A farm plants seeds of Yiddish literacy

A farm plants seeds of Yiddish literacy

Micah Langer, fifth from left, with other students and staff members at Yiddish Farm. Roza Jaffe, far left, is a Holocaust survivor from Teaneck who told her life story in Yiddish to the farmers.
Micah Langer, fifth from left, with other students and staff members at Yiddish Farm. Roza Jaffe, far left, is a Holocaust survivor from Teaneck who told her life story in Yiddish to the farmers.

Working on a farm where everyone around you is speaking Yiddish sounds like something you might need a time machine to experience.

However that is precisely what Micah Langer encountered this summer at Yiddish Farm, a working farm in Goshen, NY, dedicated to fostering the speaking of Yiddish. 

Founded by Yiddishists and funded by Jewish cultural foundations, Yiddish Farm offers educational programming throughout the year, including a summer program that has three sessions — a two-week session for beginners, a three-week session for intermediates, and a two-week advanced literature-based program. 

Although students attend daily classes, working on the farm and other activities are integral to the immersion experience. Yiddish is spoken at all times. As a promotional video for the farm explains, participants speak Yiddish in the kikh (kitchen), the feld (field), and even while shlufndik (sleeping). 

Langer, 25, who grew up in West Windsor, attended all three sessions. Describing the experience as “very intimate,” with no more than 10 students at a time, he noted that participants came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, from non-Jews to Orthodox. Although the students’ average age was mid-20s, participants included children of the instructors, and older people who grew up speaking Yiddish.

Langer lives in Montreal where this fall he is beginning a two-year master’s program in French-English translation at Concordia University. Langer moved to Montreal to attend McGill University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in classical saxophone. 

He is originally from West Windsor, where his parents, Mindy and Corey Langer, still live; the family are long-time members of the Jewish Center in Princeton.

“I felt myself longing for a deeper understanding of my own heritage, and I think the best way to do that is to try and go to what is a really significant primary source, which is all the Yiddish literature that exists, and all the speakers that exist, talk, read, and speak in the language our people spoke for thousands of years,” Langer said. 

His interest in the language intensified when he became close to members of the hasidic community in Montreal. “Being able to speak the language that your friends speak is really important,” he said.

Langer grew up attending Hebrew school three days a week, but after becoming bar mitzva his Jewish involvement dropped off considerably.

“I sort of detached from synagogue life and Judaism in general,” he said. “But since last year, right around the time I started taking Yiddish classes, I’ve been really diligently and passionately diving into Yiddishkeit, trying to live Jewish, think Jewish, and breathe Jewish.”

He said that although the two interests developed separately, they have bolstered each other.

“The two approaches, on the one hand the language, on the other hand the culture, go hand in hand. In many ways they are the same thing,” he said.

Last September Langer started meeting once a week with a teacher in Montreal. Although the lessons exposed him to basic grammar and vocabulary, what he learned seemed negligible after he attended Yiddish Farm.

“It just goes to show the difference between meeting once a week and going through exercises, and being immersed in a language. After the first week all of the other students and I were at an equal place. Those who came with nothing or rudimentary knowledge caught up to what I had done in almost 10 months by doing a class once a week,” he explained.

Langer had also been interested in farming before he got to Yiddish Farm, participating in urban agriculture in Montreal. “Growing things has always been fun, even if I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. 

Yiddish Farm grows a variety of crops and raises chickens that provide fresh eggs. Langer said the farm is producing organic shmura matza for Passover.

While the farm experience was positive and satisfying, Langer said, it could also be frustrating at times.

“It was hard, it was intense. You don’t know these people and have to live with them. Nobody is speaking their first language, but that’s part of why immersion works — everybody’s desperate to learn,” he said.

By the time he had been at Yiddish Farm for a week, he said, he started thinking in Yiddish.

“When I first left the farm after basically two months, I was definitely sprinkling sentences with Yiddish and using Yiddish grammar,” he said. When he communicates with people he met at Yiddish Farm, it feels more natural to speak in Yiddish.

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