In the early 20th century, ten million people around the world spoke Yiddish. But although that number now stands at barely one million, Yiddish is far from a dying language. A new generation has taken up the banner and found creative ways to make Yiddish relevant, injecting the language into concerts, lectures, poetry, theater and podcasts. They are academics and artists, storytellers and modern Yiddishists--and from New York to Japan, they are deconstructing stereotypes and redefining what it means to be a Yiddish speaker today.--Lara Moehlman
Yiddish, a Woman's Language
The podcast "Vaybertaytsh" covers everything from Israel's African refugee crisis to fair trade fashion to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests--but you need to know Yiddish to follow along. Described as the "first feminist Yiddish podcast," "Vaybertaytsh" is intended to "encourage American Jews to engage more in diaspora cultures" and "highlight the voices of women and queer people," says creator Sandra Fox. Now in the middle of its second season, the podcast has 6,000 monthly listeners from more than 20 countries.
Fox, 29, was not always a Yiddish evangelist. But five years ago, as a graduate student in Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, she visited the Yiddish Farm--an intensive language immersion program--in upstate New York. At the time, she saw the farm as a fun way to prepare for her upcoming language exams. "I didn't think I'd fall in love with Yiddish--or that I'd go very far with it."
But she found she loved the language and quickly switched her focus from Israeli history to American Jewish history and Yiddish. As she began her research, she discovered a serious lack of female voices in Yiddish film and music. When women were depicted in Yiddish media, they were often portrayed in narrow, one-dimensional terms. The problem goes back to the early 1900s, when male writers worried that Yiddish was considered feminine--something to be used for conversation around the kitchen, not for writing great literature, Fox says. "Yiddish male writers had to fight for their legitimacy and often would write in Hebrew and Russian as well to prove their seriousness."
Fox hopes to flip that narrative; she uses her podcast to amplify the voices of women and queer folk in the modern Yiddish-speaking world. Her interviews focus on her subjects' lives as much as their work. "I don't want to just talk about this play; I don't want to talk about this thing that you did,"...