The joy of oy! Yiddish is thriving in the Bay Area

It’s 11 a.m. on a Monday in Berkeley, and in the library of the JCC of the East Bay, there’s a serious discussion under way.

“Ich hab lieb di folk music,” says one woman in her 90s, in careful, stilting Yiddish. “Ich lieb nit heavy metal.” She has love for folk music, but not for heavy metal. The other 15 people in the room, most of them in their 70s and older, nod approvingly.

Yiddish dictionaries are splayed open on the table for quick reference. The conversation continues, with each of the participants offering a Yiddish statement about what kind of music they love and don’t love. Heavy metal is a common source of disdain — until the question reaches a 30-year-old man, the youngest member of the group by at least three decades.

“Ich hab lieb di heavy metal!” he says enthusiastically, as the others laugh.

OK, so it’s not the most compelling — or advanced — discussion in the world. But for most members of this Yiddish conversation group, the chance to talk each week in the language of their parents, grandparents or homeland is more meaningful than any challenging academic discussion could be.

According to local experts, groups and classes such as this one are part of a quietly growing Yiddish scene — one that ranges from formal academic programs in Yiddish (offered at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford University and Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica) to a general interest in klezmer music and Yiddish cultural events that has blossomed slowly but steadily in the Bay Area over the last decade.

For a language that’s often said to be in danger of disappearing entirely, it’s a pretty vibrant landscape. (In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization identified Yiddish as a language that was “definitely endangered.”)

“It might be under the radar, but Yiddish is absolutely thriving in the Bay Area,” says Judy Kunofsky, founder and executive director of KlezCalifornia, a 9-year-old organization dedicated to celebrating klezmer, Yiddish and the cultural heritage of Eastern European Jews. The “Gele Pages,” the organization’s yellow pages for Yiddish events and groups in the community, consisted of eight pages in its first edition in 2003, recalls Kunofsky. Now the resource guide has 48 pages.

Bill Schechner and Minnie Alper share some Yiddish conversation at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley. photos/cathleen maclearie

“People look at it and say ‘I had no idea there was this much going on,’” says Kunofsky, whom other Yiddish enthusiasts point to as a dynamo on the local scene.

Minnie Adler, 95, is one of the few native Yiddish speakers in the weekly class at the JCC in Berkeley. “At home, we only spoke Yiddish, and I was sent to Yiddish school. I didn’t learn English until I was older,” recalls Adler of her youth in Pittsburgh, Pa., in a Russian immigrant community. Prior to joining the class, the Berkeley resident hadn’t spoken the language in more than 50 years.

Her classmate, heavy metal enthusiast Eli Salomon, 30, only began learning Yiddish two years ago as a surprise of sorts for his mother, who grew up speaking the language.

“Initially I just wanted to be able to speak with her,” he says. “But what I’ve become really passionate about is the literature. There are something like 150,000 volumes by Yiddish writers that have yet to be translated, that only exist in Yiddish … and it’s so fascinating to read some of this work that’s hundreds, even a thousand years old, and realize ‘These people sound pretty much like me.’ ”

Eli Salomon took up Yiddish two years ago.

In between people like Adler and people like Salomon, of course, there’s a whole spectrum of Yiddish students, teachers, native speakers and eager beginners in the Bay Area  — and according to many in the tight-knit community, their ranks are growing.

For some, it’s a return to the language in which their parents whispered secrets (and sometimes made use of a particularly colorful set of epithets). For others, it’s a link to a culture they know of but never experienced firsthand. For others still, it’s an extension of their love for the poetry, literature or music of Eastern Europe.

The Berkeley class is one of more than a dozen such casual Yiddish conversation groups in the Bay Area. Many of the people involved are baby boomers who have rediscovered Yiddish.

Kunofsky, for example, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and attended a Yiddish school on Sundays, but after her parents stopped making her go, she “didn’t speak or read a word of Yiddish for about 35 years.”

She found her way back through a love of klezmer music, first on the East Coast at an annual family camp, and then in the Bay Area, when she realized how much interest there was in Eastern European arts and culture — despite no formal network to harness it. Jewish Community Library director Howard Freedman helped her get the organization off the ground.

Today, KlezCalifornia provides a roadmap to the growing scene via its website and newsletters, and also sponsors occasional  festivals for Yiddish enthusiasts — be they musicians or dancers or people who just want to learn how to say more than “shmendrick” and “shmuck.” A board of directors and advisory council are made up of a veritable who’s-who in the local Yiddish landscape.

On Nov. 4, Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life played host to many of those experts for “Captives of the Dawn: Remembering Soviet Yiddish Culture,” the annual Taube conference in Eastern European Jewish culture and history. A sellout crowd of more than 100 listened to presentations from the likes of Yael Chaver, a U.C. Berkeley professor and author who specializes in Yiddish literature. Chaver says there’s a steady wave of new students, young and old, who take her classes each year — despite there being no “practical” application for the language.

Millie Chazen (from left), Judy Kennedy, Dolores Taller, Charlotte Stern photo/cathleen maclearie

“It’s difficult because there’s very little Yiddish culture in day-to-day life for most secular Jews, but there are absolutely new students all the time who are interested in it, enthusiastic about it, who become dedicated to using it,” says Chaver, who also has taught classes for Lehrhaus Judaica. “For some people, it’s a way to return to their roots. Some become interested in some of the political texts from the early 20th century, ranging from communist and anarchist writing to ultra-religious texts … there’s a lot, still, that’s only accessible in Yiddish.”

For George Calmenson, 76, however, it’s not a question of subject matter. The simple act of speaking the language brings him joy. The Santa Rosa resident, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household with Russian immigrant parents, attends a weekly Yiddish group at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati.

“I didn’t have contact with the language for 60 years,” says Calmenson, who was inspired by Reb Irwin Keller, the spiritual leader at the lay-led Ner Shalom, who often reads Yiddish poetry at community gatherings. “When I tried speaking it again, I was surprised by how happy it made me, how evocative it was. I would hear a word and it wouldn’t just be a word, it would bring up all the associations I ever had with it … I realized how brilliantly expressive it is of human feeling, human thought. It’s an incredibly, beautifully nuanced language.”

Calmenson also has high hopes for a Yiddish revival of sorts: As the chair of Sonoma County’s Yom HaShoah community observance committee, he helped organize a group of teenagers who sang Yiddish songs at last year’s commemoration. “It was wonderful to see some of the kids become really engaged with it, and I know it was moving to everybody to see that conveying Yiddish to another generation was possible,” he says.

Jon Levitow, a professor of Yiddish at Stanford and at U.C. Santa Cruz, sees proof of that in his classes. “The number of young people who want to learn Yiddish is always interesting to me,” he says, adding that his beginning-level class at UCSC attracts 25 to 30 students each semester. “You might think, ‘Oh, it’s been 100 years since most of these Eastern European immigrants came over. Can young people really identify?’ And without fail they do.”

Judy Kunosky speaks at a KlezCalifornia event. photo/dale pearlman

There are challenges, he admits, to marketing the language: “You can’t exactly learn Yiddish and then go on vacation to a country where people speak it. And you’re probably not going to learn Yiddish to become more successful in business, as you might with some other languages … but for a lot of people it’s about identity.” Levitow himself learned it as an adult, after he realized the native speakers in the family wouldn’t be around forever. “It was kind of, ‘Someone’s got to learn this and carry it on, might as well be me,’ ” he recalls.

To Harvey Varga, 61, speaking Yiddish is as much about connecting to his past as ensuring its future. The son of Holocaust survivors, he grew up in Williamsburg and Borough Park, Brooklyn, where “Yiddish was not only our language, it was our culture,” says Varga, now an Oakland resident. “There’s great joy for me in going back to Borough Park, where I can go into a store on 13th Avenue and I know the owners, who are Hassidim. And though they frown upon the fact that I’m not Orthodox, we can relate because we can speak freely and joke; we’re on the same side. There’s a commonality created by shared language and roots that’s really unlike anything else.”

Varga has become known on the Bay Area’s Yiddish scene for his performance workshop, “100 Yiddish Words the Average Puerto Rican New Yorker Knows and You Should Be Ashamed If You Don’t.” He put it on at KlezCalifornia’s 10th annual Yiddish Culture Festival at the JCC of San Francisco in February, and has helped with Yiddish-themed nights at Moishe House San Francisco. He thinks young people are returning to the language because they need to “fill in their Jewish identity.”

“It adds substance. It’s not just being a gastronomical Jew. And the expressions are a gold mine,” Varga says. “But in addition to the entertainment value, there’s just so much wisdom built into the language. There are words that express the essence of a feeling, of a conversation, much better than I could in English.”

Varga and his wife, who is Israeli, are teaching their two young children both Hebrew and Yiddish. “That’s who I am,” says Varga. “I’m Chaim more than I’m Harvey.”

Philip Kutner, who more often goes by “Fishl,” echoes that sentiment. Crowned the “unofficial godfather of all things Yiddish” by the Jewish Daily Forward (and by others interviewed for this story), Kutner has been single-handedly producing a Yiddish newspaper, Der Bay, out of San Mateo since 1991. What began as a single-page newsletter is now a 16-page paper that’s delivered every other month to subscribers in every U.S. state and 45 other countries. Kutner says he has about 200 subscribers in the Bay Area, but the website component ( is really what’s taken off in the past few years.

Philip Kutner holds a copy of the Yiddish newspaper Der Bay.

Among its features is a Yiddish pen-pal (“briv-fraynd”) network anyone can sign up for online; almost 500 people currently exchange letters from places like Uruguay, Denmark and New Zealand, in addition to the United States. Participants can select their reading level and whether they want to converse by email or snail mail.

“I think Yiddish comes and it goes, like anything. Like shoe styles,” says Kutner, whose mother was ultra-Orthodox and spoke Yiddish in their home, though Kutner said he had no interest in it until the 1990s. He now chairs the annual conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, which has 90 member groups (18 in California).

“When immigrants came to the United States, obviously, it was about assimilation. They wanted their children to go to college and become Americanized, so the idea was not only to lose the language but the accent and everything.”

Fast-forward a century, he says, and “It’s definitely burgeoning in certain places — in Israel there’s a lot of momentum right now.”

In Paris, a symposium sponsored by B’nai B’rith Europe Nov. 12-13 addressed the UNESCO declaration of Yiddish as a dying language — in the context of its “revival” and what Yiddish enthusiasts can do to help.

“Part of what’s interesting now is how the language is in flux, how English has affected Yiddish, the way new words are being added,” says Kutner. “What’s the Yiddish word for computer? Komputer, of course.” (A link on Stanford’s Yiddish program home page encourages visitors to contact not the webmaster but the “vebmayster.”)

“But it’s also important to remember that Yiddish isn’t just a language,” Kutner adds. “It’s the culture of an entire people.”

Rabbi Gedalia Potash, of Chabad of Noe Valley, says the ultra-Orthodox community — the last stronghold where Yiddish is commonly spoken and read — actually faces some of the same challenges as secular Jews when it comes to passing on the language. At a recent conference in Brooklyn, Potash said he and other Chabad emissaries discussed ways to help encourage parents to speak Yiddish to their children at home, now that they live in places (like Noe Valley) where it’s not spoken in the streets.

“The richness of Yiddish is not on the academic level,” says Potash, who speaks Yiddish as much as possible to his eight children at home. “It has so much flavor and history; it’s a way of transmitting a deeper knowledge.”

Harvey Varga  photo/lea delson

As director of Judaics at San Francisco’s Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School, Potash helps run the Yiddish program there. “Parents are so excited to bring this to their children,” he says. “Including some where the parents never spoke Yiddish, and they’re bringing it into their family for the first time.”

For Karen Bergen, it was the culture — specifically, a love of Yiddish music — that served as her entry point for wanting to know more about both the language and her ancestry.

The Sunnyvale resident was one of the first members of the Yiddish Choristers, a choir directed by Lotti Solomon in the ’80s, now a 25- to 30-person group organized through the Oshman Family JCC. When Solomon decided to step down and Bergen took the helm, she decided it was finally time to learn to speak the language used in the songs she was singing.

“My grandma Anna was the only one in my family who spoke Yiddish, and she had no one to speak it with — my dad didn’t speak it, so that was that,” says Bergen. “But here I was at a point where I had 30 years of listening to Yiddish music and singing Yiddish songs, where I was familiar with some vocabulary … I wanted to really understand the peculiarities of the language.”

For the past two years, she’s been studying with a casual conversation group at a friend’s home, where, she says, she’s been taken with “the bawdiness of the language, the hidden meanings of things.”

And while casual conversation groups like hers are blossoming across the United States, educators are scrambling to catch up with demand, according to Asya Vaisman, the director of the new Yiddish Language Institute at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. (The center, founded in 1980, has researched and digitized more than 11,000 tomes of Yiddish writing, and in 1997 it established the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library to make them accessible free of charge online.)

A Yiddish class she’s teaching at Hampshire College next semester was overenrolled within a week, says Vaisman, whose projects at the helm of the institute will include the creation of a modern, fully illustrated Yiddish textbook, as well as designing an online curriculum available to Yiddish students all over the world. “Young people are turning toward Yiddish as a way to express their Jewish identity, and for non-Jewish students it can simply be a really interesting language, and a great way to learn about Eastern European history,” Vaisman says.

It might seem simple, but to many — like Calmenson and others who return every week to the Yiddish conversation groups — it’s nothing short of thrilling to speak and read a language that they say feels almost magical.

“For me, Yiddish poets, in particular, have a way of revealing worlds you don’t otherwise see … but the language went into decline because everyone wanted their kids to be Americans … Well, I think we accomplished that pretty well,” Calmenson says. “Which means it’s time for the revival. It’s time to bring it back.”

cover photo/cathleen maclearie

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.