This is one of seven profiles of American Jews who fascinated us in 2021. Click here to see all seven and read an explanation of our Forward Shortlist.
Yiddish is having a moment on social media, thanks in good part to Cameron Bernstein.
Bernstein, 23, had her first encounter with the language during her senior year at the University of Chicago, when she signed up for a Yiddish class after missing the registration deadline for most other courses. As it turned out, the mameloshn resonated, and she started posting videos in and about Yiddish on TikTok, in part to help make studying it more fun.
She believes she was the first to post in Yiddish on the platform, and over the past 18 months has racked up more than 29,000 followers and 1 million likes on 580 videos.
Those videos introduce viewers to Yiddish fiction, vocabulary, poetry and music, along with Bernstein’s various hobbies, like making a shirt from a dress. Since her graduation, she has been working at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and frequently posts about the collection.
Bernstein plays guitar, acts out skits and relates her thoughts about life and culture in an unfiltered way. Her combination of relatability and talent helps her bring the joy of Yiddish to broad new audiences.
This is part of a wave of Yiddish digital renaissance in 2021. This was the year Duolingo was overwhelmed by signups for its first Yiddish course, and people like Julie Sugar and Noah Barrera joined Bernstein on Yiddish TikTok. These built on the popular success of the 2020 translation of the Harry Potter books from English to Yiddish.
In an interview in Yiddish on Dr. Sandy Fox’s podcast Vaybertaytsh, Bernstein spoke about her “dream that on the internet we will have Yiddish projects like Spanish projects from high schoolers.”
“Maybe not so good,” she acknowledged, “but it will be normal to have people making their Yiddish better through mistakes and exploration.”
In her own words
We asked the seven fascinating people on our Forward Shortlist to answer a few questions unrelated to the work they do.
What do you eat for breakfast? I often just drink coffee with a spoon of sweetened condensed milk, but optimally: sandwich with two fried eggs, (raspberry) jam and a sprinkle of salt.
What app on your Smartphone can you not live without? TikTok, unfortunately.
What’s your earliest Jewish memory? Learning to braid when we made challah in preschool.
What’s your favorite holiday? As an undergraduate at U Chicago, Pesach would almost always fall on the same weekend as the collegiate Model U.N. conference we ran, called “ChoMUN.” In previous years, some Jewish students created the “ChoSeder” to celebrate the holiday at the hotel.
I assumed leadership of it my sophomore year, and it was so fun crafting new community traditions like assembling a special ChoSeder Haggadah, coordinating chaos of the kosher catering and singing “Dayenu” a little too rowdily in a hotel suite.
Who is your hero? I think my college Yiddish professor, Dr. Jessica Kirzane, is one of the coolest people ever. Editor-in-chief of In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies, translator extraordinaire (“Diary of a Lonely Girl: the Battle Against Free Love”), invested in quality pedagogy, encouraging of her students making Yiddish a lifelong practice outside of the classroom. I’m so lucky to have been her student.
Tell us about a book you read, movie you watched, TV show you streamed or podcast you listened to in 2021 — or one of each! I recently finished the book “Como agua para chocolate” — “Like Water for Chocolate” — on the bus back from New York. It was the first book I completed entirely in Spanish, and it sparked a conversation with my seat partner, who was from the Dominican Republic.
Our conversation was mostly in English, but there was a stretch where I explained the differences between Yiddish and Hebrew in Spanish, doing my best not to get the language-wires mixed up.
What’s one thing you always do (or try to) on Friday night or Saturday? This was easier when I worked from home, but when I have the chance I love to bake a loaf of challah. I use an egg-free recipe I inherited from a friend from Hillel. I’m grateful that I’ve always cooked an egg-free loaf because I didn’t have to adjust anything when I moved in with a vegan roommate.
What’s your New Year’s Resolution? Get eight hours of sleep each night.
To view the full Forward Shortlist, click here.
Cameron Bernstein: TikTok Yiddishist