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Yugntruf Preserves More Than Words

For one devoted group, this so-called “dying language” is forever young.

These Yiddish speakers are not ultra-Orthodox Jews sequestered in Williamsburg or Eastern European immigrants speaking the tongue of their yidishe mames. They are Jews in their 20s, 30s and 40s building a bona fide community of Yiddish speakers.

Yugntruf, “Call to Youth,” is celebrating its 40th year of encouraging young people to explore the Yiddish language. The anniversary will be celebrated on February 29 in New York, at Yugntruf’s annual Yiddish Day, with talks, open-mikes and singing relating to its 40-year history. Approximately 50 people are expected to attend the pre-registered event.

Yugntruf members believe that the only viable way to achieve a real and lasting connection to their Ashkenazic roots and culture is through the language. Unlike some peers more interested in attending klezmer concerts or coffeehouse Yiddish poetry readings, they’re intent on mastering Yiddish. And they’re doing it as a community.

“We’re not speaking a language with our children because it’s cool or hip,” said Zachary Sholem Berger, 30, a board member of Yugntruf, who began studying Yiddish during his high school years in Kentucky. Rather, he said, “it makes possible a certain way of being Jewish.”

According to Berger, knowing the language is crucial to truly understanding Yiddish culture, since much of its meaning and vibrancy gets lost in translation. “It’s like looking at a Picasso in black and white,” he said. Berger and his wife recently founded a Yiddish children’s-book publishing company, which in 2003 came out with a Yiddish version of “The Cat in the Hat.”

While Yugntruf has always remained small, it continues to be a steady presence for hundreds of Yiddish devotees. “It will always be a small community among secular Jews, and there will never be a massive return to Yiddish,” said Berger. “But there’s a big difference between small and none.”

New York-based Yugntruf draws much of its approximately 1,000 national dues-paying members from students in Yiddish programs, particularly at Columbia University.

“One of the hardest things for students is to find people to practice Yiddish with,” said Faith Jones, a 38-year-old Judaic librarian, who has been studying Yiddish for seven years in night courses and summer intensive programs.

To this effect, Yugntruf organizes svives, or social groups, to meet every few weeks in various locations around New York and other cities such as Boston and Philadelphia. Like all Yugntruf events, svives are conducted entirely in Yiddish. The seven or eight members in each svive read and discuss Yiddish literature and more generally practice speaking with people their own ages.

“When I first went to a svive, I sat for six months just listening, before I began to talk,” said Jones, who is organizing this year’s Yiddish Day.

Yugntruf holds an annual Yiddish Week, a summer retreat in the Berkshire Mountains that attracts approximately 200 people. It also publishes a Yiddish journal three times a year, hosts writers’ circles, and organizes outings to cultural Yiddish events, such as productions by the Folksbiene Theatre. “Our focus is on language, and we will do anything in the way of culture that improves that,” said Jones.

Working toward the goal of creating a community with a common language, Yugntruf encounters one basic obstacle: geography. While chasidim, one of the largest groups of Yiddish speakers today, have successfully promulgated the language through tight geographic communities, the largely secular and dispersed crowd drawn to Yugntruf finds such an objective difficult.

To partly address the problem, Yugntruf created the Yiddish Communities Fund two years ago, granting three $1,000 stipends annually to assist those wishing to move closer to other Yiddish speakers. For example, one stipend was given to a klezmer singer from Minneapolis who wanted to move to New York to be closer to the Yiddish creative community.

Though much of its membership now resides in New York because of its large Yiddish infrastructure, Yugntruf was originally intended to be a national youth movement. Founded in 1964 by two teenage boys under the direction of Mordkhe Schaechter, one of today’s premier Yiddish linguists, Yugntruf aimed to inspire Jewish renewal.

“We wanted to rebuild the Jewish people on the basis of Yiddish,” said David Roskies, one of the co-founders, and currently a professor of Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “It was a valuable piece of culture that had been neglected and we wanted to own it.”

At the founding conference in 1964, a huge banner hung over the dais proclaiming, “The first commandment — to speak Yiddish.”

Fearful that the aging of its membership will dilute that youth focus, Yugntruf is now redoubling its efforts to bring in younger people. “Over the last several years, our executive board was getting older than we liked, so we made the effort to being in people in their teens and 20s,” said Paul Glasser, 46, board chair of Yugntruf, who is also the dean at YIVO Institute of Jewish Research.

Glasser added that attracting more young people in the upcoming years may be difficult. “It’s a little daunting,” he said. “Who knows if our work will get easier or harder?”

But Berger believes that the secular Yiddish community has a strong chance for survival, even with the fading of the old generation. He said, “The point of language is for the older generation to teach it and pass it along to the next generation.”

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