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.
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.
JL: One thing that I think comes to mind, just listening to you talk about the project, has to do with the performativity of Yiddish. What I mean by that is, my sense when I think about the state of Yiddish in the twenty-first century and just in general in the post-Holocaust era, is that this is a language that for the most part has lost its native habitat. What’s really exciting about this kind of project is that you’re helping to create the spaces where Yiddish can be spoken and listened to. You talked about Yiddish farm, for instance… I know Naftali Ejdelman from, like, ages ago, we went to college together. That’s kind of a similar kind of a project, in as much as they’re creating a space for Yiddish, or a certain kind of Yiddish.
SF: I think Vaybertaytsh was in some ways a reaction to a little bit of a challenging situation there, in terms of gender, in terms of gender balance. It’s really interesting to live on a farm and think about the way labor gets divided and what labors are more appreciated. So in a way, it came out of it from that angle, and it also is very directly related to the same sort of vision of Yiddish culture and Yiddishism that Yiddish Farm continues to propel forward.
JL: Do you maybe want to say something briefly about the audience? Who are you trying to reach with the podcast? What do you want them to get out of it?
SF: It’s funny, because Yiddishists tend to be the first to say, “Hey, there are a lot of us and we’re not a dying community.” I also tend to say that, but I still had very low expectations when I started the podcast. I kind of thought to myself, “If 100 people listen, this’ll be worth it to me.” I didn’t really think it would reach people outside of my immediate Yiddish circle. But I’ve been really, really happy that it’s been well received around the world. We have something about 6,000 or 7,000 listeners per month, most of whom are under 40 and across about 15 countries. Mainly the United States. The other countries that are sort of major are Israel, Canada, Australia, a good amount in France, a good amount in Latin America. It’s about 50% or 60% people under 40. But we also get an older generation that wants to reconnect to Yiddish, that hasn’t heard Yiddish since their childhood, and we also get a fair amount of Hasidim listening, which is awesome. The reception has been really surprising and it’s really interesting because I thought of it as sort of an intimate audience at first—and the podcast got really personal on the first season in a way that, had I known how big it was going to be, I might not have let it. But I’m kind of glad that that’s how it worked out.
JL: I think it undermines some of the assumptions that people have about Yiddish and about the Yiddish-speaking community. You say it’s primarily younger people, that might just reflect who listens to podcasts. But there’s, I think, a common misperception of Yiddish as kind of dying language.
SF: Yeah, and let’s be clear, they don’t necessarily all have to speak Yiddish. They can just understand it. So many of us who are listening probably took academic Yiddish programs. A lot of Jewish studies people end up in that. They don’t necessarily speak, but understanding. Or I have a lot of German listeners who don’t actively speak Yiddish but are interested and can understand. It’s a mix, but let’s assume most of them have more understanding than ability to speak Yiddish.
JL: I just think that it helps us to rethink the state of Yiddish in 2019.
SF: Absolutely. (The idea that Yiddish is a “dying language) is one of these things that everyone just accepts as “true,” even though according to, I think UNESCO, which tracks dying languages, it’s not by any means a dying language. It doesn’t meet any of the markers for what one would even call endangered, I believe. I’m pretty sure that it’s actually growing because of the Hasidic community. People often disregard Hasidic Yiddish, or Hasidim in general, as having no culture whatsoever. Kind of like, “Oh, well the Hasidim speak it, but that doesn’t matter.” Why doesn’t that matter? That’s lots of people.
JL: Right. When you say Hasidim, can we break that down a bit? Obviously, there are lots of different kinds of Hasidim, and it doesn’t really reflect all Ultra-Orthodox Jews. When you say that, are you thinking mostly about the Ultra-Orthodox community in New York or in Israel, or… I guess the reason why I ask is just because when we think about the way in which we can break down some of our preconceived notions, one of the things that is “known” to be true but is of course much more complicated than the myth is, is this idea that the Ultra-Orthodox are disconnected from contemporary society and the technology is part of that that, the internet in particular is something that they avoid or they’ve been told to avoid by their religious leaders. Then, of course, we know that people are on the internet and so listening to the podcast, in a way reflecting their engagement also with our contemporary technological world.
SF: Right. I mean, you probably know, but podcast analytics aren’t perfect. It’s hard to know exactly where they are, exactly who’s Hasidic. If I see “Brooklyn,” that could be me, that could be a friend of mine, or that could be a Hasid in Borough Park, who’s to say. I can’t know how many are listening precisely, or where they are. I just know I’ve gotten personal emails, usually anonymous, from Hasidim asking to broach different topics or reaching out that they like the show. We don’t understand yet the diversity of Hasidim. There’s a lot of breaking them down into Hasidim and ex-Hasidim, but there are a lot of people who are on sort of the fringes, or who are still part of the Hasidic community but at home live very different lives. Obviously, smartphones have a lot to do with that. I’ve just noticed that there’s a pretty interesting community of these fringe Hasidim who are still part of the community, but also have one foot out on Instagram. I think the reason they’re on Instagram, and this might be the same reason why they listen to podcasts, is because you don’t need a computer, you just need a phone.
JL: And maybe the phones are less policed, in a way. They’re more personal.
SF: They can’t be as policed, right? You can hide a phone. A lot more of them have smart phones, and then they’ll have sometimes “kosher phones,” that’s sort of the dummy phone, when they actually have WhatsApp. This is all stuff that, you know, it’s evolving and people haven’t exactly studied it so we don’t have the sort of numbers that I’d love to have, but it is very exciting to me that, for Hasidim who are interested in engaging in the secular world or at least a broader realm of thought, that the podcast gets to be part of that, especially for men who do not necessarily speak wonderful English. That’s a little bit of an ironic twist, I do have female Hasidic listeners, I’m sure, but I mostly get messages from men.
JL: Which is a whole other interesting element, when you think about restrictions on women’s voices within the Orthodox world. I mean, I think that we can talk about, broadly speaking, the question of women’s voices in a whole range of spheres. When we look at the podcast, as a feminist podcast that tries to bring forward and foreground women’s voices—I think we can even just look on the website, where one of the goals is, and I’ll just quote it: “To highlight the stories and works of women and queer folk and to discuss some of this issues.” This seems to me that there are two really critical elements here, that go back to this question of women’s voices, which is that in general, the medium of radio, if we look at its history, has been dominated by men. And this is also true of podcasting. This is one of the challenges, I think, across the board that we see. If you look at like the top 100 podcasts or whatever, 80 of them or something are hosted by men. There’s that, and then another thing just has to do with when we think about the history of the so-called gender of Yiddish, there’s all sorts of interesting issues here when we talk about Yiddish and we talk about radio and women’s voices. I think that that’s something we could think about a little bit.
SF: Yeah. I think, I guess I’ll just start with a personal story that happened to me not too long ago. I was giving a talk at the Center for Jewish History, and I was just setting up and a man in the audience came up to me and he said, “Hey, are you the speaker today?” I said, “Yes, I am. I’m Sandy, nice to meet you.” He said, “I was just wondering, are you going to be saying ‘like’ a lot? Because I really hate when people say ‘like a’ lot.” And I was livid. I mean I was really, really, really angry because the fact is that women in all sorts of worlds and fields, our voices are denigrated. They’re not treated with respect. The way we speak is picked apart. As if men don’t say “like,” as if men don’t use things like vocal fry. They do. For me, to make a podcast that centered women’s voices and combats the sort of stereotypes that women’s voices are irritating or non-authoritative and specifically that, you know, I’m a millennial, as much as I don’t love that word—millennial women, our voices are constantly critiqued. It has a lot to do with that.
In particular, speaking in a second or third language is really hard for everyone. But I noticed that in the Yiddish world, a lot of women were quieter than men because they’d say, Oh, I’m not ready to perform or to record or to do whatever in Yiddish until I’m fluent. But I just didn’t see that same kind of timid attitude among my male friends who were learning Yiddish. Kind of saying, “You know what, we’re here, we speak Yiddish. It’s never going to be perfect but we’re going to do it anyway.” Sort of issuing the perfectionism that comes out of women being so critiqued whenever they say anything, whether it’s vocal fry or the word “like,” which are all things that men do too. There’s studies that show that the way women speak eventually becomes the popular way to speak for everyone. This discrimination also comes from women as well, can be generational, it can be in the same generation but the point is, I think for me it was personally empowering to say, “Okay, my Yiddish isn’t perfect, but I’m going to get in front of the microphone and I’m going to create something anyway.” Because I definitely also fall victim to a sort of idea of perfectionism that is unachievable, but I just don’t see my male friends going through. It’s kind of like when you’re teaching a class and you notice that women speak less often, it usually comes out of an impulse to not open one’s mouth until one is 100% sure that they know what they’re saying. I wanted to create a world in which women could just speak without worrying about all that.
JL: I think it’s interesting, you’re kind of connecting the project to a whole range of issues about women’s voices. This is one of the ways where you were saying it was kind of “obvious” to create a feminist podcast. In a certain way, you know, it was going to be feminist no matter what you were going to do, just in terms of the format and the framing. But I mean, I think that part of what’s going on here as well that’s so important, and I feel like we talked about this (not on the podcast), but it’s something that I think people are talking about and trying to engage with more and more in a way that’s self-critical, and trying to be better about it, is that I think it’s important to be including some of these feminist issues and women’s voices in our society at large. In podcasting as a medium, this is actually a major problem, and something that I also noticed: whenever I have had multiple guests on a podcast episode and one of them is a man and one of them is a woman, and then we have the conversation and then I go to edit it or I go to listen to it, I realize the male guest just talks twice as much as the female guests. And then, of course, if you look even at the first season of this podcast, listeners will notice that there were like two episodes out of 10 that had female guests. This is something that I’ve been working on, as well, trying to shift the gender balance on this particular podcast, but this is just a long way of saying that I think this question of whose voices are being heard and who’s been given a platform, is really important in our society at large and also in academia in general. I think that this is really important.
SF: Yeah, and I can’t overemphasize how empowering it has been for me, even when I’m just alone in my apartment in my pajamas recording Vaybertaytsh, to just to put my voice out there. It’s almost therapeutic
JL: And it’s also good practice, right, to use a language.
SF: Absolutely. There was a little bit of a practical element about that, too. I was leaving New York for a while, so I was leaving my Yiddishist enclave of Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Brooklyn to be in Israel, where my partner’s from, for the last couple years of writing and for my first postdoc. How was I going to keep up my Yiddish? And Vaybertaytsh really has helped at that.
JL: One other thing to think about here, to think a little bit more about the question of gender, is this relationship between language and gender. There are a lot of people who’ve been writing about diglossic societies, where people speak more than one language, code-switching and so on. And in these contexts, often different languages are relegated or reserved for different kinds of environments or situations, and thus to different genders. It’s fascinating to me, in a certain way just based off of my own study of the history of Yiddish and the history of language in general, to have a feminist podcast and Yiddish. It seems kind of obvious, to tie in so well with so much of what people like Naomi Seidman, for instance, have written about the discourse about Yiddish in the nineteenth century and the debates about the mame-loshn, the mother tongue literally, as a kind of a feminine language versus Hebrew, which people tried to, at least in terms of the Zionist movement—the polemic against Yiddish tried to articulate Hebrew as a “masculine” language. And of course, there’s a certain kind of polemic and flattening to this discourse that we need to unpack, and that’s what that whole literature and that whole scholarship is really about, because it’s really the Zionists who are talking about Yiddish in this way.
SF: But it’s actually not just the Zionist, because even the movement of Yiddishism, I guess starting with Czernowitz conference officially, in a lot of ways raising the status of Yiddish and raising it as legitimate and not a “jargon,” that’s also asserting it as sort of a “male” language. There was an inherent understanding of Yiddish, as it had been understood, as “vaybertish,” which is—like Vaybertaytsh, the name comes from the concept of Vaybertaytsh which was kind of translations of Jewish texts for women or “vaybertisher menner,” feminine men who could not read loshn-koydesh (the holy tongue). Inherent in Yiddishism in the early twentieth century was this idea of turning the mame-loshn into something legitimate, inherently that meant male. So It’s not just Zionist, I mean, there’s obviously a relationship there, but even within the Yiddish circles, Yiddish writers at the time period, kind of how do we give legitimacy to Yiddish? So it’s not just a language for women, and that the impulse to make Yiddish legitimate still exists among Yiddishists today, and many of the most passionate Yiddishists, I would say the most strict about it, let’s say, are men. There’s actually stuff happening 100 years later that have to do with the idea of Yiddish as male, that male equals legitimate, not a jargon, not a vaybertish shprakh (feminine language).
JL: I guess part of what I was trying to think about there was, in what ways do you think about the podcast and about it’s place within twenty-first century Yiddish culture and Yiddishism, in relationship to this question of gender and how it’s been historically utilized, as you said, as a marker of authority? To code one language as one gender and one language as another, and how that shifts and changes over time, I think it’s just really fascinating.
SF: I mean, a lot of the people who are very passionate about Yiddish are women or part of the queer community. There seems to be a big overlap there, so we’re not only talking about gender in terms of male and female but also a wider spectrum of gender and of sexuality. There’s an idea emerging that Hebrew is the hetero language and Yiddish is the queer language of the Jews. You were kind of saying before, it seems obvious that it’d be a feminist podcast in Yiddish, like there’s something there. I think that’s because there is already such an audience or community of Yiddish speakers who would identify as feminist or queer, but I don’t know.
JL: I guess one way to think about it is, do you situate it within a wider, broader historical context?
SF: It’s weird. I mean, I’m a historian but I don’t think about my podcasts through a historian’s eyes. I think if I did, I would just go crazy. I really have to keep some separation somehow. Maybe I’ll be able to do it when I’m older and I’m further away from it, but I don’t think about the history of Yiddish when I’m making Vaybertaytsh. I really don’t. I think about Terry Gross and Fresh Air. I think about the history of feminist radio in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s really funny, but I just don’t think about it. I mean, it’s definitely there. The Yiddishism aspect is 100% there, but in terms of thinking about it through the lens of Yiddish cultural history, I’d be lying if I said that that’s what I think about. I really think about the contemporary Yiddishist community and what we need. That’s where my head is at when I’m doing this. When I’m doing historical projects, my head is in the past, but I think that’s what people like about Vaybertaytsh. I mean, I get feedback that this feels fresh, it feels modern, it feels relevant. It doesn’t feel like I’m constantly harkening back to a nostalgic vision of a Yiddish-speaking past. I’m trying to create a Yiddish-speaking now.
JL: I’m not implying that you are trying to get back to some golden age of Yiddish, but I mean I think it’s interesting that you say that there’s not really a connection between your scholarly work and the podcast, because it seems to me, especially after reading through and talking to you about some of your work, that there is a connection in terms of your interest in, like you said, the postwar Yiddish culture as part of your work on Jewish camp.
SF: Totally. There is a connection, but I just don’t historicize Vaybertaytsh because my work comes out of a similar passion or interest but I also, I do feel like I have to keep them in separate quarters, sometimes, of my brain and of my heart because there’s just a different relationship between a scholar who’s studying Yiddish culture and someone producing Yiddishist content or Yiddishist culture. In my article in American Jewish History about two Yiddish summer camps, Boiberik and Hemshekh, in the years after the war, in the decades after the war, I do make this connection between the reconstitution of Yiddishism that occurs at those camps from a national linguistic movement into a pathway towards what they would consider to be authentic Jewishness in the postwar period. What I argue, in part, in the conclusion is that while those camps closed at the end of the 1970s, the pattern they created, the way in which they reconstituted Yiddishism, is very much related to the Yiddishist projects that we see today, which of course does include things like my own podcast. There’s obviously a connection there, but I do think if I look at my personal life or this project from that perspective, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it.
JL: I mean, it’s interesting, and we can talk a lot about that article, which I found to be so fascinating and a really exciting look at camps and also at Yiddish culture. You mentioned this question of “authenticity,” you’ve written about how the kids who are at these camps, they have a feeling that there’s a kind of authenticity through language. And even the name of one of them, Hemshekh—which literally means “continuity” in both Hebrew and Yiddish—it’s remarkable because, I mean, this also ties into some of the things that I think about a lot in my own research, this question of how Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust tried to cope with the chasm and the destruction that had been wrought, and that people were trying to bridge this gap that was created with the destruction of European Jewry. But at the same time, when you look at what is happening in this particular context that you’re writing about, in terms of these Yiddish camps and American Jewry, this is also a way in which they’re transforming the meaning of Yiddish and its place in American society. I guess, when you’re thinking about this genealogy or this history of the development of Yiddish in the post-Holocaust era, you say that you don’t really think about your project within this broader context. But what is the importance of continuity with the past when we’re talking about the history of Yiddish in the postwar era, and also in present moment in the twenty-first century? I guess, one way to think about it is, for these kids, like you said, that they felt that there’s a “continuity” by speaking (Yiddish).
SF: It’s even more so that the adults felt that way. I wouldn’t necessarily say the kids always did. I mean, there are some quotes for sure, but you never know. I work on history of childhood stuff, and my perspective on Jewish studies is usually from a history of youth perspective. You never know if an adult prompted them to write it. You have to always have a critical eye but, you know, you hear it from alumni that they felt that way. But that’s also through the lens of memory. But, yes, let’s say participants broadly speaking of different ages had some feeling that what they were doing contributed to their so-called authenticity.
JL: I guess the question is, when you look at this history, And the way in which “continuity” and “authenticity” as concepts come up within that particular context, do you think that it speaks in some way to a search for continuity that the Yiddish language represented for them and do you think that this is no longer the case when we’re talking about Yiddish culture in our present day, as you were describing before?
SF: I think that when I look at Jewish summer camping from a more broad perspective, the Yiddishist case makes a little bit more sense. Similar to how Zionist camps sought to create Jews of a certain mold. At camp, they were role playing Jews from other times and places. Whether that meant, in the Zionist case, pioneers or chalutzim, or in the Yiddish case a nostalgic view of the past or the idea of different heroes of Eastern European Jewish history, in a lot of ways I don’t necessarily see it just as continuity but also trying to create something new in the postwar era that they believed could transform a generation raised in affluent suburbs, by and large, into whatever they understood to be ideal, better, or you can say “authentic” Jews.
How that connects to today, I think that at the time in the Yiddish-speaking community, what you see more is not adults at the top looking down at youth and thinking, “Okay, how do we transform them according to our ideals, our ideas of what real Jewishness looks like that either harkens back to the past or has something to do with, let’s say, a Zionist feature?” But in the Yiddishist case today, it’s rather young people largely who are coming into the Yiddish community because they are looking for a certain relationship with Jewishness that they’re not finding in mainstream Jewish communities. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that’s continuity, because a lot of ways they are creating something entirely new or bridging their contemporary identities and needs with whatever they want Yiddish to be for them.
One thing I get asked a lot is whether or not there’s something inherently leftist about being into Yiddish, because a lot of especially young people, a lot of Yiddish speakers are left wing, perhaps anti-Zionist or at least ambivalent about Zionism. But I would say that that is a way in which this generation is fashioning Yiddish for their own personal need for identity fulfillment, personal understanding of their own Jewishness. It’s not perhaps continuity of the past. It’s rather kind of taking what they envision the past was like and molding it to whatever their needs are.
In that way, they’re very similar to the postwar Yiddishists who are doing that in camp, taking Yiddishism and turning it into something different and useful, fashioning it into a tool towards whatever they believe to be an ideal identity. But in this case, I think in this generation it’s coming less from top-down and more from bottom-up, where it’s more coming from youth and that might be because, as my broader work shows, that isn’t about just the Yiddish camps and about the Zionist camps, the denominational camps as well, there’s this broader Israelification of American Jewish culture that—in particular now—is being brought into question by millennials. And Yiddish is a very convenient, I guess I would say alternative path or replacement for an identity for many of us who grew up in Jewish communities in the ’90s and early 2000s, that was extremely Israel-centric.
JL: I mean, especially when you think about, again, the history of Yiddish, the history of YIVO and of kind of this tradition of diasporism that is connected with that whole tradition.
SF: Definitely. You see Yiddish gaining a lot of popularity in a lot of left wing organizations like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, or even IfNotNow to a degree, because in a way those organizations are questioning not just Israelification but also just a one-dimensional American Jewish culture. A lot of young Yiddishists are asking, was there more to the story than just the Holocaust or just Israel? And it’s my hope that that conversation will also lead into broader awareness of other newish cultures and not just Yiddish culture, also Ladino and Judeo-Arabic.
JL: I think that there are a whole series of historical contexts that we can think about, the development of Yiddish in the postwar era—like, Jeffrey Shandler for instance has written pretty extensively about the idea of postvernacular Yiddish, the idea that Yiddish has become a language that people engage with without speaking. Obviously, I think here your project and your interest in Yiddish and Yiddishism and the development of more vernacular Yiddish culture obviously is kind of in contrast with that whole way of thinking about Yiddish, as well.
SF: I think Shandler’s work is correct, that there’s a much larger segment of a community that’s interacting with Yiddish from a postvernacular perspective. A good way to relate that is my podcast. People say, “It’s really in Yiddish?! So you’re saying, I can’t listen to it unless I speak Yiddish?” No. You literally cannot listen to it unless you speak Yiddish. It’s not for everyone, and that seems to really upset people, especially Americans who are just often completely overwhelmed by the idea of being fluent in a second language.
There is this postvernacular element that Shandler correctly described, but the Yiddishists I study and the contemporary ones who I interact with are in many ways fighting against that and saying, it can remain a vernacular, and they’re not particularly interested in the postvernacular ways of engaging with it, and actually can get rather offended by it. The whole idea that Yiddish is funny, and you’re going to put it on a t-shirt. It’s the exact kind of thing that makes Yiddishists really angry.
JL: I think for good reason, right? In as much as it relegates it to a secondary position, or a second status.
SF: Yeah, it’s just demeaning. People will say—I’ll be on a different podcast, let’s say I was on Unorthodox, Tablet’s show, and they said, “Speak Yiddish for us,” like it’s, dance monkey. I mean, what are you talking about? It’s a language. It’s obviously, it’s both. And I’m not saying that the group of people I study or engage with is particularly huge in number. But I think one of the things I’m hoping to show as I write my book and get it out there is that by looking at engagements with Yiddish culture alongside more mainstream stories we know about in the postwar period and alongside Zionism, the rise of suburban Judaism and denominations, the intermarriage crisis, that actually Yiddish can be a way of shedding light onto these broader trends.
JL: I think one of the themes that comes up a lot when we’re talking about why Jewish history matters is that a group that is smaller in number can be important. You don’t have to have the numbers for it to be significant. And I think the same thing is true when you look at Yiddish. Even if there’s only however many tens of thousands of people around the world who speak Yiddish, it doesn’t mean that it’s not an important subject or important language.
SF: Right, and you can tell that it sort of ‘matters’ to people. I’m putting matters in quotes because it’s difficult to gauge what matters is or how much it matters to people. But Yiddish strikes a chord with people. That’s one thing that I’ve learned from doing Vaybertaytsh. I mean, it gets a lot of press, it gets a lot of attention. We have a lot of Instagram followers who don’t speak Yiddish, because people do care about Yiddish even if they don’t speak it. The reverberations of the sort of Yiddishists projects that are occurring are greater than the number of people who participated in it or learn Yiddish.
JL: I think one of the things that’s also interesting, and it ties back into this article that you wrote, is that there’s a commonly understood narrative about the history of Yiddish, about the idea of Yiddish as “dying language” and about the idea of Yiddish “revival.” And in some ways, I would say it’s interesting, it kind of mirrors the way most people—I’m talking about sort of regular people—they think about the revival of Hebrew. Many people think about the modern-day revival of modern Israeli Hebrew in the same terms of a “dead language” that gets “revived” starting in the 1880s, more or less. And, of course, it’s not really the way it was. It (Hebrew) was never a dead language, and the revival, it’s complicated. But part of what you were talking about in the article, talking about Yiddish-language camps and also more recent developments, is that you were saying that what’s been happening over the past 20 years, for instance, is not really a revival in any particular sense. That was my understanding of it. Just that you’re kind of trying to help us to rethink the entire history of the development of Yiddish over the past few generations and in this context, the podcast also fits into rethinking about the nature of Yiddish and its place in twenty-first-century Jewish culture.
SF: It doesn’t seem to me that there was any particular moment in which Yiddishist activism ended or that there was no kind of youth movement or activity that was going on that represented a certain Yiddishist point of view. I think when people are talking about revival, what they’re really talking about is… I mean, first of all, there has been a Klezmer revival. But that should not necessarily be conflated with a Yiddish revival. Although there’s relationships between those two things. The change is and this is something that Sarah Rukhl Schachter, who’s the editor of the Forverts, says a lot like, “Yiddish is suddenly cool.” I think that’s what they sort of mean by revivals. There’s been a change in perspective about Yiddish from something nostalgic to something that a lot of young people in particular are finding really hip these days but I don’t think that constitutes a revival.
A lot of the people who, I would say, they love Yiddish or think Yiddish is cool, they’re not actually going out to learn it. They’re also engaging with it postvernacularly. It’s hard for me to look at it as a revival as much as there’s been sort of the steady interest that is changing all the time. That Yiddish is being used to fill gaps in people’s personal experiences or their Judaism or help people make connections to their ancestors. It’s been there. It’s just that now it’s getting a lot of attention because somehow it’s become cool and hip. Which is interesting and I don’t think we’re going to fully understand that as historians until we have some distance from it, which is why it’s hard for me to historicize what I’m doing, because I think it’s still just like it’s evolving story. I’m part of it, yeah, and it’s changing all the time. Even a couple years ago, the Yiddishist community I was a part of was doing different things than it is now. It’s just constantly changing.
JL: I think part of what interests me here, and I feel like we’ve been kind of dancing around it a little bit, is just that there are a lot of popular conceptions about Yiddish, about its history, about its nature, about who speaks it, about where it’s spoken. One of the things that we’ve touched upon a bit earlier is the way in which Yiddish is seen as a language of the left, on the one hand, and also as a language of the Ultra-Orthodox. One can even just think about representations of Yiddish in popular culture. Just thinking about some recent points of reference, there’s the Israeli TV show Shtisel, which has kind of been blowing up—at least on my social media feed—since it went on Netflix. And even a couple of years ago, I think there was an episode of High Maintenance, this show about the weed dealer, there was an episode where they had Yiddish-speaking actors and they were playing the character of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, kind of on the fringes of that community. It’s this representation of the Ultra-Orthodox world or its circle and the Yiddish language. That’s one thing, or I guess rather two things: A language of the left and the language of the present day Ultra-Orthodox. But Yiddish is also, I think, seen incorrectly by a lot of people as this kind of “throwback,” as a marker that represents this kind of a pre-modern Jewish existence. I guess, when we think about these various ways in which Yiddish is understood by a lot of people, and I think by some scholars too, how can we comprehend Yiddish and its place in our present moment, and those who speak and study it, in a different way from how it’s popularly misunderstood?
SF: It’s tough. I was talking to Saul Zaritt about how there aren’t a lot of anthropologies, let’s say, about Yiddish speakers, Hasidic or not. There are linguistic studies, and there’s some stuff, but there’s a lot we don’t know about people who speak Yiddish today. I mean, it’s definitely true that a lot of people I do know who speak Yiddish happen to be either leftist or they’re Hasidic or formerly Hasidic. That’s a huge part especially of the young people but obviously, we should not discount people from older generations who spoke it in the home or heard it in the home. There are Zionist Yiddish speakers. I mean, there’s a huge diversity actually, especially when you’re looking at it globally. A lot of what we’re talking about is about American Yiddishism, because that’s the context we’re in and what I study. But when you look at Yiddish globally, there’s completely different stories to be told.
I guess what I would point out about contemporary culture today is just that there’s an increasing dialogue between these two groups that you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with each other, which is the sort of leftist radical Jews. They’re interested in Yiddish and Hasidim. Not only do people listen to my show who are Hasidic, they also interview a lot of people who are Hasidic and maybe it wouldn’t be obvious or who were formally Hasidic, both. It might not be obvious to people that there are Hasidim who would want to be on a feminist podcast in Yiddish but these worlds are actually colliding in some ways, particularly because of the internet because of things like Instagram, Facebook and you could talk to Sarah Rukhl Schachter from the Forverts where they have a lot of Hasidic readers. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I really don’t know how to answer it. There are lots of different people who speak Yiddish.
JL: Well, I guess part of what I was just trying to think about here is, is there a way to shift the way people think about Yiddish?
SF: I think the way to do that is to make projects like Yiddish Farm and Vaybertaytsh and so many other projects that are going on right now. It’s not about shifting the way people think about Yiddish, because I’m really not overly concerned with that, but about creating a contemporary culture that’s not particularly nostalgic and is more forward-looking, so that people will understand that Yiddish is moving forward and that there is contemporary culture to be listened, to be read, etc. For me, just personally, I don’t create Vaybertaytsh thinking about the people who don’t speak Yiddish. And that might seem strange. Is it a plus to me that some of those people might get inspired to learn Yiddish? Absolutely. But, I don’t know, I guess I don’t really get stuck on public perceptions of Yiddish. Maybe it’s just because it’s too frustrating and I just have to answer a lot of ignorant questions about, “Oh isn’t it dead?” all the time. I mean, it’s really, all the time for anyone who speaks Yiddish. I don’t get particularly caught up in how I changed that perception. I think the perception is changing because people are acting, because people are making, and I think that’s good. I think that I see a lot of press, both in America and Israel, about Yiddish culture today, and usually the questions, not usually, but often the questions come from a pretty stereotypical place. Or the articles will start, like, “Yiddish is a funny language and look at this young person who strangely has decided to learn it.” I just saw an article like this from Ynet, in Israel, that my friend Ronnie Cohen was interviewed for, and what he did was he held his own and explained in his own words, even when the questions coming at him were coming from this stereotypical place about “Yiddish is dying.” That’s really all that can be done, that people who care about Yiddish will continue to create in Yiddish and hopefully the way they communicate that to the world will change perceptions.
JL: I mean one thing to think about here also is the role of technology. There’s been some really interesting work recently on how technologies embed assumptions, whether we’re talking about algorithms for Google search results or whatever. There’s a growing consensus among people who think about technology, that nothing is neutral, and the same thing can be said about languages within technology. It’s very complicated to have a program handle Hebrew characters, for instance. You’ve talked a bit about how it’s tough to edit a podcast in Yiddish, because there’s not a lot of professional audio editors who understand what they’re listening to. I guess part of what I’m thinking about here is that when you think about the future of Yiddish and about the role of technology in enabling the future growth of a language and of a culture, where do you see the podcast fitting in? Where do you see these broader issues with the internet and all of that sort of playing into this question of, as you said, a forward-looking culture as opposed to a backwards-looking one?
SF: I think it’s already happening. I mean, I brought up Instagram before. There’s this interesting underworld, Hasidic fringe underworld on Instagram that’s happening with lots of Yiddish mixed into it that in previous generations people who were interested in Yiddish would probably not have that kind of access to meeting these people who speak Yiddish from a completely different background. In terms of the podcast itself, another good example—besides the fact that it’s hard to hire someone to edit it—is there’s no transcription software. I can’t just plug the audio into a software and let it create a transcript of the Yiddish for me. I still have to hire people to do that labor. We have a ways to go, and I know there are challenges in getting big companies like Google to support Yiddish, Yiddish characters, or Yiddish projects.
JL: Like you said, Yiddish doesn’t matter that much to some of these companies.
SF: Because it’s not a big enough market. Why would they care?
JL: One of the challenges that we have as scholars is making the case of what we do matters, because it’s not going to make anybody a lot of money to create a Google translate option for Yiddish—
SF: It does exist, but it’s really bad. It might as well not exist.
JL: Sort of stepping away from the podcast though, do you think that there is work to be done in terms of convincing people, whether we’re talking about within the Jewish sphere or just in general, that Yiddish is something significant as a culture, as a language, as a society? Like you said, you’re really focused on the Yiddish-speaking community but, again, stepping away from that, do you think that that there’s work to be done there in terms of getting people for instance who are not Jews to want to take a Yiddish class at the university? Well, it does happen, but you want more in the same way that you want non-Jews to take Jewish studies classes or whatever.
SF: Yeah, I mean, sure. I definitely think that that case should be made. For me, linking it back to my research, which also overlaps with my broader interests and background, is I think a lot about youth culture and relationships between educators and youth. I happen to think that American Jewish education has been extremely one-dimensional in terms of how Jewish history is taught, in terms of how Jewish culture is taught. I wouldn’t say that Yiddish matters. I would just say that the plurality of Jewish cultures really matter, and that if the people who fund different programs to “save” our generation from assimilation and intermarriage would really think about what the failings were in our educations, I don’t think many of them would admit that that it’s one-dimensional Jewish education that’s partly at fault. But what I’m trying to say here is, definitely Yiddish matters to me. But what I’m more concerned about is that people find something that matters to them. I have trouble just saying, “Yiddish matters.” To me, all of these different Jewish cultural things matter. I don’t place Yiddish above Sephardi culture or Mizrahi culture. I just think it’s great if, in general, we knew more about histories besides persecution— and by “we,” I mean the public more so—but persecution, the Holocaust, Israel. That’s it.
JL: I wasn’t trying to imply that you were discounting the other Jewish cultures. But I think it is interesting in as much as there are kind of two hegemonic narratives of Jewish history, I think, that one can talk about—the first one you just mentioned, right? Thinking about, especially in terms of the Jewish education in contemporary America and the centrality of Israel within that, the centrality of Israel; and then there’s also the centrality of Eastern European Jewry and, to some extent, the Eastern European Jewish cultural heritage has been, as you pointed out, undermined by the hegemony of Israeli culture and Hebrew culture as a result of the political developments of the past century. There’s that, and then there’s of course all those non-Ashkenazi Jewish cultures that just never get discussed by anybody outside a handful of scholars who are looking at North African Jewish culture or Jews in what’s now modern day Iraq, etc. I think part of what’s interesting here is that we can talk a lot about why Jewish history matters as a whole, but also we need to think very deeply about, under that umbrella, what gets the most attention and how we can draw more attention to the narratives and the groups of people who are ignored outside of a small circle scholars.
SF: Right. Yiddish matters to me for all sorts of personal reasons that are probably not interesting to enumerate, and probably not surprising to anyone about my background. But to me, how Yiddish could matter in a broader sense is as an example of a treasure trove of history, literature, and culture that most American Jews didn’t have access to as they were learning about what being Jewish is or what Jewish history is. Just one example, and I think as I’m teaching this (past) semester, I have in a class of 16—six of them are of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent and none of them in all of their Jewish educations ever learned about their own family backgrounds. The reason I care, I mean, besides the fact that I try to just be aware of systems of oppression, but I care about the fact that they don’t know about their histories, is because I didn’t know about my own. The fact that Yiddish matters to me makes me care that they learn about their own histories. That’s another reason I think Yiddish could sort of matter in this context.