Yiddish language revival offers link to cultural identity

We know that language directly influences our culture, how we think and what we believe. It can even shape our perceptions and influence the way we view the world as a reflection of our experiences and values. However, today’s Yiddish revival offers even more benefits.

Yiddish can provide a link to parents, grandparents, hearts and memories. While many Yiddish speakers are older, some members of the younger generations have enthusiastically embraced Yiddish as a connection to their heritage and history. As a living language, Yiddish sustains the Ashkenazi Jewish culture and transmits the community’s heritage from generation to generation. The current revival is rooted in the desire to connect to familial roots, but many non-Ashkenazi people learn Yiddish to enjoy Yiddish literature, music, film and theater. For cultural Jews, Yiddish is a significant thread of connection to Jewish communal life, adding perspective and enrichment as well as Jewish identity in a contemporary world. Yiddish served as an important inspiration for Humanistic Judaism’s founder Rabbi Sherwin Wine. He saw the secular Yiddishists (keepers of the Yiddish culture and language) as forerunners of the Humanistic Judaism movement. For 15 years, Portland’s Kol Shalom Community for Humanistic Judaism has been doing its part to keep Yiddish alive. Offering the only ongoing Yiddish class in the city, its Yiddish language club meets once a month to learn, sing, share experiences and even enjoy Yiddish jokes.

The group’s new leader, Jack “Yankl” Falk – klezmer musician, traveling cantor and former host of the long-running “Yiddish Hour” on KBOO-FM – sees Yiddish as a literary treasure. “There is value in the secular aspects of Jewish tradition,” says Falk. “Yiddish provides a sense of joy.” Personally committed to expanding Yiddish language skills, he succeeds former teacher Selma Zack who retired this year. Zack, a member of Kol Shalom, had led the popular class since its inception. According to the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, Yiddish is now taught as a third language in many high schools and in universities in Israel. However, Yiddish is unique in that it spans four continents without a specific homeland.

While other Jewish languages are still spoken (Mughrabi, Ladino and several dialects of Jewish Arabic), they are used by far fewer people. Rich in humor and wisdom, Yiddish offers expressions that often don’t translate well into other languages. It is a mixture of Aramaic, German, Slavic, Hebrew and even ancient Romance languages such as old French and old Italian, tracking the migration and settlement of the Ashkenazi Jewish people. Kol Shalom’s Yiddish class is open to anyone who has an interest in learning Yiddish and celebrating its unique culture.

WHAT: Kol Shalom Yiddish Class
WHO: For all levels
WHAT: Class to build language skills, structure and vocabulary; also a cultural event featuring Yiddish songs.
TEACHER: Jack “Yankl” Falk is an accomplished Yiddish singer
BONUS TIME: In addition to the monthly meetings, Falk gets together with class participants during the month for coffee or lunch to practice and “schmooze.”
WHEN: 1-3 pm, fourth Sunday of month
WHERE: Kol Shalom office, 1509 SW Sunset Blvd., Suite 1E, in the Hillsdale area of Portland
INFORMATION: Kol Shalom at 503-459-4210

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