It may seem like an unlikely partnership, but 20-somethings David Andrews, a secular Jewish software engineer with a penchant for Yiddish culture, and Levi Pekar, a Lebovitch psychologist who grew up immersed in the language, have joined forces to affect a resurgence of the mamaloshen in Pittsburgh.
“Both of us bring something to the table,” Pekar said.
Hoping to “rebuild the Yiddish culture” here, the men have created the Pittsburgh Yiddish Symposium, which launched Sunday night at the home of Andrews in Squirrel Hill, and will convene twice each month on Sunday evenings.
Andrews, who moved to Pittsburgh 10 years ago to study at Carnegie Mellon University, had only been exposed to Yiddish in a minimal way while he was growing up, as it was spoken by his grandfather. But about four years ago, he began learning the language from his friend Jaclyn Granick, a Ph.D. student in history who is now studying in England.
Andrews, who now works at the foreign language-learning software company Duolingo, quickly developed a fondness for the language and is now basically fluent.
“I can hold my own,” he said.
After Granick left Pittsburgh, Andrews took over a small Yiddish class that she had been teaching at the Hillel Jewish University Center. Only a handful of people participated, he said, and the class is no longer active.
Pekar is a grad student studying mental health counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He first met Andrews at a Shabbat meal hosted by JGrads Pittsburgh, a Chabad-sponsored group for area graduate students.
“We developed a good friendship,” Pekar said. “We decided to start learning together.”
The two became fast friends while studying the Shulchan Aruch and even traveled together a couple months ago to New York state, where they stayed for a week on a Yiddish farm. While there, they decided to pool their talents when back in Pittsburgh to share their love of Yiddish with others.
The result is the Pittsburgh Yiddish Symposium, which will feature language, culture, literature, film, songs and food. People of all levels of Yiddish comprehension are welcome. There is a $5 suggested donation “to cover nosh,” the flyer reads.
Pekar, who describes himself as having “a lot of energy,” will be organizing the evenings and taking care of logistics, while Andrews will be teaching.
Pekar is not fluent in Yiddish, although he can understand it and read it. He attended a Yeshiva in France, where all his classes were in Yiddish, he said.
Although Pekar is affiliated with Chabad, he stressed that the Symposium is not a Chabad activity, and there will be no religious component involved.
“David is not religious, and I didn’t want this to be religious,” said Pekar. “I believe the culture itself has a Jewish component. It will be a place where Yiddish enthusiasts can explore the culture, the songs, and the food. And with me being religious, and David not being religious, people will see the duality of this beautiful Yiddish culture.”
That duality is embodied by Pekar and Andrews themselves.
“I look the like the shtetl life, and David speaks the shtetl life,” Pekar said. “David is in a klezmer band and plays the accordion. He’s entrenched in the culture.”
While the first half hour of each meeting will focus on a grammar lesson, the next hour will present an opportunity for conversation, studying texts, singing songs or watching films.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Pekar said. “But the Yiddish culture didn’t take itself so seriously either.”
Now that Andrews has made the connection to his ancestral language, he wants to be at the forefront of its preservation.
“On the one hand, Yiddish is doing a good job of preserving itself,” he said. “A lot of Jews throughout the country and the rest of the world are preserving it. But on the other hand, it will be lost if it’s not spoken every day.”
For more information, email PittsburghYiddishSymposium@gmail.com.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.