Learning Yiddish on the Farm

Raising Zucchini With Language Immersion on the Side

By Ezra Glinter

Published July 24, 2012, issue of July 27, 2012.
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The farmhouse at Yiddish Farm is small but cozy, with a screened-in porch, a couple of bedrooms and a large, well-equipped kitchen. In the combined living and dining room there are three orange couches, an ornate mahogany china cabinet and a baby grand piano. Volumes by Zhitlovsky vie for space on the shelves with Yiddish texts, tractates of the Talmud and books with names like “Grass Fed Cattle” and “Edible Wild Plants.” In the bathroom, a book called “Jewish Farmers of the Catskills: A Century of Survival” was perched on the edge of the tub, two pages bookmarked.

Participants at Yiddish Farm change from month to month, or even week to week, but during my visit they included Arlen Baden, a 66-year-old retired guidance councilor and vegan chef; Marshall Zalc, a 51-year-old yoga and meditation instructor from Brazil; Kovi Weiner, an incoming sophomore at New York University, and Wolk, a full-time fellow at the egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar. As others come and go, Bass manages the Farm, eyes the pesticide-free plants for signs of insects and teaches participants how to properly hoe potatoes. Ejdelman acts as a combined Yiddish teacher, social director and rebbe, keeping the ad-hoc community on an even keel.

The participants offer different reasons for attending and for paying the $2,400-a-month, or $4,400-a-summer fee. Leana Jelen, a graduate student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in Chicago, and came for the opportunity to use the language in an outdoor, rural environment. Others are beginners and have various motivations for learning.

“I know a lot of people in different parts of the Yiddish world, and I think learning Yiddish would be a good way to gain access to those worlds,” said Wolk.

“My parents and grandparents speak it, as well as my teachers and many Jews I meet,” added Ezriel Gelbfish, a 21-year-old Yeshiva University student from Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “It’s a big part of my heritage.”

The farm also boasts a shifting array of guests who stop by, sometimes unannounced, for a weekend, a day or an afternoon. They are often Hasidim or former Hasidim that Bass and Ejdelman have befriended. Ultra-Orthodox singer Eli Beer recently shot a music video on the property, bringing a crowd of spectators who heard about the shoot on Twitter. The farm has placed an ad in the Satmar newspaper Der Yid, inviting Hasidim to use the property as a campground.

Such unlikely associations are in keeping with the organization’s goal of bringing together the full range of Yiddish speakers. “For people who are Hasidic it opens a door to a different kind of Yiddish,” Bass noted. “Here are young people who aren’t wearing black coats, and they really care about being Jewish. It’s very surprising for them.”

The farm itself, which is Sabbath observant and kosher, reflects the blend of very progressive and very traditional elements that can be found in the Yiddish community. During my stay we prayed the Friday night service in the Ashkenazi fashion, sounding like any small Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. But men and women prayed together.

Yiddish Farm’s biggest challenge is to transition from a grant-supported organization to a self-sustaining entity. Currently the farm receives contributions via Yugntruf — Youth for Yiddish, an established tax-exempt charity that acts as its fiscal sponsor. This allows the farm to receive tax-deductible donations as Bass and Ejdelman work on getting the farm its own not-for-profit status.

As the farm grows, they hope to become self-sustaining by selling produce at farmers markets and directly to supermarkets and caterers. The farm has already sold some of its first crops to Landau’s Supermarket, in Kiryas Joel. They also plan to produce packaged goods, like borscht and popcorn, and intend to raise a herd of goats and egg-laying hens.

Still, no one is expecting that it’s going to be easy. “It’s not easy being a farmer, it’s not easy being a Jew and it’s even harder being a Yiddish-speaking Jewish farmer,” said Bass. “But we’re committed to it. Jews have been doing this for a very long time.”

Contact Ezra Glinter at glinter@forward.com and on Twitter @EzraG


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