Yiddish Club Reignites Passion for Mame-Loshn at Yeshiva University

The game is familiar: one team member glances at a word on a card and throws out increasingly frenzied clues to his or her partner, who tries to guess it before the time’s up. This word, however, is a stumper. “Yankev,” suggests one student. The other shakes his head. “Neyn, neyn. Nit tate, nit shvester.” “Avrohom?” he tries. “Der bruder?” “Genug!” calls another student, pointing to his watch. The match is over. The correct answer was “Yishmael”—the brother, or “bruder,” of Isaac.

Prof. Itay Zutra, left, helps design lesson plans for the Yiddish Club.

Prof. Itay Zutra, left, helps design lesson plans for the Yiddish Club.

This is not your everyday game of Taboo. It’s called “In Gedank,” or “In Your Mind,” and the students playing it in this Furst Hall classroom belong to the Yiddish Club, a student-run group that aims to provide a forum for further exploration of Yiddish language and culture at Yeshiva University. Organized by Shaul Seidler-Feller, the club meets weekly to discuss Yiddish literature and film, hone conversation skills through games and informal instruction, and learn about the history of the language from Itay Zutra, a Yiddish professor at Yeshiva College who helps structure the group’s meetings.

“Yiddish retains a lot of cultural wealth and power,” said Zutra, who designs special lectures and activities to tackle issues of common interest to the group. “I try to instill in the students that on one hand it’s a familiar language, but it’s also much more than that. In many ways Yiddish is key to understanding our history.”

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPYoBNVl2B0

That is part of the draw for students in the club, who range in fluency from native speakers to first-timers. Some are currently enrolled in Zutra’s Yiddish course but just as many are not. Natan Koloski, a history major in his first year on campus, wanted to trace back the roots of his Ashkenazi heritage. “I am half-Sephardic, so I feel like I didn’t have as much Yiddish culture growing up,” he explained. “I want to learn more about that side of my family, as well.”

“I’ve always been obsessed with Jewish culture,” said Yaelle Frohlich, a graduate student in Jewish history at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies who hopes to develop a more seamless interface with beloved stories and texts. Her quest to master the language began when she read an English translator’s apology at the beginning of Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye and His Daughters” for his inability to capture the nuances of Tevye in English. “My dream is to read Yiddish literature in Yiddish,” she said.

Seidler-Feller agreed. “It gets lost in translation,” he said. “The structure of words in Yiddish relies on Jewish culture, halacha [Jewish law] and history which become built-in and self-understood. Every term contains a deeper meaning which is difficult to translate.”

Seidler-Feller’s own interest in Yiddish began with one of Zutra’s courses, which he took to fulfill Yeshiva College’s foreign language requirement. “I had encountered it a little bit at home,” he said, “but my mother was not fluent in it—she would sprinkle her conversations with Yiddish words.” Intrigued, he took two years of Yiddish and began an independent study, translating Yiddish divrei Torah and other texts. He started a “Yiddish-Word-of-the-Week” email to share his interest with others and formed the club last semester as a gathering place for other curious students. Ultimately, Seidler-Feller hopes to write his honors thesis on the use of Yiddish in Orthodox circles.

“ ‘Yiddish’ means ‘Jewish,’ ” Zutra said. “You can’t separate Yiddish from Yiddishkayt [Jewishness]. You need one to understand the other.”

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