the conference, which ran from Friday through Monday, attracting lovers of Yiddish from around the world.

“The model for this conference was to explore the edges of Yiddish, academically, experientially and artistically,” said Debbie Herman, project coordinator for the conference.

Hence, the potpourri of events throughout the weekend, ranging from a discourse on Chaim Grade and Isaac Bashevis Singer by Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth Wisse, to musical performances by a host of Jewish entertainers.

“Obviously, people come from other cities, and find something of great value to them,” Wisse said of the conference. “There are not too many places where Yiddish speakers congregate.”

And the act of congregating — just to have a chance to speak the language — was a significant aspect of the conference. Casual conversations in Yiddish could be overheard throughout the halls of the hotel, if not quite evoking 19th-century Eastern Europe, at least harking back to the mid-20th century, when

Yiddish was often spoken in the home among first and second generation Jewish Americans.

Yiddish speakers were clearly in their glory in a session called “Creating a New Folksong in Yiddish,” where professor Refoyl Finkel led a group in a lively exercise of brainstorming Yiddish lyrics and a melody. The one-hour workshop was conducted entirely in Yiddish, and the song emerging at the end of the session sounded as if it had been around for a century, and produced a rousing round of applause. Thanks to the vibrancy of the language, even a person not fluent in the language could appreciate that the song was about being in synagogue on the holiday of Shavuot, and that there were blintzes involved.

Yiddish has been called a “dying language,” but whether that is true is debatable. While there were several younger adults in attendance at the conference, the vast majority of participants were senior citizens.

“Unfortunately, Yiddish seems to be disappearing,” said Joe Brunner, 84, who sits on the board of Yiddish Labyt. “But there is so much history, we can’t let it disappear. My biggest complaint is that there are not enough young people here. If Yiddish does die, it’s our fault. We should encourage young people to learn it.”

Yiddish, though, still clearly has a pulse, and there are some young people working to keep it alive.

Take Naftali Ejdelman, 27, who founded the Yiddish Farm Educational Center in 2010.  Ejdelman, who lives in New York City, runs an organic farm in Goshen, N.Y., that creates an environment of Yiddish immersion in an 11-week summer program that also focuses on organic farming. He presented his project to a group of conference attendees on Sunday morning, seeking and collecting donations to help with its expenses.

“My first language is Yiddish,” said Ejdelman, whose grandfather was the late Yiddish professor Mordkhe Schaechter. “My whole family, cousins, siblings, grandparents — they all spoke Yiddish.”

In fact, when Ejdelman was a child, his mother founded a Yiddish Sunday school for about 20 families in New York.

Edjelman’s Yiddish farm hosts between 20 and 30 people for the summer, whose ages range from 19 to 82, he said.

“My grandfather had a similar idea in the 1950s,” Ejdelman said. “It didn’t pan out, but I grew up knowing about it. Now, there is a different vibe, people are interested in sustainability and organic farming. It’s an opportune time to try my grandfather’s dream.”

Although there is a struggle to keep the Yiddish language alive, its art, music and literature still has a faithful audience.

Even in Japan, there is a yen for Yiddish cultural expression.

Professor Yoshiji “Yoshi” Hirose teaches literature at Norte Dame Seishin University in Okayama, Japan. He recently translated “The New Joys of Yiddish” into Japanese.

“There are over 250 Japanese scholars interested in Jewish writing, and they have been reading it in English, not Japanese,” Hirose told the Chronicle. “They are interested in American literature and Jewish writers, like Chaim Grade and Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Many scholars read the writings in translations only. So about 25 years ago, a friend of mine advised me to study a bisl Yiddish.”

Reading Yiddish literature in translation, rather than in the original, is like “kissing a bride over the veil,” he said.

Hirose went on to earn his diploma in Jewish studies at Oxford University.

“In my country, there are only two native speakers of Yiddish,” Hirose said, “one from Poland and one from Russia, so it is almost impossible for Japanese scholars to get a taste of the mamalashen.”

Hirose spent 12 years translating “The New Joys of Yiddish.”

“Jewish humor — the flavor — is difficult to translate,” he said. “But Japanese leadership is interested [in the book]. I hope they will learn a lot about Jewish culture, and Yiddish culture, as well.”

In the United States, Yiddish in the universities — like many of the other humanities — is having a hard time surviving, said Harvard’s Wisse.

“It’s not Yiddish per se [that’s struggling],” she said. “Courses of that kind, courses of literature, are experiencing trouble at the universities. There is a crisis in the humanities, and Yiddish is part of that. The way the world is, is often the Jewish way. Vies kristlt zikh, azoy yidit zikh.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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