“Look. It’s Emma Goldman,” Sara Felder says, pointing from the stage to the entrance of the Raven Lounge, the newly opened Center City bar. Felder’s audience of hip Jewish West Philly-ites, Center City professionals and klezmer enthusiasts looks at the empty doorway and giggles knowingly. They get it. (Maybe because they’re sipping bracingly sweet Manischewitz martinis.) While performance artist Felder’s invocation of the infamous Jewish radical is designed to playfully distract her audience at this event – sponsored by a group known as Youngish and Yiddish – from a dropped ball during her Yiddish language juggling act, the summoning of this leftist ghost conjures a specter of another kind as well: that of a none-too-distant Jewish past, when Yiddish was on every young Jew’s lips, and even a Jewishbubbe was more likely to discuss Goldman or avant-garde Yiddish poetics than her grandson’s recent admission to law school.
Founded by 27-year-old art historian Evelyn Tauben, Philadelphia’s Youngish and Yiddish has created a resurgence in Yiddish and Yiddishkeit culture among young Philadelphians through a series of events over the past year, from Yiddish-themed happy hours and klezmer concerts to Shabbat dinners and talks on the history of the Jewish language that draw up to 100 people. This evening’s performance at the Raven Lounge featured Felder plus three hours of happening klezmer music by Shtreiml and local musician Susan Watts, and brought Jewish young adults from throughout the region together to celebrate the culture of their forebears.
But it’s not your grandfather’s history lesson. For many youngish Jews in Philadelphia who can’t find a connection through a synagogue or to Israel, Youngish and Yiddish is their first chance to feel like a member of a vital Jewish community. April Rosenblum, 26, a community activist, grew up an unaffiliated Jew in Germantown, and for years was told “I wasn’t a real Jew.” For her, Yiddish language and culture is a conduit to a whole world of art and literature and music and politics—an authentic secular Jewish identity.
What distinguishes Yiddish as a language and a culture is its inherently pluralist pedigree. Emerging out of thousands of years of dispersal of Jews and contact with whatever host country was willing to house them, Yiddish has had no choice but to become a democratic tongue. Its emotional palette, too, is colored by a wandering history. Ironic, playful, sometimes pained, Yiddish is flexible, simultaneously adaptable and subtle and, well, raw. Mark Chaitowitz, 36, is a physician and Youngish and Yiddish founding member who spent his childhood in South Africa. “I grew up hearing Yiddish being spoken by my grandparents,” he says, “primarily when they were saying something they didn’t want me to hear. This is a very good way of motivating a kid to learn a language—my ears still instinctively prick up every time I hear the words ‘Nit far di kinder’ [not for the children].”
Rosenblum argues that Yiddish “heals some of the wounds that are tearing the Jewish community apart” precisely because it joins so many different sorts of Jews together through shared “ethnicity” rather than religious or political affiliation. That’s the unifying point: a desire among young urban Jews to have a collective affiliation that gets past the arguments of belief and the chauvinism of Hebrew. While Hebrew speakers imagine themselves as the privileged denizens of a pure Jewish tongue, the young Jews who are drawn to Yiddish pride themselves on the impurity of their chosen language. Yiddish bonds Jews at every position on the religious or ideological map.
The need for this connection seems strong. At a Youngish and Yiddish concert last March, it was difficult to hear So-Called, a master mixologist of rap and Yiddish, over the din of socializing young Jewish Philadelphians. Last season’s Youngish and Yiddish-sponsored language classes at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel synagogue in Center City were so well attended that the group has opened up additional beginner’s Yiddish courses are slated for the fall.
For Tauben, who grew up in Montreal’s thriving Jewish community, with its glut of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors, the group’s popularity is a marvelous surprise. She started Youngish and Yiddish to dispel people’s preconceived notions about the language: that it’s dead, or is a language with no extant cultural component. At Y&Y events, Tauben tells humorous anecdotes about her dating experiences in Philadelphia. One suitor asked her over cocktails if Yiddish was a language at all: “You mean it has words, and you can write it down?” he marveled.
Checking out who comes to Youngish and Yiddish events—young Philadelphians who span the gamut from Orthodox Jews with payes to lawyers, medical residents, and West Philadelphia anarchists—makes it clear, however, that many are in search of an emotional lingua franca as much as an actual language to speak. Jewish identity in 21st-century America is highly stratified, religiously and politically. For the many young Jews for whom a lengthy tenure at Hebrew School or buying a tree in Israel doesn’t provide access to a living Jewish tradition, Yiddish can be a revelation.
In Adventures in Yiddishland, historian Jeffrey Shandler describes how the language bonds secular-oriented Jews. As Shandler sees it, despite the plummeting numbers of native Yiddish speakers after the Holocaust, the language of the shtetl is still an important part of Jewish identity and self-fashioning. Even if most American Jews don’t use Yiddish to greet the postman or write their memoirs anymore, the language is a touchstone in an era when the definition of Jewishness is in such flux.
What does it mean to be a young Jew in America? Youngish Yiddishists feel they’re giving group members something larger than language or access to a lost past. They are providing young Jews with a symbolic vernacular, as well, as they search for a way to redefine Jewish community in the twenty first century.
As the concert at the Raven Lounge came to an end, Susan Watts, heir to the great Hoffman klezmer dynasty and a renowned trumpet player and singer with a funky aesthetic, introduced one of the last songs on the evening’s agenda, the Hoffman “Mazel Tov,” a melody written by her musician grandfather to which she’s set melancholy lyrics in English and Yiddish. The audience hummed along and swayed to her klezmer concoction. It was the perfect final note for the Youngish and Yiddish movement’s marriage of their grandparents’ tongue with a hip urban sensibility of the righteously seeking young.