On Election Day, New York City provides translation services for widely spoken languages, like Spanish and Mandarin. But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has also been working recently to improve ballot box accessibility more widely — even for speakers of tongues that are less well known, like the mame loshen, or mother tongue, of Ashkenazi Jews — Yiddish. This even extends to off-year elections like those happening today, when voters will consider five ballot questions related to the city’s charter.
Seven polling places in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park had Yiddish translators last year, the first of the city’s new initiative to improve ballot access to people for whom English isn’t their first language.
“Anything that will help people understand the ballot, and having people who speak the language available to translate, is a big plus,” said David Katz, associate director of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg.
Many American Jews (though certainly not Forward and Forverts readers) think of Yiddish as a dying language. But the city’s determination to help Yiddish-speaking voters with voting, by hiring translators to work the check-in desks and assist citizens if necessary, underscores how the language is thriving and vital in many Orthodox Jewish pockets of the city - even if few actually utilize those resources.
Last year, the city began providing Yiddish translation services on election day, along with Russian, Haitian Creole, Italian, Arabic and Polish.
“The language you speak and understand should not be a barrier to civic participation,” de Blasio said in a statement at the time. “Voting should be an easy task, and we’re upholding that truth by identifying and filling gaps in communities where translation services are needed.”
From the 19th century to today, New York politicians have campaigned in Yiddish – de Blasio even sent out a Yiddish-language donation pitch on WhatsApp this year to help his doomed presidential campaign.
Borough Park Jewish Community Council CEO Avi Greenstein said that his community appreciated the intention behind the effort.
There’s just one problem, he said: The city and state governments have reputations for publishing Yiddish translations that just don’t look right – like they came out of Google Translate, using words and phrases that the community doesn’t use.
“When that happens, it creates a major disconnect – nobody will take it seriously,” he said.
“In a deeper sense,” he added, “it sends a message: ‘We don’t work with you, with your communities on issues of sensitivity.’”
Greenstein said it wasn’t all bad – he said his organization and the city worked well together to get signups for the city’s ID card – but a lot of trust was lost when the state Department of Health published a Yiddish pamphlet about the measles vaccine last year that, as one scholar told CNN, was “barely comprehensible.”
The New York City Board of Elections and the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which books the contractor that provides the in-person translation services, did not respond to requests for comment. That contractor, a company called The Big Word, directed questions to the Office of Immigrant Affairs but did tell the Forward that they vet their polling place interpreters with a staff Yiddish expert.
Despite the city’s best efforts, it doesn’t seem like many people actually use or even need Yiddish translation services. One person who worked as an on-site translator in 2018 told the Forward he only spoke to a couple of people over his 17 hours of service.
“For the most part, in this community, by and large, people could vote in English and would vote in English,” said Greenstein of Borough Park.
Upstate, translators aren’t provided, but day-of workers are hired from the community and some of them speak Yiddish.
Kristen Zebrowski Staviski, an election commissioner in Rockland County – home of towns like Monsey and New Square – said that she hadn’t encountered issues with Yiddish-speaking citizens not understanding the English-language ballot.
“I’ve never heard of that, and I have pretty good relationship with the inspectors, so I think they would tell me if there was an issue,” she said.
And Louise Vandemark, a board of elections commissioner in Orange County, which includes the all-Orthodox town of Palm Tree, said that in her 11 years on the board, there had always been at least one election-day worker in that town who spoke Yiddish.
“I’ve never heard of anyone needing assistance” in Yiddish, she said. “But we do it just in case as a courtesy.”
Neither those places nor New York City provide ballots in Yiddish, but one town does – Bloomingburg in Sullivan County, which began its practice in 2016 after settling a lawsuit accusing the government of “engaging in an unyielding discriminatory campaign to deprive Hasidic Jewish residents” of the right to vote.
A county spokesman told the Forward that he wasn’t sure how many people there actually used Yiddish ballots instead of the English ones.
“Governments have the best intent,” Greenstein said – but “they don’t always do it the right way.” If they did a better job reaching out to the Jewish communities, he said, “then we could have a better idea of how impactful or necessary a translated ballot box is, and how utilized they will be.”
Then again, the city government hasn’t always been even this hospitable in terms of the services it’s provided to Yiddish-speaking would-be voters. In fact, in 1908, city officials were so concerned about the prospect of Jews voting for Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs that they only allowed citizens to register to vote on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. The officials did make an exception for one specific weekday – Yom Kippur.