Smokler Center hosts "An Evening of Yiddish Shorts"

By ARIELLA SHUA | April 12, 2018

On Tuesday, April 2 “An Evening of Yiddish Shorts” was held at the Smokler Center for Jewish Studies, also known as Hillel. The evening was hosted by Beatrice Lang, lecturer of Yiddish Language through the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures and the Jewish Studies Program.

Sophomore Steven Witkin also took time to discuss his experiences in learning the obscure language.

The event began with a viewing of the YouTube video “Yingl Belz.” Created by the group YidLife Crisis, the clip was a humorous look at Yiddish speakers in the modern world.

The clip presents a group of clearly Jewish characters eating in a Chinese restaurant while discussing the stereotypes they hold about minority groups in America, specifically Chinese Americans. The situation is ironic as these Yiddish-speaking protagonists confirm their own stereotype of Jews eating in a Chinese restaurant.

Even for those who don’t understand Yiddish, like myself, the video is an entertaining commentary on stereotyping, with a surprising twist. English subtitles make YidLife Crisis’ series of shorts accessible to everyone.

Presented next were several minutes from Our Children. As Lang explained, the film was recorded, entirely in Yiddish, in Poland in 1948. The movie features Jewish children who had survived the Holocaust, partially filmed on location at an orphanage. The scenes that were shown featured the children making fun of a play about Holocaust-era ghettos — they had experienced the ghetto and knew what it was truly like. 

The film had a meta quality to it that was both respectful and surprising as the children, portrayed by those who had themselves survived indescribable horrors, made fun of their experiences in the ghetto, even mocking Hitler. 

The children remembered their experiences with both sorrow and humor, suggesting comedy as an interesting coping mechanism and method of self-preservation. Our Children seems like the kind of film that wouldn’t be produced today, primarily due to its interesting, nuanced and honest perspective.

Lang commented that, although the film had been made with their permission, the Communist Polish government censored the film. It was lost until 1979, when it was found and released for the first time.

In between the video shorts, Lang took the opportunity to teach Yiddish to the attendees. Using the website YiddishPOP, which features short animated clips entirely in Yiddish, Lang taught basic terms, such as “there,” “boy” and “girl.” 

As someone who understands no Yiddish beyond a few random words, the clips and easy teaching style allowed me to learn an extremely basic conversation in just few minutes. Lang uses the clips in teaching her class Elementary Yiddish. 

Witkin, an Applied Math and Statistics major, began studying Yiddish in Lang’s class during the fall semester and has continued to learn the language this spring. 

“I enjoy it because it’s not just a Jewish identity thing, but it’s also a relatively easy language to learn, and has helped me understand words in German, Dutch and other European languages,” he said.  

After the lesson, several more shorts were viewed. I was most intrigued by a promotional video about the Yiddish Farm, located in Goshen, N.Y. The farm is run year-round by a Yiddish-speaking family, but during the summers it opens the grounds for an immersion program. 

Participants, who range in age from being in their 20s to their late 60s, spend several weeks helping on the farm while also becoming almost fluent in an entirely new language.

I personally was surprised that such a program could exist. I had always heard that Yiddish was a dying language. But programs such as the Yiddish Farm show that there is still an interest in learning this tongue, which very easily could have been forgotten.

The final videos featured Yiddish as it is incorporated into modern society through music. An example is the entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer, known for combining both secular and religious Jewish values in his songs. 

He actually visited Hopkins a few years ago after being invited by a student in Yiddish class. The initial introduction led to Schmeltzer’s interest in visiting other college campuses. He is currently studying at Columbia.

The evening was made complete with an assortment of Kosher-for-Passover desserts offered to everyone. (None of the food came from the Yiddish Farm, although Lang has previously ordered matzah made there.)

All in all, the night was a fascinating look at a language I had heard much about but never truly listened to. While describing YidLife Crisis, Lang described the group’s engagement with Judaism.

“Yiddish, for them, is an alternative way of expressing their Jewish identity in the present,” Lang said. 

Based on the shorts Lang shared as well as Witkin’s personal testimony regarding why he chose to study Yiddish, this seems to hold true for all those who continue to work to keep the language of Yiddish alive today. 

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