Anyone Can Speak Yiddish in a Week

In 2015, they didn’t speak Yiddish. In 2016, they do.

From December 28th through January 5th, a small group gathered at Yiddish Farm — an organic farm and immersive Yiddish language experience in Goshen, New York — to participate in its Beginners’ Winter Program. Some of them knew a few words or phrases in Yiddish, but none could actually speak the language yet.

“Approaching the program, I was very khutspedik [impudent],” says Yehudit Meira Chervony, who wanted to learn Yiddish so that she could speak it with her two young kids. “I thought ‘Oh, I’m good with languages, and Yiddish is not a real language; I’m sure I’ll just pick it up through osmosis.’” Chervony laughed, remembering her dismay discovering that Yiddish “is definitely a real language and requires some work” to learn.

For this group of three students (a fourth had to leave early), some work looked like seven hours of class a day, along with complete Yiddish immersion for the entire week. “You just really dive in,” says Dylan Kaufman-Obstler, a graduate student who went by Dinah at Yiddish Farm. “You get an orientation in English, and then — okay, now we’re going to start! So the first day I was pointing to things.”

The seven hours of class were divided into morning, afternoon, and evening sessions, and included three hours of khevruse tsayt, time to review textbook and instruction material in pairs. Yankl-Peretz Blum, the instructor for the Beginners’ Winter Program, said that the goal was to familiarize students with the foundations of Yiddish grammar, focusing on the aspects that are necessary for communication.

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“That doesn’t mean fluent,” Blum says, “It just means they can use the language to communicate in a basic way.” Blum encouraged the students to identify and learn words and phrases that were important to them, so that the earliest Yiddish they spoke was immediately relevant to their own life and experience. For example, Kaufman-Obstler wanted to learn Yiddish for her studies of the American Jewish labor movement — in her case, knowing how to say “labor movement” in Yiddish is a crucial part of introducing herself.

While in the summer participants in Yiddish Farm programs also spend at least two hours every day in the garden, the winter weather made that difficult. Yiddish Farm’s co-founder and farm director, Yisroel Bass, wrote over email that there were two back-to-back four degree nights while the students were there, and that was “the kiss of death for our remaining salad, kale and collards” and since the chickens were molting, there weren’t eggs to collect. “Students however,” continued Bass, “did get to cook with potatoes, beets, tomatoes, and peppers that we had put into storage at the end of the summer.”

Betsy Morgan — a junior at Drexel University, and known as Basya on Yiddish Farm — said the time they spent cooking in the kitchen was useful because it gave the group “something outside of the classroom that was a more salt of the earth activity. Even if it wasn’t necessarily farming,” Morgan said, “it was just cutting onions. It’s still a different context to be speaking to other people and learning those kinds of words.”

Mealtimes were another time for students to speak with one another and also with the fluent Yiddish speakers who were on the farm like Bass, his wife Yonit Bass (who is also the farm’s executive administrator) and Blum. “The program started on a Monday,” says Morgan, “and Wednesday or Thursday at lunch, no one could really talk. And [by] that day’s dinner, there was some conversation happening between the participants of the program and not just Yisroel and Yonit. In that one day period, something turned and we knew enough grammar to get a sentence out.”

Everyone in the program agrees that they learned to speak a basic Yiddish incredibly quickly. The entire group was able to carry a conversation by Friday night, their fifth night on the farm.

“They seemed to learn things two or three times faster,” says Blum, who has been teaching Yiddish for nine years. “It just turned around, it was crazy.” Kaufman-Obstler described that “it sort of felt like magic. I would have these moments where I would be in a conversation with someone for hours, on day four, day five, and then I’d be like wait, is this really happening? Am I really speaking in Yiddish?”

Chervony remarked that the experience capitalizes on the human need to be understood. “We’re so desperate to be understood,” she says, “that when we’re put in a situation where we have no other choice, we will make ourselves understood. And any problem or issue that I had was in Yiddish. Like there was something with the heat — I needed to figure that out in Yiddish. You better believe I figured out how to say all those words pretty quickly!”

When asked what he would do to replicate the success of the program, Blum says that he’s not sure. “It’s more or less accepted that immersion is a very effective language learning tool, so that’s that. I don’t know what the secret sauce is. Everything clicked: the people clicked, the personalities worked well with each other. Everything just worked.”

From a student’s perspective, Morgan says she can’t compare her time at Yiddish Farm to any other language learning experience she’s had; being in an immersion environment was so completely different.

“If you put anyone in a seven day program,” she wonders, “what would they come out with?”