February 23, 2006
A Dying Language Comes to Life
High school students visit the Jewish Home for the Aging -- and find kinship through Yiddish.
Teacher Hannah Pollin greeted the group assembled in a large circle around her. Her nine high school students, armed with a page of interview questions and tape recorders, sat interspersed among 13 senior citizens at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. They formed groups of two or three, impatiently awaiting last-minute instructions.
"Ir volt redn nor af Yidish," she reminded them.
But the admonition to speak only Yiddish was unnecessary as the students, from New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, turned on their tape recorders and began firing off questions to their eager partners, native Yiddish speakers whom they were meeting for the first time.
"Vos makh stu?" they asked. "Fun vanen kumt ir?" "How are you?" and "Where are you from?"
Pollin's class at New Community Jewish High School, an elective for 10th-, 11th- and 12th- graders, is possibly the only full-year, for-credit high school Yiddish language class currently being taught in the United States. Pollin, 23, also teaches Yiddish to the sixth-grade class at Shalhevet Middle School. Last fall she taught an elective Yiddish class to sixth- and seventh-graders at Sinai Akiba Academy, which she plans to continue in the spring.
The classes are part of a three-year pilot program funded by a $130,000 grant from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Person's Foundation. It was the idea of Aaron Paley, founder, and Dan Opatoshu, a board member, of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture.
To the students and seniors at the Jewish Home that Friday, those abstract goals had the immediate impact of building a bridge across generations.
The Yiddish words flew -- sometimes fluently, sometimes haltingly and occasionally "shreklich" or awful as the seniors reached for a word long forgotten or the students for a word they had not yet learned. They raised their voices, gesturing with their hands as they spoke.
"Vi heist ir?" asked senior Ami Kurzweil, 17.
He learned his partner's name was Rose Levin. Now 100, she revealed that she spent the first 12 years of her life in Smargon, a shtetl near Vilna, Lithuania, then after World War I immigrated to the United States via Japan.
Across the room, 12th-grader Ari Tuvia, 17, talked with Mildred Cadish, who admitted to being no older than 79. Born in New York City, Cadish told Tuvia how she grew up speaking Yiddish and how she used to read "Der Forverts," the Yiddish newspaper.
"I understand 110 percent," she said. "It is the most beautiful language in the world."
Tuvia understood better than most first- semester language students -- he was raised listening to his Romanian grandmother and father speaking the language.
But most of the students, who have been studying Yiddish for only one semester, are still confined to asking questions or describing events in the present tense. They want to learn the language their grandparents used to speak -- the 1,000-year-old language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe -- and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people.
"We should value this language for the adventure it takes us on," said junior Zack Sher, 16, who hopes to spend a month this summer studying at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilna, Lithuania.
That morning, Sher learned the history of Sylvia Gottlieb, 89, originally named Shalamus, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up speaking Yiddish to her Ukrainian-born parents.
"You can go all over the world and find someone who speaks Yiddish," she told him.
But today that's less true. The 11 million Yiddish speakers that existed worldwide prior to World War II have diminished to only 1.85 million, according to sociolinguist Dr. Joshua A. Fishman, a visiting professor at Stanford University. Fishman categorizes them into two groups: elderly Jews, for whom Yiddish is the mother tongue, and members of ultra-Orthodox communities who use Yiddish as a daily language.
Pollin approaches Yiddish as a living language and brought her students, even as novice learners, to the Eisenberg campus of Jewish Home for the Aging to experience talking with native speakers.
"The most important goal is to form a relationship," she said.
Pollin herself, who helped found the first undergraduate Yiddish major at Columbia University, significantly improved her speaking skills when she spent a year in Lithuania on a Fulbright scholarship, doing oral histories of Jews living there. And, in fact, her high school students will be writing histories of the people they interviewed, based on their tape-recorded conversations.
As the students began preparing to leave the Jewish Home, the seniors asked, "When are you coming back? Can we chip in for the bus to bring you here?" They exchanged phone numbers and "zayt gezunts," hoping to meet again soon.
"It's good to talk Yiddish," observed Sara Litmanovich, 81, who was liberated from a concentration camp at age 16, the sole survivor of a large family. "It gives me varemkayt [warmth] and makes me feel again like I have mishpockhe [family]."