Young Singers Adapt Old Traditions for a New Generation

By E.B. Solomont

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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When the Pripetshik Singers take the stage, a certain buzz surrounds them. The oldest member of the all-Yiddish singing group is only 16 years old, making the singers the youngest Yiddish ensemble around — by decades.

Pripetshik is so unusual, in fact, that last year, filmmaker Josh Waletzky and the group’s musical director, Binyumen Schaechter, collaborated to film the eight-member company. The documentary that they produced — “Pripetshik Sings Yiddish!” — was released this past November. It explores the performances and lives of ensemble members.

On film, however, the group’s high-pitched melodies populate the B-roll, despite Pripetshik’s reputation for quality, which has earned the group invitations to venues such as New York City’s Lincoln Center.

Waletzky reserves A-roll footage for his interviews with the singers, specifically because the group’s very existence is so exceptional. “The uniqueness is not that they can sing,” Waletzky explained. “They speak Yiddish. Their experience takes place in this language. I am completely aware of the fact that they are completely rare nowadays.”

Rare, but not alone. The singers — aged 5 to 16 — are growing up in households in which Yiddish is the primary language, a situation that is uncommon for non-Hasidic households in North America, but not unheard of. No statistical data exists, but anecdotal evidence does: At the annual weeklong Yiddish-Vokh retreat in Copake, N.Y., at the Berkshire Hills Emanuel-Adult Vacation Center, Yiddish speakers immerse themselves in the language and culture. About 25 children mingle with some 150 adults.

The Pripetshik singers all live in the New York metropolitan area, and met at the Pripetshik shule, or school, the Sunday school for Yiddish reading and writing. Admittedly, the ensemble is a family affair: The singers are Schaechter’s children, nieces and nephew, and family friends.

In 2000, when the children grew too busy to attend the shule regularly, Schaechter — whose musical background includes off-Broadway musical theater and songwriting — organized the singing group as another creative outlet for his Yiddish-speaking offspring. Their repertoire includes a mixture of adapted songs, such as “I’m a Little Teapot,” but there also are classic Yiddish children’s songs, such as “Avremele un Yosele.” (“Avremele and Yosele”). As Waletzky sums it up, the Yiddish values became “crystallized” in the group’s songs, which the children have performed at schools and music festivals around the Northeast.

All this comes on the heels of renewed interest in Yiddish culture among North American Jews, and the Pripetshik Singers are acutely aware of the phenomenon and of their role in it.

“I think it’s very important that Yiddish continue,” 16-year-old singer Meena-Lifshe Viswanath said. “Pripetshik itself is a way of spreading it.”

Still, when they are not onstage, the singers’ Yiddish knowledge stops some folks in their tracks.

For example, Pripetshik singer Leah Whiteman, 13, had just landed at a New York-area airport this past November when she encountered a group of Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews. She said that she surprised them by joining in their conversation. Whiteman admitted that her overture might have seemed unusual to the Hasidim: “You see this girl in the airport who is your average American teenager, trying to get her baggage, and all of a sudden she overhears a conversation and joins in. Poof! You are surprised out of your mind. Why is this girl learning Yiddish?”

For some, the answer to Whiteman’s question isn’t easy. For years, the Yugntruf (“Call to Youth”) youth organization for Yiddish speakers and learners has catered to 20- and 30-somethings, while venues for younger speakers remain limited.

Pripetshik singer Arele Viswanath, 14, said that his friends poke fun at him for being an “old guy.” They tell him he should chat with their grandparents.

The other male in the group, Daneel Schaechter, 13, said that Yiddish has practical constraints: Certain vocabulary — especially technical words or computer terms — doesn’t translate easily into Yiddish. (His father, musical director Binyumen, leads an online listserv where experts translate unknown expressions into Yiddish; he also is working on a new Yiddish dictionary.) But the younger Schaechter added, “If I could speak Spanish, it would be useful since half of New York City speaks Spanish.”

For the most part, the Pripetshik Singers take Yiddishist cues from their parents.

“The fact that we can stay true to Yiddish can definitely make a huge difference,” in keeping Yiddish alive, said Shifra Whiteman, 16, a self-described Bundist. “I guess you could say we are following in our parents’ footsteps, whatever that means.”

Daneel Schaechter agrees. “I think it’s good to keep it from becoming dead,” he said. “This is what generations of families have done. We don’t want to make them angry in heaven!”

For Binyumen Schaechter, inspiration from his parents continues to play an integral role in speaking Yiddish with his children and in leading their music ensemble. “It was a no-brainer to speak Yiddish with my kids,” he said. “My parents have 16 fluent Yiddish-speaking grandchildren. Maybe only the Hasidic community would beat us.”

Even though his mother and his father — a Yiddish linguist — inspired him originally, Schaechter is quick to add, “So much of what’s rich in language is that it references our heritage and history. It feels like it’s my language and our language.”

The Pripetshik Singers echo the older Schaechter’s affinity for Yiddish like a multiple-part chorus singing variations of the same tune.

“There is some kind of warm feeling that accompanies Yiddish,” Arele Viswanath said. “When we are fighting we don’t speak in Yiddish. On Friday night we sing in Yiddish. Yiddish is the language of joy, warmth, family.”

Leah Whiteman calls Yiddish the most comfortable language for her. “When I am with a group of Yiddish speakers, I am myself completely,” she said. “It feels so wonderful because they know who you really are.”

In certain ways, Yiddish-speaking youth have adapted Yiddish language and culture for their generation, often juxtaposing the “old world” with modern American life. Shifra Whiteman recalls reading Berenstain Bears books with Yiddish “subtitles” pasted over English text.

Meena-Lifshe Viswanath sends e-mails in Yiddish with a half-dozen “Yiddish friends” whom she met at the Pripetshik shule or at Yiddish-Vokh. “About a year ago, someone sent me to an [online] message board in Yiddish. People left messages about how it is to speak Yiddish where they live,” she said. “We talk about everything. Cute guys at Yiddish-Vokh. We talk about our problems in life. We just hang out. It’s just normal teenage conversation.”

Above all, the singers pride themselves on their relationship with one another, as well as on furthering the Yiddish cause.

When Reyna Schaechter sings with the group, “it doesn’t feel like you are the only person who speaks Yiddish,” said the 10-year-old performer, who also is currently performing in the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s musical theater production, “On Second Avenue.”

Leah Whiteman hopes that kids in the audience are inspired to learn the language when they get older — or sooner.

But Whiteman stops short of speaking at length about the Yiddish revival of which she and others could be a part. “I don’t believe that Yiddish is a dying language. Everybody says that,” she said. “But if I speak it and the rest of my friends speak it, then what does that mean?”

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