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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. And yet, Deena Prichep reports the pandemic has created a wave of new Yiddish learning.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: 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"...


ARUN VISWANATH: (Reading in Yiddish).

PRICHEP: ...Yiddish yoga...


REYNA SCHAECHTER: (Speaking Yiddish).

PRICHEP: ...Yiddish TikTok.


CAMERON BERNSTEIN: (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, which they added to the app earlier this year, 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.

Deena Prichep