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Canton woman spends a summer steeped in Yiddish culture

By Cindy Mindell

The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. is renowned for its educational offerings – which include the Great Jewish Books Summer Program for high school students, the Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop, the Yiddish School residential language program, and weekend and online courses for adult learners.

For the last 40 years, the center’s educational flagship is the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, an intensive seven-week course for undergraduate and graduate college students under age 26.

Steiner participants not only gain Yiddish-language literacy and substantive knowledge of Central and Eastern European Jewish history and culture; they also participate in the lively world of Yiddish culture at the Amherst campus and beyond. All accepted students receive free tuition for undergraduate credits through the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Intermediate Yiddish students receive free housing and living stipends in exchange for working with ongoing projects at the center. Applicants are considered without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin, and no prior knowledge of Yiddish is required.

Among this year’s summer’s participants was Canton native Hannah Schneider, a sophomore at Smith College, where she is a Jewish Studies major. Her recent attraction to Yiddish is somewhat surprising, given that she grew up in a secular Jewish home. Schneider was in second grade when she asked her best friend to teach her the Hebrew alphabet. Fast-forward to last year, when Schneider took a winter-break course at the Yiddish Book Center with Justin Cammy, Smith College associate professor of Jewish Studies and Comparative Literature.

“Every day for four weeks, I would spend 20 minutes on the bus to get there and 20 minutes to get home, and several hours at the center,” Schneider recalls. “I think spending so much time in a place can really connect you to it, but the Yiddish Book Center was so beautiful for me; I felt so rooted there. It was tucked away in the hills of Amherst and its Polish synagogue- and shtetl-inspired exterior was constantly covered in snow and looked like an advertisement for a cozy bed and breakfast.”

While there, Schneider learned the Yiddish alphabet and then focused on historical, literary, and cultural aspects of the language.

“The second I heard about the Steiner Program I knew that I wanted to apply, and Prof. Cammy was an excellent mentor through the whole process,” she says. “Yiddish really spoke to me as a beautiful and powerful language, but also one that many people passed over without considering that [it comprises] an entire amazing literary canon, history of film, and a really cool musical community. I wanted to be able to experience all of these things in their original language and, to a certain extent, I succeeded. I still need a little more practice but I’m excited to even partly have access to this amazing culture.”

The group experienced many aspects of Yiddish culture up close at KulturefestNYC, an eight-day festival of plays, concerts, films, exhibits, and lectures throughout Manhattan, presented by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at Museum of Jewish Heritage in collaboration with UJA-Federation of New York. In addition to catching a klezmer performance and a production of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, the students traveled to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where they practiced speaking Yiddish among the neighborhood’s ultra-Orthodox community. “Pretty much every Yiddish question we asked got answered in English, but it was an amazing day, with really good pastries involved,” Schneider says.

But her favorite part of the program was the Yiddish Book Center’s Yidstock festival, an annual summer showcase of new Yiddish music presented in performances, workshops, and lectures.

“I particularly loved the ‘Build-a-Sher’ workshop, during which I learned how to sher – basically, Yiddish square dance,” she says. “I also was so, so grateful and excited to see SoCalled, the Klezmatics, and the Yiddish Art Trio in concert. I spent the weeks leading up to the festival learning some popular songs with my classmates so that we could sing along and have a good time. It was such an amazing opportunity to dance, have a ton of fun, and have it all be, as we said, ‘af Yiddish’ (in Yiddish)!”

Each day, Prof. Asya Vaisman Schulman would give the class a Yiddish phrase to translate and analyze. Schneider especially appreciated two: “Geshmack iz der fish af yemens tish,” which Schneider translates as “Tasty is the fish on that other table.”

Schulman is the director of the Center’s Yiddish Language Institute, who teaches Yiddish language at Hampshire College and in the Yiddish Book Center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program.

“I also get little phrases stuck in my regular English interactions with friends and family,” she says. “The one that refuses to stop slipping into English conversation is ‘Far vos nisht?’ which means ‘Why not?’ It’s so useful and all my friends have learned it because I use it so much by accident!”

Schneider says that the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program provided an excellent foundation me to keep building my Yiddish skills. She intends to work with Professors Cammy and Schulman at Smith on independent-study projects in Yiddish. She hopes to take part in Yiddish summer programs like those offered at Tel Aviv University or the YIVO Institute for Research in Manhattan.

“I know I want a career centered around Yiddish and to have that, I need to be fluent,” she says. “And I’m excited to get there.”

CAP: The Steiner students – Hannah Schneider is seated, second from right

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