Contemporary Yiddish Culture (and Podcasts!) with Sandra Fox

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In this episode, we’re joined by Sandra Fox to talk about contemporary Yiddish culture and her Yiddish-language feminist podcast, Vaybertaytsh. The podcast recently came back for a new season, and so we’re going to be talking about the origin of the podcast as part of the development of contemporary Yiddish culture and its history. Among other things, we discuss the ties between Yiddish language podcasting and Jewish camping, which is the focus of Sandy’s research. She recently published an article in American Jewish History on these issues of post-Holocaust Yiddish culture titled “‘Laboratories of Yiddishkayt’: Postwar American Jewish Summer Camps and the Transformation of Yiddishism,” which we also will discuss in the episode.

Sandra Fox is the Jim Joseph Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, and she also hosts and produces the podcast Vaybertaytsh, a Yiddish-language feminist podcast. Her research focuses on the history of Jewish camping in North America.

You can check out Vaybertaytsh online at vaybertaytsh.com. The episodes are in Yiddish but they also prepare transcripts and every once in a while also an episode in English. It’s a fabulous and unique project, and we’re excited to discuss it here.

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An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Jason Lustig: I think for people who aren’t familiar with Vaybertaytsh, it’s a fascinating project and a really exciting one—A feminist podcast, in Yiddish… There’s so much to think about and talk about there. Do you want to start us off by telling us a bit about the project, how you started the podcast, and what you’ve wanted to do with it? Who is the audience that you want to reach? What do you want them to get out of it when they listen to it?

Sandy Fox: I guess I’ll start with how the idea occurred to me, and the beginnings (of it). I started learning Yiddish in summer 2013 at Yiddish Farm, which for those who don’t know is a Yiddish-speaking farm in upstate New York where they hold summer and winter programs for students, but also there are people who live there and lead Yiddish-speaking lives while farming organically and making shmureh matzah and other things. I started learning Yiddish there, at first just for graduate school exams. I did not think I was going to particularly fall for the language, but my friend was running the farm and he said, “It’ll be great. It’ll be just like camp.” We’ll get to it, but I also study camp, I went to camp. I thought, “Okay, that sounds better than an academic Yiddish program. Why not?” I surprised myself by really enjoying learning Yiddish and feeling very connected to the language. I grew up in a Zionist youth movement, Hebrew culture was a big part of my youth. But at that time, I was starting to have more complicated feelings about that upbringing and about Israel, so that probably played into it, but in general, I really just fell for the music and the literature and I also really loved the Yiddish-speaking community.

I think the seeds were planted for some kind of Yiddish-speaking project very early on. I really love radio and podcasts and I’m fairly tech savvy, so I think podcasting seemed kind of an obvious direction. As soon as you speak Yiddish well enough to do any sort of cultural production, people from different generations, the older generations, will come up to you. “Oh, write for the Forverts, write for Afn Shvel, write for this journal, write for that.” And I thought, I do a lot of writing as a graduate student, now as a postdoc, I don’t really want to write for my side project. And so I thought that a podcast was a really exciting new form of media for the Yiddish world because when you’re learning Yiddish, unlike other languages, you don’t have sort of a giant treasure trove of audio or video to look at. If you’re learning Hebrew, you’re learning French, you can go on YouTube and watch videos, you can listen to radio. But with Yiddish, you have certain limitations in terms of contemporary stuff. I felt there was a need for something people could listen to. I learned a lot of my Hebrew through just listening to radio and music and also I had identified as a feminist from a very early age, probably in middle school even. When I was exposed to the Riot grrrl music movement, which is a sort of offshoot of punk, a feminist music movement but in graduate school it became more clear to me what exactly it’s like to be a woman in many fields and I think I had sort of a feminist awakening that was more tachlis, more actual of, “Okay, this is why this movement exists.”

At the same time, a lot of the people I was learning Yiddish from, the people who sort of were the gatekeepers to the Yiddish world, were mostly male. If we did have recordings of Yiddish, it usually came from male voices from decades ago and I didn’t really see a lot of examples to gather how women speak or spoke Yiddish. It was very clear to me. I never really debated having a different kind of Yiddish podcast. It was clear that it had to be a podcast that was about something that wasn’t Yiddish, in Yiddish, rather than a podcast about Yiddish in Yiddish. And I don’t think I ever debated that it would be feminist because all of this was totally interwoven for me.

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