If you don’t know much about Yiddish, apparently it’s easy to dismiss it. It’s the language that your parents’ grandparents, probably, or maybe your parents’ parents, if you’re older or they came over late, it’s famously what they spoke to keep the important stuff incomprehensible to their kids.
Maybe it’s the language of nostalgia, of sentimentality, either embarrassing in its excesses or comforting in its shabby familiarity.
But David Braun of Leonia, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s newly named academic adviser — to be specific, his appointment is at YIVO’s Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, and his new job is as adviser in Yiddish language, pedagogy, and linguistics — knows otherwise.
Mr. Braun, 53, is not a native Yiddish speaker, but he became fluent as a young teen, entirely by choice. “When people ask me if I am a native speaker, I say no, but that I was naturalized,” he said. “I started learning Yiddish at a Workman’s Circle school in kindergarten,” he said. “That was just a smattering. But by the time I was about 8 or 9, I had an inner awakening.
“I realized that I loved languages and wanted to study them and their makeup, and I realized that Yiddish clearly was the language associated with my family history. It was the language that I needed to master.”
Few of us have epiphanies when we are in elementary school; fewer of us remember them; and even fewer shape our lives by them — but Mr. Braun did.
He lived with his parents and his grandmother; “although at first my grandmother didn’t speak to me in Yiddish, soon I started talking to her at least in part in Yiddish, and that was before my language acquisition device turns off. That usually is purported to happen at around 14, or 15; if you learn a language after that, you’ll have an accent for life, and you won’t have full command of it.” But he learned it in time.
“I started wanting to know what my elders were saying and reading — I saw my grandmother reading the Forverts, and I heard it on the radio, and I heard her talking to my mother,” Mr. Braun said. And he was an only child, which made his need to understand the grownups around him even stronger. “I realized that this language was my people’s language, and that I could crack the code.
“I realized that I could perpetuate Yiddish at a time when others weren’t; when they couldn’t.”
Mr. Braun became bar mitzvah at Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s Temple Emanu-El, which then was in Englewood. Rabbi Hertzberg was a brilliant if irascible man, the author of such seminal American Jewish books as “The Zionist Idea,” “Jews in America,” and his memoir, “A Jew in America.” He was the ideal rabbi for a family like the Brauns, who moved from Washington Heights to Leonia for the chance to be part of his shul. “We felt so tied to the spiritual world through the music of its cantor, Kurt Silberman, and the intellectual and political and lived Jewish worlds through Hertzberg,” Mr. Braun said.
The approach to Jewish life he learned from Rabbi Hertzberg — to engage with it both intensely and academically, to be deeply part of it and to look at it from the outside as well, and always to care profoundly about it — helped inform his study of Yiddish.
Mr. Braun went through the Solomon Schechter School, which then also was in Englewood, until it ended in eighth grade. He commuted to the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for high school and studied Yiddish throughout this time. There were many Yiddish speakers in Bergen County then; many of them were Holocaust survivors and refugees. He often was the youngest, most American Yiddish speaker in the groups he frequented — often the youngest by decades. And he learned a great deal that way.
Mr. Braun majored in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, then he did graduate work at MIT before he moved to Harvard to teach Yiddish language and linguistics. He’s taught at Columbia, NYU, and Bard, at the Yiddish Book Center, and at Gratz College. He’s moved among those institutions and he’s loved working there. But just as Yiddish claimed his heart since he was a child, so did YIVO, and not much later.
“I have been associated with YIVO forever,” he said. “I already was teaching in YIVO’s summer program when I was a college student myself.”
He’s worked at YIVO more recently as a consultant. Now, his new job title to some extent will formalize the role he’s been playing there for some time.
It’s got many aspects to it, and some will be defined as needs become increasingly clear. For one thing, “I am the Yiddish expert on site,” Mr. Braun said. “There always have been scholars in the various departments who could deal with questions, but now I’m the go-to guy.”
As he describes it, Mr. Braun makes this part of his job sound like the fabled New York Public Library staffers who answer the vast range of questions befuddled users toss at them. “How do I spell this? How do I pronounce that? My great-aunt told me that my last name means barrel maker. Is that true?” Some of the questions are easy, others require research.
“And then internally I have the same roles. I’m a proofreader, I’m an academic resource for any publication, and I share the responsibility of proposing new or continuing courses, of hiring our faculty for Yiddish sources, in working out curricula, and placing students in the correct levels.”
Each of these areas brings up fascinating questions and solutions. For example, how do you place students in language courses? Some may have come to the language with no background; others may have it in their ears but only informally. Some might be fluent but illiterate.
“I have created a placement possibility called Yiddish for heritage learners, which we didn’t have before,” he said. “In the past, we’ve had Yiddish 1, 2, 3; it’s a classic setup. But in the last 20 years, language departments and linguists around the world have begun to use the term heritage learner, and it characterizes the kind of learner we often have.”
Heritage learners are students who fit uncomfortably between the levels; they often are bored if they are in a lower-level class but can’t keep up if they’re placed in a class where they would need a more formal background than they have. And often their presence in a class where they know more and are more comfortable with the language than the other students means that they can intimidate those other students, who can grow increasingly uncomfortable in ways that impede their ability to learn.
That’s not a problem unique to Yiddish learners, Mr. Braun said; his own hometown, Leonia, is home to many first- and second-generation Korean families, and those families’ children face the same problems.
Once the need for classes for heritage Yiddish speakers was defined, the next hurdle was finding teachers for those classes. “It’s not a challenge for everyone,” Mr. Braun said. But it’s working now.
YIVO also had to deal with one of the few bright spots resulting from the pandemic — the large numbers of new Yiddish students. “Thanks to Zoom, we are able to offer courses for people around the world,” Mr. Braun said.
Now that the pandemic is more or less over, YIVO offers in-person classes, but it’s also continuing to teach online. “This year, as we did last year, we’re continued with cloning our intensive summer program,” he said. “It’s not hybrid. It’s cloned.
“We have two summer programs happening simultaneously. One is in person, at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, and the other in the Zoom space. The students in the two programs interact at cultural gatherings online, but otherwise the two are totally separate.
“We decided that the hybrid model really is not conducive to proper learning.”
Unlike many Zoom programs, particularly for schoolchildren during the pandemic, when students had to be there, “nobody in our courses wasn’t self-motivated,” Mr. Braun said. So the problems that many Zoom classes face are not issues for YIVO’s summer institute. To the contrary, “we are like pigs in mud. The people we teach want to be there. They have sought us out, and they have a goal in mind. We don’t have to worry about keeping their attention.”
So the online course can teach people from around the world, while the in-person one can provide the immersive experience that allows the students lucky enough to be able to spend the summer in New York to benefit from that full experience.
All of Mr. Braun’s work, like all of YIVO’s work, treats Yiddish as the living language that it is.