Yiddish revival celebrated at U.C. Berkeley conference

As a child and then a teenager in Hartford, Conn., Len Goldschmidt heard a lot of Yiddish around the house. His parents, both Polish immigrants, didn’t speak English very well. He listened to their Yiddish. He responded to them in Yiddish. And when he moved out, he left the language behind.

“I wanted nothing to do with it while I was growing up,” Goldschmidt recalled.

But times change. And so do people.

Last week, the Oakland man spent two days at a Yiddish conference at U.C. Berkeley.

“I realized that there was a very vibrant Yiddish and Jewish community here, and so I became interested again,” he said.

The annual Yiddish conference brought together members of the local and global community for two days of learning about and in Yiddish.

“The conference is one of the few sources available to the general public that can enhance people’s awareness of the beauty, richness and literature that was a part of Jewish life” before World War II, Goldschmidt said.

Professor John Efron started the conference five years ago when he was the head of the Jewish studies department at Cal. He currently teaches in both the history and Jewish studies departments and directs the Institute for European Studies.

“Yiddish is an enormously important language,” he said. “It was part of people’s daily speech and also the language of a very high level of scholarship.”

U.C. Berkeley is one of the biggest centers for Yiddish studies in the United States. It is also one of the few universities that studies Hebrew and Yiddish together.

“That’s really important. Most places regard them as separate,” Efron said of the element that makes Cal’s program unique.

Scholars from around the world attend the conference, often to present their doctoral research.

“It’s the only annual Yiddish studies conference in the world,” Efron added.

Aya Elyada, a graduate student of German Jewish history at the University of Tel Aviv, delivered a presentation about Christian literature on Yiddish in the German-speaking world. Since this is the focus of her doctoral research, she’s lived in Munich for the past two years. For Elyada, the highlight of the conference was hearing a lecture delivered completely in Yiddish.

“It is not often that one gets to hear an entire academic lecture and discussion in Yiddish,” she said. “And of course, it proved that Yiddish is indeed a suitable language for scholarship.”

Goldschmidt looks forward to the Yiddish conference each year as an opportunity to return to the language of his childhood. Plus, he said, “I can tell a joke in Yiddish and people will get it.”

His daughter, who is 16, doesn’t share his enthusiasm. But he’s not too worried. After all, he wouldn’t have attended a Yiddish conference when he was her age.

“I see now that it’s important to enhance the status of Yiddish literature,” he said. “It’s like a treasure trove of undiscovered Jewish heritage and culture that has been hidden.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.