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Encore: For some secular Jews, their pandemic hobby has been learning Yiddish


From noshing to schmoozing to schlepping, many Americans know a handful of Yiddish words. But outside of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, few people actually speak Yiddish as a language. In this encore presentation, Deena Prichep reports that the pandemic has created a wave of new Yiddish learning.


DEENA PRICHEP: When the pandemic started, Emily Tamkin had some free time.

EMILY TAMKIN: I wasn't commuting home or going out on Monday evening, so why not learn Yiddish, right?

PRICHEP: Tamkin's writing a book on Jewish identity, so learning the language of Central and Eastern European Jews made sense. But it was more than that.

TAMKIN: It offered me this feeling of connection to my family at a time that I felt very disconnected.

PRICHEP: And it connected her to this larger project of keeping the language alive after it was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust and assimilation.

TAMKIN: There's all these people who came before me who did this. There's all these people around me now doing this. That's wonderful. It's a joy.

BEN KAPLAN: Yiddish culture has something to say about finding joy and ingenuity and creativity and resourcefulness in a time of crisis.

PRICHEP: Ben Kaplan is the director of education at YIVO. It's an archive of Eastern European Jewish culture, which has been teaching in and about Yiddish for nearly a hundred years.

KAPLAN: And since the beginning of the pandemic, we've seen the classes grow in enrollment by 500%.

PRICHEP: Yiddish centers from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires are reporting similar increases. Virtual Yiddish is a vibrant world, with Yiddish "Harry Potter"...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading in Yiddish).

PRICHEP: ...Yiddish yoga...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Yiddish).

PRICHEP: ...Yiddish TikTok.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Yiddish).

PRICHEP: Now, to be fair, the pandemic created a boom in language-learning across the board. Cindy Blanco is senior learning scientist at the language app Duolingo.

CINDY BLANCO: We saw 30 million new learners in just those first weeks. And we actually saw really big spikes kind of every time a country would lock down.

PRICHEP: But she says Yiddish is different. Over a third of their Yiddish students say culture is the No. 1 reason for learning the language, with family right behind. Rebecca Margolis directs the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.

REBECCA MARGOLIS: There's always something attached to why people decide they want to speak Yiddish. It's never because it's going to get them a job working in a bank or give them any kind of power in society.

PRICHEP: Margolis, who's been studying pandemic Yiddish learning, says secular Yiddish has always been a chosen space, and people make that choice for a lot of reasons.

MARGOLIS: Descendants of Holocaust survivors, for whom the language was deeply meaningful.

PRICHEP: People who are drawn to the music and literature.

MARGOLIS: And then that youth vanguard of people who gravitate towards Yiddish because it's a queer space. It's a lefty space. It's a progressive space.

PRICHEP: And as long as you aren't over-Zoomed, or oysgezoomt, it can help foster connection at a time when community has been hard to find. For Yiddish student Emily Tamkin, it's been surprisingly meaningful.

TAMKIN: Not to be like, I gained perspective by learning to conjugate Yiddish verbs, but it was not unhelpful.

PRICHEP: And even on tough days, when Tamkin is dragging herself around, or in Yiddish, me shlept zikh (ph), it's just fun.

TAMKIN: It's a language that has survived. This is a language that is so full of life and joy, and it helped me hold on to all of that, too.

PRICHEP: Because Yiddish has something to say after all these years, even, or especially, in these times.

For NPR News, ikh heys (ph) Deena Prichep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.