“‘How does the cat get away from the snake?’ means ‘How the heck am I going to do this?’” Menachem Ejdelman told a crowd of rapt college students who were strewn on beat-up couches in a dormitory lounge.
That phrase, first pronounced by Ejdelman in its original Yiddish, was among a handful that the 23-year-old organizer of Yiddish Break — a recent weekend retreat for college-age Yiddish enthusiasts — shared with the group during a session on the language’s idioms.
“A month and a half ago,” continued Ejdelman, who wore a short red beard and a black yarmulke, “many people asked this very question.”
The 45 participants applauded in a display of enthusiasm for what Ejdelman, — grandson of revered Yiddishist Mordkhe Schaechter, who died in February — had managed to pull off in just six weeks.
By using the social networking Web site Facebook and attending Columbia University Yiddish classes, Ejdelman recruited a diverse sampling of 20-something Yiddish lovers for two days of kvelling over their beloved language.
“It was a sudden inspiration that I have to continue my grandfather’s legacy,” said Ejdelman, who works as a financial assistant for Birthright Israel, a program that offers free Israel trips to young American Jews.
Held on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Yiddish Break featured games of Yiddish Scrabble, a theater workshop in which attendees acted out famous Yiddish plays and a hefty number of planned — though sometimes wholly impromptu — sing-alongs of traditional Yiddish tunes.
Funded by grants from a host of not-for-profit organizations, including Yugntruf, meaning “Call to Youth,” and the League for Yiddish — both founded by Ejdelman’s grandfather — as well as from the Forward Association and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, Yiddish Break drew about half its participants from New York City, with others coming from as far away as Rochester, N.Y., and Chicago.
The Yiddish skills of the weekend’s participants varied widely. Among those gathered were two Hasidic men from Brooklyn’s Boro Park neighborhood, where Yiddish is the mother tongue. Still, they were an anomaly among the crowd of mostly secular Jews, who had largely studied the language in academic settings.
Sarah Zarrow, a program assistant for the Revson Foundation’s Jewish Media Fund, first learned Yiddish during a summer internship at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. Zarrow, 25, said that she decided to attend Yiddish Break because it was a rare opportunity to actually socialize with other Yiddish lovers in her age group.
“I’m interested in hanging out and doing things in Yiddish without hearing about why it’s important on an academic level,” she said.
Rebecca Spence is a staff writer for the Forward.