Yiddish, the language of Jewish grandmothers — and, increasingly, great-grandmothers — suffered through a particularly unkind 20th century. But if Robert Adler Peckerar has his way, it will be making a comeback in the 21st, thanks in part to something called the Helix Project.
The program, which made its debut this past summer and is taking applications for this year’s trip, takes Jewish students from America on a perspective-changing tour of Eastern Europe designed to make the Yiddish culture that may have once seemed remote — even dead — newly vibrant in the eyes of today’s youth.
“You see, there are cultural tours of France and Italy ... but there’s nothing like that for Ashkenazic culture,” said Adler Peckerar, who is executive director of the L.A.-based Yiddishkayt, a group founded 15 years ago by Aaron Paley to promote Yiddish culture through events, concerts and education.
Adler Peckerar found the lack of cultural tours troubling.
“The only tourism that really engaged with the places where Jewish people lived for centuries was about the destruction of the Jews in those places. And to me ... this is almost a victory for genocide, for murderers.”
It’s hard to separate Yiddish from the Holocaust. Once spoken by more than 10 million people, mainly in Eastern Europe, Yiddish has, at most, one-fifth that number of speakers today. More than 80 percent of the Jews who died in the Holocaust spoke the language, which is a mix of Hebrew and medieval German. That loss, coupled with Stalin’s postwar crackdown on Yiddish intellectuals in the Soviet Union, nearly put a nail in the language’s coffin.
But Yiddish survived, and today Adler Peckerar and Yiddishkayt — which literally means “the quality of being Jewish” — hope that a new generation of American Jews will embrace the language and culture that their parents largely rejected.
Adler Peckerar, 38, whose background is firmly rooted in academia — he used to teach at the University of Colorado — turned back to that world in setting up the Helix Project.
“We’re looking for students who know that there’s something positive in Jewish life and in the history of Jewish culture and want to learn about it and engage it in the most profound way possible,” he said.
The idea is to get students with a strong interest in Judaism and Yiddish culture to travel to Eastern Europe with Yiddishkayt, visit some of the most important cultural sites and cities in Yiddish history, and then return to their communities and create projects based on their experience.
Adler Peckerar’s first crop of six students came from UCLA and UC Berkeley. Among them was Tessa Nath, an English major at UCLA who hopes to become a Conservative rabbi. Nath, who heard about the trip through the Center for Jewish Studies Student Leadership Council, was intrigued by the idea.
“I thought it was an incredibly unique trip,” she said. “I had never heard of a trip before that was actually going to focus on life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.”
The 19-year-old from Santa Monica was particularly pleased with the trip’s stated academic rigor.
“I don’t want to say it’s a high-minded trip, but it’s not the sort of a trip where you’re just going because you want to sightsee, see Poland, Belarus and Lithuania,” Nath said. “It’s a trip because you’re actually interested in the subject matter. So I think the people that it draws to it are really intellectual people. ... That created a wonderful basis for many friendships.”
Participants spend a week in Los Angeles, followed by two weeks in Eastern Europe, where they visit the haunts once frequented by famous Yiddish authors, scholars and celebrities. The three-week trip is heavily subsidized by donors, and students receive whatever level of financial aid they need to make the trip if they’re selected. Yiddishkayt guarantees that more than half the participants pay nothing.
Adler Peckerar described the trip’s predeparture “boot camp” as an intense experience in its own right.
“We have a series of language boot camps for them where we have them train in how to read the Cyrillic alphabet, so that they can get around in Belarus, to be able to ask basic questions in case you get lost, to be able to make basic conversation with people when you need somebody,” he said. “They have a Russian boot camp, a Polish boot camp, a Lithuanian one and a Yiddish one.”
“It is not a free trip, it’s not a vacation. It is for a serious student,” Adler Peckerar said. “We were joking that if people end up making out on the bus with a soldier, we have a real problem. It’s not Birthright. If that happens in Belarus, we have a real problem.”
Helix participants are given lessons in photography and special cameras to take with them on the trip to document their experiences. Taking photographs heightened the travel experience for Nath.
“Because I had the camera with me the whole time, and because I was thinking, ‘How do I want to represent my trip?’ it sort of put me in the moment and forced me to think about things in that second, while I was in that place, instead of perhaps reflecting on it that evening if we were back in the hotel,” she said. “It made it a more immediate experience, and I thought it was a fantastic idea.”
For this year’s Helix trip, scheduled for July, Adler Peckerar plans to take 12 students from a wider range of schools, thanks, in part, to a donation from Wallis Annenberg, president of the Annenberg Foundation.
In order to continue to expand the program — Adler Peckerar hopes to take as many as 36 people along one day — Yiddishkayt requires support, something that he said has been hard to come by at times.
“We get a lot of comments like, ‘Why are you taking people there? They killed us. It’s a land of murderers.’ Things like that.”
But Adler Peckerar is determined not to let the shadow of the Holocaust obscure all the good that came out of Jewish life in Europe.
“It’s also the place where talmudic scholarship happened, where the liturgy was crafted, where what we consider to be Jewish culture comes from,” he said.
Nath, for one, hopes that Helix gets the support it needs, as she sees a potentially wide appeal for the program.
“You don’t even have to be Jewish, I think,” she said. “It just makes you think about the way that cultures come together and the way that people are formed in a completely new way, and I would definitely recommend it.”
Adler Peckerar said he hopes the trip will open minds to the diversity of the Jewish experience.
“The history of Jewish culture tells us that there’s all these ways to be and still be understood as a Jew in the modern world,” he said. “We want students to be able to go back and recognize that the picture is a lot more complex.”
Registration closes on Feb. 28. For more information or to register, go to yiddishkayt.org/helix-project.