On a recent snowy night at Congregation Beth Shalom in North Seattle, a dozen students spanning the generations acted out how to “dance strangely,” “sing happily,” and “run slowly.” It’s part of an exercise to understand adverbs — in Yiddish.
The class, led by Marianne Tatom, has been a hit since it debuted in the fall of 2018. Tatom began studying Yiddish a few years ago in order to communicate with her partner’s aunt, a Holocaust survivor living in Belgium. Drawn to the language as well as to klezmer music, Tatom took classes at Seattle’s Temple Beth Am, online, and at KlezKanada (an annual Jewish heritage festival in Quebec). Now she is a pedagogy fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
“It has become necessary to try to appeal to a new generation of Yiddish learners, as there are now so few ‘heritage’ Yiddish speakers” — people who grew up with the language in the home, Tatom says. The students’ motivations range from wanting to translate family documents to becoming fluent.
While Yiddish language and klezmer music have always had a fan base in Seattle, the Northwest does not register on most people’s maps as a hotbed of Ashkenazi culture. However, a recent injection of energy into the local scene may be changing that.
On its surface, the general vibe of Seattle — folksy, left-leaning, with a history of activism and anarchy and a secular bent — would appear to offer a suitable host climate for the Jewish language historically associated with the socialist Bund movement. In fact, the mutual aid society known as the Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), which was founded in 1892 and became a labor fraternal order on a national scale in 1900, established a Seattle outpost as early as 1909. While welcoming labor activists and radicals of all stripes, the Arbeiter Ring also focused on providing educational and cultural opportunities like Yiddish schools and theater clubs.
After the organization closed its Seattle office in the 1970s, individuals began forming Yiddish conversation groups around town, hosted either in private homes or at synagogues like Emanuel Congregation and Temple Beth Am. Today, the Seattle Yiddish Group meets monthly at University House in Wallingford, and on Shabbat at Seward Park’s Minyan Ohr Chadash you can study Talmud in Yiddish.
Why are the children and grandchildren of baby boomers attracted to Yiddish, though? For one thing, in today’s roots-obsessed culture, with multiple companies offering DNA testing to find out more about our backgrounds, it has become hip to know one’s “yerushe” (heritage). Freed of the baggage that their immigrant ancestors attached to the language of the shtetl, younger generations of Jews view Yiddish as part of a legacy to be proud of, rather than a source of shame.
“Some younger musicians have grown increasingly interested in Yiddish as a form of resistance and have begun incorporating more Yiddish songs into their repertoire,” says Tatom, who herself is a member of local bands Klez Katz and Orkestyr Farfeleh. With its historical connection to workers and the underdog, Yiddish can provide a valence of anti-authority grit.
Mai Li Pittard’s awareness of klezmer started when she was growing up in Florida with a radio program called “Sunday Simcha.” She now plays violin, sings, and writes original Yiddish songs for the Debaucherauntes, a band self-styled as “wild klezmer fusion with a cabaret twist.” “Working on the songs is what actually led me to studying Yiddish,” Pittard, 36, says. She has attended four KlezKanada festivals, gaining the chance to workshop new material with and be mentored by global stars like the Berlin-based musician Daniel Kahn. Pittard is now taking Tatom’s Yiddish course to strengthen her songwriting.
“There’s the sense that there’s a direct link to how our culture dealt with fascism the last time it was a global phenomenon,” she says. “Being queer and bisexual and non-monogamous and singing in Yiddish, I have access to acceptance and respect in Jewish spaces that have historically been difficult spaces for me to be present in. And there’s this sense that I am helping to build culture, for me, and for us, in my own community.”
Pittard is part of a cohort that includes artists like Stefanie Brendler of the bands Brivele and Shpilkis. Brendler, 37, also feels a deep connection with Yiddish and a responsibility to amplify its unique artistic tradition. An emphasis on Israeli culture she noticed in Jewish spaces growing up felt “confusing,” because at home, “My grandparents said ‘gut Shabbes’ rather than ‘Shabbat shalom,’ and they wore [a] ‘tallis’ rather than ‘tallit,’” she says.
A regular on Seattle’s music scene since 2004, Brendler consciously shifted to klezmer in 2016. She now plays accordion and sings for Brivele, a trio that formed in 2016 “as a response to the political climate,” and plays baritone horn for Shpilkis, a seven-piece brass band that performs more familiar klezmer repertoire. “To sing in Yiddish is to sing in a language that is both familiar and unfamiliar,” she says. “It is an act of reclaiming the language of my ancestors, which has been stolen from me through genocide, assimilation, and nationalism.”
Brendler, Pittard, and their peers are working to sustain the Yiddish creative community built by dedicated local musicians like Peter Lippman of the Mazel Tov Klezmer Band, the Mirel family of the Shalom Ensemble, Wendy Marcus of the Mazeltones and KlezKidz, and Shawn Weaver, Marcus’s husband and fellow musician. “I think the groundwork laid over the past decades by so many of us is bearing fruit,” Marcus says. Marcus, also a veteran Yiddish instructor, is realistic about the challenges of supporting teachers but also has faith in the new generation and their “edgier” take on Yiddish culture. “I marvel at the dedication of the younger Yiddishists in our community,” she says. “I believe for many of these young people, as well as a lot of the folks in my classes (ages 20 to 70s), Yiddish is an authentic way to celebrate their Jewish identity.”
Yiddish has growth potential in the ivory tower, too. The University of Washington now boasts three faculty members with Yiddish specializations: Annegret Oehme, a medievalist who recently joined the Germanics department; Barbara Henry, a stalwart of the Slavic languages and literatures department; and Sasha Senderovich, a specialist in Russian Jewish culture who joined the Slavic department in 2017. He, along with his wife Liora Halperin, who is a UW professor of Israel studies, hosted a well-attended house party featuring world-renowned Latvian vocalist Sasha Lurje in January to raise funds for In geveb, an online journal of Yiddish studies.
“We’re trying to build an actual living culture,” Pittard says of the younger generation of enthusiasts. Through the efforts of Pittard’s circle, Daniel Kahn performed at Ballard’s Tractor Tavern in November 2018, and in February 2019 a Seattle Yiddish Fest welcomed Lurje and top musicians — including “Yiddish psychedelic rock band” Forshpil performing a “special set of dark Yiddish love ballads with a distorted guitar” — to Love City Love on Capitol Hill.
A thriving music scene, committed language learners, and experts on campus could combine to put Seattle on the Yiddishist map along the West Coast and even nationally. “I would like to see Seattle thrive as a hub of Yiddish language and artistic expression alongside Seattle’s extensive Sephardic community, the Mizrahi community, and others within the Jewish diaspora,” Brendler says. “To be Jewish in Seattle can mean a lot of different things, and Yiddish can be one of them.”