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Monday, August 30, 2010

Yiddish week or bust.

I have deliberately waited for some time to elapse before writing my impressions regarding a week in the Catskills among Yiddish-speakers. The name of the program ,which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, is Yiddish Vokh or Yiddish Week.

It is sponsored by an organization called Yugntruf or Youth for Yiddish (lit:Young Call). The organization has long dedicated itself to helping perpetuate Yiddish language and culture. It publishes its own magazine in Yiddish, Yugntruf, and sponsors regular get togethers for those who wish to learn and practice speaking Yiddish. Mordechai Shechter, one of its leaders, recently died. His obituary appeared in the NY Times. Along with another famous secular Yiddishist, Itche Goldberg, who also died not too long ago, he devoted his life to Yiddish as a living language.

Many people believe that Yiddish, the major language of Eastern European Jewry before the Second World War, is gone forever along with most of its speakers. Actually, the language lives on in the Hasidic world of ultra-orthodox Jewry with a few hundred thousand speakers in New York, Europe and Israel and within a tiny group of secular Jews who are the mainstays of Yugntruf and League for Yiddish, a sister organization. Their Jerusalem is Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, NY. There they have a small center where Yiddish-related programs are held.

In addition, they have sponsored an annual week-long get together of Yiddish enthusiasts each August in the Catskills. Up until recently, according to many who had attended the previous reunions, the venue was a center in Copake, NY. There they had comfortable places to sleep, an incredible array of delicious dishes to choose from for each meal ( all cooked by an Israeli chef), waiters, and many other comforts. The events were inspiring. They looked forward to returning each year and speaking Yiddish with their friends.

This year the Yiddish Vokh was held at the Kutz Camp of the Union for Reformed Judaism, a camp intended for Jewish teens.

It was my first and, probably, my last year at Yiddish Vokh.

I don't know where to begin.

We arrived on Monday in time for a grand welcome meal, designed to introduce us to our new home away from home.

The entree was cottage cheese accompanied by iceberg lettuce and a single bowl of salad dressing for 180 hungry people who had come from all over the world for the event. We were also offered some mixed vegetables and white bread with peanut butter.

That was lunch.

Supper was worse. More cottage cheese, white bread, iceberg lettuce, the same shitty salad dressing, water, and, of course, peanut butter. No meal during my stay lacked the above accoutrements.

We were told that the cook was obsessed with baking white bread. We were served white bread every meal I was there. There was never any other choice. White bread, white bread, and for a change, white bread.

I hate white bread.

I had paid for a private room so that I would be comfortable.

I walked into my private room and almost died.

It lacked AC ( the temperature was close to 90 most days), had floors, walls, ceiling and a bed made of plywood covered by a slab of foam upon which I was expected to sleep. Outside my room was a fan that looked like it had been taken from a museum. It was larger than me. When it ran, the walls shook.

I disabled the fan when no one was looking and using what little strength I still possessed after my meal of white bread and cottage cheese, hauled it into the dormitory. The dormitory, which was not too far from my room, housed fellow campers in double-decker bunk beds. It also lacked any AC.

That night I discovered that the person next door loudly snored.

Since the plywood was paper thin, I could hear every bit of their snoring, gurgling, snorting, and other bodily functions which I shall leave to your imagination.

I requested another room and was informed that none were available. The other next door room was unoccupied. I planned to move in there to escape the snorer cum schnorrer.

When I came home, I discovered that a man was bringing his stuff into the empty room. I informed him that I was told I could not have it and that no rooms were available. He told me to mind my own business. He also told me that the management had given it to him.

I went to the management of Yugntruf that was running Yiddish Vokh and was told by the lady with whom I spoke that, Yes, no rooms were available and, Yes, he had been given special permission to take this room. And, No, she would not share with me why he got the room and not me and she hoped that I was having a good experience. I told her I was not having a good experience and was totally pissed.

My new neighbor also snored.

Now I was surrounded on both sides of my cubicle by people farting, snoring, gurgling and talking in their sleep.....all in Yiddish.

The classes were pretty good with dedicated teachers. My fellow students were first-class, wonderful people. They were the high point of my stay.

The classrooms for the language classes lack functioning AC. We used a small fan which made little difference.

Your vocabulary word is shvitz: a steam bath. We were the shvitzers, sweating like pigs, you should excuse the expression.

The food continued to get worse.

The night before I left the main course was macaroni and cheese.

The chef could not even prepare decent mac and cheese. He was stuck on white bread.

One man informed me that Jews don't eat white bread. I agreed. Apparently, Reform Jewish teenagers are into white bread onto which, I assume, they smear peanut butter.

After five days I could no longer stand it and I called my sister who lived an hour away to please come and rescue me.

Almost to a man ( and woman) the older former campers told me they would never return unless things were moved back to Copake, NY.

The classes, teachers and students were absolutely wonderful and I highly recommend the experience for those who are able to speak Yiddish.

However, the accomodations and food were some of the worst I have ever had in this kind of a setting.

If they don't return to the former venue in Copake, NY, I predict a much smaller enrollment for Yiddish Vokh in the future.

If you are interested in following the activities of Yugntruf you can just go to:

http://www.yugntruf.org/

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

A novel approach to learning languages.

In 2001 the NY Times published a lengthy article in the Travel section by the former Moscow bureau correspondent, Francis X. Clines. I like people who have X as a middle initial. I assume the X stands for Xavier, which is a really neat name. How many people call their kids Xavier these days?

The article was entitled, "An archipelago called Russian."

It described the author's experience learning Russian with his teacher, Boris Shekhtman. Boris, a native speaker of Russian, created a very unique method of teaching languages. He immediately gets students speaking at a native level by having them learn custom prepared pieces of conversational Russian. One such piece might serve as an introduction. I am Harold, I am an American. I am x years old. I live in y place which is not too far from z. Z, as you know, is....

What you have is a few minutes of a monologue spoken with native-level proficiency. The purpose of these islands, as Boris calls them, is to get the student speaking with native speakers.

Often learners find it difficult to have conversations with native-speakers. The student has a very limited vocabulary, understanding of grammar and poor conversational skills in the foreign language. Most native-speakers sense that the student is floundering and this makes them uncomfortable. And, frankly, how long can one speak about such topics as one's age or name?

What Shekhtman has done is to create a way to allow a beginning student to immediately engage a native-speaker in a dialogue of mutual interest.

I have been studying with Boris now for a few weeks and the results are very encouraging.

He is a truly remarkable teacher; one of a kind.

I hope to write more about my experiences with Boris Shekhtman in future posts.

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