‘Yiddish is a really cool language’

‘Yiddish is a really cool language’

16-year-old Chatham high-schooler, 22-year-old Ukrainian grad student, talk about YIVO’s summer program

Mark Gaysinskiy, left, and Tetiana Nepypenko
Mark Gaysinskiy, left, and Tetiana Nepypenko

So Yiddish is a bit of a relic, isn’t it?

It’s nostalgia. It’s the Lower East Side and your grandparents’ incomprehensible jokes to each other. It’s the province of old people and ethnic stereotypes and really it’s vaguely embarrassing.

Tell that to 16-year-old Mark Gaysinskiy of Chatham, a high-school junior who spent this summer going to Manhattan every day to take intermediate Yiddish at YIVO’s Summer Program.

Or maybe try it out on Tetiana Nepypenko, a 22-year-old graduate student who joined Mark in the intermediate-level Summer Program classes. But she did it online, from her home in Kyiv.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, to give it its full name, is the venerable organization that was founded in Vilnius in 1925, moved to Manhattan in 1940, and studies and preserves not only the history but also the vitality, the present, and the future of Ashkenazi Jewish life, in Europe and beyond.

Ben Kaplan is YIVO’s education director. The institute’s summer program has run every season since 1968, he said. “It was founded for high school students who wanted to explore their identity and culture. It was a fraught time in American culture; there were so many changes in the 1960s, and people in the Jewish world said that since other people were exploring their culture and identity, we should do it too. It was the time of the civil rights movement, and Vietnam, and Fiddler on the Roof was part of that too.”

At first, the program, then affiliated with Columbia University “was envisioned as a gap program for the summer between high school and college, sort of like summer Hebrew school on steroid for folks who grew up hearing some Yiddish, or who had some connection to it. A lot of American Jews could speak some but didn’t know how to read or write it. This was a way to get very literate and immerse in a proper academic setting.”

Now, “we have a partnership with Bard College, and students can take it for academic credit.”

When the summer program began, academic departments of Jewish studies did not yet exist. Now they do. And Yiddish is an indispensable part of Jewish studies. “It is not hyperbolic to say that we played a vital role in helping to develop Jewish studies as a field,” Mr. Kaplan said. “If you look at photos of those first classes, it’s a who’s who of Jewish studies and Jewish history today. Aaron Lansky of the Yiddish Book Center, Steven Zipperstein of Stanford, the writer Irena Klepfisz, David Roskies of JTS; they all took the summer program at one point. Dara Horn took the summer program, and it helped her become the writer she is today. Rebecca Taichman, who directed ‘Indecent,’ took the summer program. It has played a role in the development of teachers and scholars, and also of artists, musicians, and writers.

Musicians perform at this year’s Summer Program.

“I see it as a cultural nuclear energy reactor,” Mr. Kaplan concluded. “Of course, I am biased.”

As for YIVO itself, “you can’t do historical research on Jewish eastern Europe unless you come to YIVO,” he said. “We have 23 million documents. It’s the largest depository in the world.”

The summer program has changed over the years; it’s appealed more to older people as well as younger ones. Since covid closed in-person classes it’s moved online; ironically, the pandemic has been good for YIVO. “Enrollment has grown over 500 percent for fall and spring,” Mr. Kaplan said. “We kept adding more and more classes. We are starting to bring back in-person classes, but now we have close to 500 people studying with us online. People enjoy the accessibility.

“Before the pandemic, we were tristate-centric. Now we have global reach.”

The summer program was both in person and online this summer. “There was some overlap, but essentially it has two different programs, with different faculty.”

Mark Gaysinskiy, at 16, was the youngest student. “We also have students well into their 80s, and everyone learns together,” Mr. Kaplan said. “It’s a rigorous academic program, but anyone an apply. It’s an intensive program. It’s a full day. We start at around 10 and typically go until 6. There are some Sunday activities. It is a full-time immersive commitment for six weeks, and then we have an optional refresher course the week before, and a very advanced module for working professionals.

“It’s very international; there were students from 11 countries and almost half the U.S. states, and from Canada. We had a student from Austria, several from Germany, one from Croatia, one from Georgia.” (The country, not the state.) Several from Latin America, and from South Africa. And there are observant jews, secular Jews, and non-Jews in the program.

“We had a student originally from Japan, a comparative literature Ph.D. studying Japanese literature. He discovered parallels between Japanese and Jewish literature, so he wanted to study Yiddish for that comparison.

“There is a stereotype that your Yiddish student is an Ashkenazi Jew, and that is just not true. We have those students too. We have students from all over, because Yiddish is a beautiful language, with a rich, fantastic literature and music and works of art. It is a whole civilization. And its language is just as interesting as any other language, as French or German or Italian.”

At graduation, students were given old Yiddish books. It was a treasure trove for them.

YIVO keeps tuition as low as possible — the six weeks costs $2,680, and is comparable to CUNY’s tuition — and it offers scholarships. “It is important to YIVO to make the classes accessible,” Mr. Kaplan said.

“We see studying Yiddish as very much looking to the future not just the past,” he said. “We are honoring the past by studying it and figuring out what we can carry forward. We are dipping into the well of this culture to inspire the world today with the new art and new writing. We want to enrich our lives to today, and to enrich future generations. It is not all about nostalgia. It’s about how this history and culture and language can help shape who we are today and guide us into the future.”

Okay. So it’s fair to say that Mr. Gaysinskiy embodies the future.

He lives in a household where a foreign language was spoken, but that language was not Yiddish. “I’m Ukrainian American, and my parents came here right before the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said. Marina and Ilya Gaysinskiy are Russian-speaking Jews, “so I kind of speak Russian with them at home. And I took Spanish at school since like third grade.”

But he taught himself Yiddish, he said. Why? And how?

“Yiddish is a really cool language,” Mr. Gaysinskiy said. “It provides a cool point of view of Jewish history and culture. It is a very different, nonmainstream point of view.

“And you can look at a Yiddish newspaper from back then and see their lives, and how they viewed certain things.

“I don’t like learning languages,” he said. “I just like learning Yiddish.”

It started in fifth grade, when “my teacher started using some random words in Yiddish. She said something about how her mother cursed people in Yiddish when she got angry when she was driving.” The curses weren’t profane, he added. “They are convoluted, complicated death wishes, like ‘May a child be named after you soon.’” That curse works because traditionally Jews don’t name babies after living people. “It’s very Jewy,” Mr. Gaysinskiy said.

Summer program students play Jeopardy in Yiddish.

His own grandmother, Bronya Gaysinskiy, who lives in Livingston, does not speak Yiddish, “but her parents spoke it, so she can understand it. I can have a conversation with her when I speak in Yiddish and she will answer in Russian. That way, I improve my Russian and she improves her Yiddish.”

Mr. Gaysinskiy was so effective at teaching himself Yiddish that he was placed in the intermediate class in the summer program — that’s the third of fourth levels, above beginner and advanced beginner, and of course below advanced. He began his autodidactic efforts when “I started to see Yiddish on TikTok. There are two creators — Reb Noyekh and Cameron Bernstein — who got my interest. I learned a little with Yiddish Duolingo, but it doesn’t teach much grammar.”

Soon, his parents, who recognized his interest, got him a New Year’s present — New Year is a traditional Russian and Ukrainian holiday and his family celebrates it. It was “Colloquial Yiddish” by Lily Kahn.

“So whenever I had study hall, instead of doing actual work I would open the book,” he said. “I went through it. It was hard. This was the first time that I learned Yiddish grammar. But it was interesting.

“Learning languages isn’t my strong suit, he added. “Science isn’t. Chemistry isn’t. I really love history. I’m taking AP human geography.”

That was the winter of his sophomore year. As in, last year.

He heard about YIVO’s summer program, and he wanted to do it. “I told my mom that I wanted to do a cool Yiddish thing, but she said that she was not paying $300 so you can learn a dead language. But then she talked to a friend who had learned Yiddish and then got into UPenn, and then mom said, ‘I think this is really cool.’”

The summer program was a lot of work, but he thought that is “was a lot of fun. I was so peppy. Not like normal school, where I complain constantly.

“Everyone was so nice,” he continued. “People are super supportive. Major shoutout to Dovid Braun!” — the Yiddishist who lives in Leonia and contributes much time and scholarship and love to YIVO. “I was in a classroom with people who were teachers at Harvard, and here was this random high school student sitting there.”

Students sit in the theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at graduation.

AT the summer program graduation, “YIVO gave us a bunch of free books from their archives,” he said. “I have about 30 old books, some printed in 1913 and 1917, some from the Soviet Union, some in Warsaw after the war. There was one book with some notes in it from 1960.

“It is amazing to open a book and think about how it must have traveled to get here.”

At that graduation, “I saw Reb Noyekh, the big TikToker,” he said. “I went up to him, because we follow each other on TikTok. It was an interesting moment. He kind of introduced me to Yiddish. It was cool.

“Between that and getting the Yiddish books, I was ecstatic, sobbing and laughing. It is interesting stuff.

“It’s cool for me.”

Tetiana Nepypenko took the summer program online. She’s 22 years old, a new college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in German language who now working on her masters’ degree.

She lives in Kyiv. “I also work at a Judaica center, a center for study and research,” she said.

She grew up in a bilingual home; one of her parents is a native Russian speaker, the other a native Ukrainian speaker, so both are native to her. She speaks English, her third language, fluently, and knows some Swedish as well.

She’s not Jewish. “Although it’s complicated,” she said. “I don’t have enough information to know for sure. I know that my grandmother, who died half a year ago, was from Czernowitz originally, and she used to say that her parents were Jewish, or partly Jewish.” On Zoom, Ms. Nepypenko waved her hands. “But I don’t know for sure,” she said. “I didn’t attempt to get more information. I always thought I would do it later. I would do it later.” Now it’s too late.

Here, students show that Yiddish isn’t only for the elderly.

She spent the spring in Vienna, she said, in a planned exchange program, and came back home despite the war. “I am safe now, although of course we don’t know what will be tomorrow or the next day,” she said. “Now it is an absolutely normal life.”

So why is she studying Yiddish? “Sometimes I ask myself the same question,” she said, and she laughed. “It is partly connected with my academic background.” She made the logical move from German to Yiddish literature. She studied writers, some of them Jewish, including Paul Celane and others from Bukovina, her grandmother’s region. “And then I thought it would be interesting to research more about Yiddish speaking and Yiddish writing.

“And then I discover this whole new world, the hidden world of Yiddish literature.”

What’s the pull? “There are parts of it that I haven’t reflected on myself yet so it is hard to explain, hard to formulate in normal words, but the more I have been reaching, researching, discovering these writers, the more I feel that it is the right thing for me to do,” she said.

“I will translate them and write about them and make people know more about them.”

She first learned about YIVO on Facebook, and after dithering for about a year and a half decided to enroll. She’d started to learn the language on her own, so she placed in the intermediate course.

She’s not sure what she wants to do after school. “It’s hard to talk about the future now,” she said. “It is very fragile now. I cannot make any far plans. But I would like to continue translating Bukovinian Yiddish writers — that’s what I’m doing right now — and I also want to do some work about German-speaking Yiddish writers on the one hand and Yiddish-speaking ones on the other.”

There’s a perfect metaphor for learning Yiddish in a short-story cycle by Josef Burg called “Life Goes On.” (It’s “Dos leben geyt vayter” in the original Yiddish.) The metaphor is that it is a road, and you are on it. There is so much that you can experience, so much you can live through.

“The road goes on. After the summer program my life is going on, and it has something new in it. It is a perpetual continuation. Things go on.”

Including Yiddish.

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