Mikhl Baran grew up with Yiddish. Now 91, he says of Oshmiany, the town in Lithuania where he was born, “Even the stones spoke Yiddish in our little shtetl.”
Anthony Russell discovered the language in his thirties. A gay, African-American singer of opera, he stumbled across Yiddish cantorial singing during a mid-career crisis, and says that audiences still need to “get over the surprise” of hearing him croon in the mother tongue.
Both men, worlds apart in nearly every other way, have participated in the “Trip to Yiddishland,” an annual rite of summer put on by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring of New York City, an organization devoted to preserving Jewish and Yiddish culture. Their disparate journeys reflect the delicate path such programs must walk between connecting to the past and breathing new life into a language many feared lost to the flames of World War II.
“There isn’t this ridiculous notion that there’s this language that’s about to die — what are we going to do to preserve it,” Russell said of the program. “I could just be there, learn the language and enjoy the people without it being this crisis. Who wants to commit oneself for a week to a crisis?”
And, appropriate to the language that brought us mishegas and tsuris, the program has a fair amount of whimsy. Take for example, the daily ritual of netzbol — volleyball in a pool where participants speak to each other with as much Yiddish as they can muster.
“I think it’s everyone’s favorite part of the day,” said Adrian Silver, a graduate student at Columbia University who is working on a master’s thesis centered on writing an original Yiddish play. “We go into the pool, set up a net and then we talk in Yiddish. We kind of throw the ball back and forth a little bit, but it’s really just a mess.”
Each year since 2008, roughly 100 participants have descended upon the town of Hopewell Junction in the Hudson River Valley on a patch of land near Sylvan Lake operated by the Workmen’s Circle since 1927. It is home to Camp Kinder Ring and the Circle Lodge. The Workmen’s Circle boasts the largest, non-academic Yiddish language and culture program in the U.S.
Notably, “A Trip to Yiddishland” meets participants at their level of experience, with classes from gornisht (beginner) to meyven (expert). It boasts some of the top names in Yiddish instruction: Chava Lapin of Queens College and Miriam Hoffman, a lecturer at Columbia and Oxford Universities. Participants include refugees from the Holocaust, who might speak to each other in Yiddish or Polish or Russian, but also young scholarship students who come from as far away as Sweden and Brazil. Cost of the excursion–which this year runs from July 1-12–ranges from $250 to close to $1700 depending on length of stay and the style of the accommodations.
“It’s a more expanded mispokhe,” said Nikolai “Kolya” Borodulin, master Yiddish teacher and coordinator of Yiddish programming, using the word for network or clan. “What’s truly beautiful about this is that it’s a community of four generations, from ages 5 to a 100.”