At first glance, 25-year-old Jaclyn Granick seems out of place, sitting at a table in the atrium of the South Hills Jewish Community Center, the sole youth surrounded by about 20 senior citizens, most of whom are well into their 70s and 80s.
But the amiable student from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva has come to this Sunday morning meeting for the very same reason as her elders: to speak Yiddish.
“As an undergrad, I developed an interest in Yiddish and klezmer,” said Granick, who moved to Pittsburgh last summer with her husband, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. Granick was a regular attendee of the Yiddish club in Lausanne, Switzerland, before she moved to Pittsburgh, having first studied the language at Harvard University.
She did not grow up hearing the language at home. The only Yiddish speaker in her family is her grandfather, who is hard of hearing, and with whom it is difficult to converse.
So Granick comes from her Shadyside home to join the South Hills Yiddish Conversation Club, which meets monthly. “There are not too many opportunities to speak Yiddish,” she said.
“It is important to me that there are young people to speak the language,” she said. “In some ways, speaking Yiddish is a resistance to complete assimilation.”
While many consider it to be a dying language, Yiddish is being preserved, not only by scholars in universities, but also by laymen such as Sol Toder. Toder, who runs the club in the South Hills, says the main purpose of the club is entertainment.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It lends itself to so many funny and interesting things.”
That seems to be the case. At last week’s meeting, members were following along with photocopies of a short
story, as another member read it aloud in Yiddish. Everyone laughed out loud at the end, all in on the joke.
There are clubs like Toder’s all over the world, including a group that meets weekly in Squirrel Hill. The clubs gather every 18 months, under the auspices of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, for a four-day conference. The next conference will be hosted by Toder’s South Hills group in 2013. The event will be held at the Radisson Greentree, and Toder’s group is already planning the event, which is expected to attract more than 200 Yiddish-speakers.
“The international group gets into some pretty serious shtick,” Toder said. “They had some good speakers in Detroit [a prior conference venue]. They even had a Yiddish puppet show. I thought, ‘What kind of mishegoss is this?’ But this was an adult puppet show. They got a standing ovation.”
The conference also typically features daily breakout sessions on topics as diverse as paper cutting and films.
Not all the attendees of the conference can speak Yiddish.
“It was wonderful to be there, and to join with people in a Yiddish community,” said Renee Gerger, of Detroit, who came to the South Hills last weekend with her husband Jerry to help get Toder’s group started on the next conference. “I don’t speak Yiddish or understand it, but I loved it.”
While the conference, like the South Hills club, tends to attract mostly senior citizens, Yiddish’s popularity is surging among the young, Jerry Gerger told the group.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of seniors [at the conference],” Jerry Gerger said. “But there are more and more younger people who are interested. The entertainers are generally all younger.”
“There was a tremendous re-birth of Yiddish in the late 19th and early 20th century,” he continued. “It was a literary revival. There were all of these great authors and poets. We’re going through another revival now, but it is an entertainment revival. The younger generation — all in their 20s — sing a beautiful Yiddish and entertain in Yiddish. They mingle with the older crowd, and the older crowd becomes younger.”
Granick, who is a klezmer vocalist, is a case in point.
“I joined a klezmer band [while at Harvard], and learned about what the Yiddish actually meant,” she said. “Then I took other classes and realized how important Yiddish was. It’s the Jewish language. If you’re interested in where you came from, and where you’re going, it’s important to know Yiddish.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)