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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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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should do an Michel Thomas Method Yiddish Course. I appreciate Hodder would never comission it, but maybe they would grant you permission to do it off your own bat. I'd buy it for one (assuming the price was similar to the others).

December 13, 2010 at 6:08 PM  
Blogger Harold said...

Hi, A

I think I'll pass on this one.

The reality is that it takes an unbelievably long time to create these courses, several years for the Chinese ones.

There are so many tiny details that go into creating a real MT-style course. He told me that it took him a long time for him to work out the stuff that went into his own courses which he perfected over 50 years.

Also, you can find that every course I did has been pirated and is freely available on the web. Most of the material I worked so hard on is now available for free and, as a result, I earn very little on all that work.

All in all, I would advise anyone contemplating writing or recording anything that can be digitalized ( print, recordings) to expect that it will be pirated. Thus, one ends up working for free.

That simply doesn't pay the bills.

My royalty earnings, which are my only compensation for all of my work, have been reduced to a pittance even though the courses are still quite popular.

The vast majority of my current students have downloaded my courses from pirate sites without me receiving a penny for my work.

If this were a primary means of earning my living I would have starved long ago.

The net and the digital culture is killing itself in this way and I think that is very sad.

Would you work for free?

December 14, 2010 at 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also think it is very sad. Current I.P. law is very biased away from consumers and towards holders, and sadly that actually HURTS some holders because people find ways round it. Why someone who puts in a few years work deserves royalties for more than 50 years is beyond me, and much of the cost does not go to the producers such as yourself but is instead siphoned off by marketing men and other assorted parasites such as abound in the publishing industry. Equally you obviously deserve much more compensation than you are getting. I think most (obviously not all) people who download illegally wish there were a fair system, but given only the choice between screwing and being screwed...what are people going to choose? An additional point (which obviously does NOT apply to Michel Thomas) is that so much language teaching is the same old re-hashed nonsense (Ser and Estar as permanent versus temporary, anyone?), where's the hard work and creativity in that? Steven Jay Gould called this the "Case of the creeping fox terrier clone", again give people only the choice between screwing and being screwed... This last point doesn't apply to MT or yourself, but it affects you because it helps to create the culture. I am sorry that you have been treated badly by Hodder, and by downloading, I understand if that makes you feel bitter. If it DOESN'T make you feel too bitter then you should know that there are ways to protect the I.P. of your future creations (Rosetta Stone have done it quite succesfully), although this would sadly mean moving away from the low-tech audio format as an unavoidable consequence. Finally, would I work for free? Depends what for? I have done before now, and no doubt will do again, I don't know about the U.S. but plenty of people in the U.K. work in the volunteer sector, and an even greater number work in badly underpaid jobs (such as care workers) because they believe they're doing something worthwhile, in spite of the fact that they are being exploited. I guess that would come down to whether you love Yiddish quite THAT much, but as I indicated above you are considerably less naive now and could protect your property.

December 14, 2010 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Harold said...

MT took fifty years to develop his method.

I got to him during the final ten years of his life.

He did not expect to die when he did; I suspect that it was a surprise since in many ways, he was in denial about his health and mortality.

He taught me his method because he wanted it to live on but, more so, he wanted to be credited for his work following his death.

The Hodder that he signed his contract with is very different than that which exists today. As mentioned in another comment, not a single person who worked with him is now left at Hodder. The company, in my opinion, is meaner and leaner these days.

Today I spoke with a woman musician who told me that at least 80% of her music is pirated. However, she and her husband have already made their money over the last 20 years. She added that she has earned money from concerts but because of her family commitments no longer does these events.

So she is able to live off of her music which is not entirely an option for many musicians, writers and teachers.

I am working part-time to further develop the work that I did in teaching and creating the Chinese course. In addition to MT I have discovered other very innovative teachers in various fields. One of them, Boris Shekhtman, is my current teacher. He is a genius who has produced the most amazing results in teaching Russian, the sole language he teaches. Hence, I am now learning Russian so that I can better understand his methodology. He is very cooperative in sharing all of this material which he has been working on since 1974. We work for several hours each week.

I began my studies of Russian with him in June, took off a two months to do advanced Esperanto, and then returned for weekly lessons, one on one. Based on these five months of study ( = about 60 hours), I will be hosting a supper for a group of Russians at the end of January. In addition, I will give a talk for about 45 minutes, without notes, and answer questions in Russian.

In sixty hours he has gotten me to the level where I can speak comfortably and grammatically for extended periods of time. I believe that this is a remarkable accomplishment.

Boris Shekhtman, like Michel Thomas, is definitely on to something and I intend to share it with the rest of the world.

However, I have learned my lesson with the Chinese course and have no plans to produce any materials that can be stolen or pirated. The teaching will be done privately or in groups.

There are many very amazing teachers out there.

December 14, 2010 at 12:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The teaching will be done privately or in groups"

Then how can you share it?

It is true that Michel Thomas DID develope his method over 50 years, but he developed it from experience in the course of teaching the language FOR WHICH HE WAS PAYED BY HIS CLIENTS. The only compensation merited is compensation for the few years work which went into adapting his method for a CD course. Why does it have to be so black and white? You seem to think your only options are to have your work stolen OR to only teach those who can afford private tuition. You can create a Michel Thomas Method CDrom course which would be very, very difficult to pirate. As a private individual you probably couldn't afford to market it, but in the UK the name of Michel Thomas would get you sales, and you could maybe use that as a springboard into the US market. After a fair amount of time (say 10 years +/- depending on how good sales are) of recieving merited compensation you could release an audio version into the public domain in order to share what you have to offer with the world.

December 14, 2010 at 1:09 PM  
Blogger Harold said...

Dear Anonymous

Thanks, as always, for your comments.

The very best teachers I have encountered have no net presence. I study with them in person or in small classes.

I plan to do the same.

Once word gets out about the results, I will not have any problem getting students.

I will not be using the Michel Thomas name in connection with my teaching except to point out in my biography that he was one of my teachers.

When it is appropriate, at some point, I will make some of the work available to the wider public.

However, as with the work of Mr. Thomas, the public offerings will never be equal to the private classes.

Near the end of his life, Mr. Thomas told me that he had gotten to the point where he was able to transmit a language in one day. He was always fine tuning and adjusting his approach. What is on the CD's is only a tiny part of what he did in person as I can attest.

His work is the distillation of fifty years worth of experimentation with students; finding what works and discarding the rest.

And, yes, I do believe that he should have charged for his experience of fifty years.

I intend to also charge for my total experience and constant improvement in my work.

Every year I am able to deliver more because I am always learning how to be better at what I do.

This, too, I have learned from my teachers.

December 15, 2010 at 4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is clear that we see the world from totally different angles, who's to say my way is right and yours wrong. I can see that you are, like me, a sincere person. I wish you luck.

December 16, 2010 at 2:12 PM  

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