Students Reclaim Yiddishist Group

After Drifting from its Mission, Yugntruf Refocuses on Campus

As the sun set over Waltham, Massachusetts on Friday, April 27th, something foreign was in the air. From the campus of Brandeis University came the sound of “Yiddish Break,” a gathering of 45 young Jews singing, chatting, acting, and reading in Yiddish, the near-extinct vernacular of the shtetl. Together, they were bringing something back from the dead.

The secular Yiddishist of the popular imagination is a grey-haired socialist, an aging intellectual with a beard like Marx and a deep appreciation for the folk song. Yugntruf, the 43-year-old Yiddishist student group whose members organized “Yiddish Break,” is setting out to change all that. In order to reclaim Yiddish for a new generation, however, the new leadership of Yugntruf first had to reclaim the organization itself.

Founded by a couple of sixteen year-olds in 1964, the leadership of Yugntruf aged with the group, so that in recent years, Yugntruf (“Call to Youth” in Yiddish) has only been a student organization in name. That changed this fall, when an enthusiastic group of 20-somethings took over the organization’s leadership. Beginning with “Yiddish Break,” the new Yugntruf hopes to spur a revival of Yiddish language and culture among American Jewish students.

Yugntruf was started in 1964 by David Roskies and Gabby Trunk, two young friends with a passion for Yiddish. “Yugntruf was founded as an act of youthful rebellion,” says Roskies, now a professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “We wanted a perfect world in which Jews, young and old, would speak their own language both at home and in the street, both with their parents and with one another.”

With the help of renowned Yiddish scholar Mordkhe Schaecter, the friends built a network of young Yiddishists. The group published an all Yiddish literary magazine, organized Yiddish cultural groups, and held national conferences.

Over the years, Yugntruf began to drift from its original constituency. “There was a lack of new blood in the 80’s going into the 90’s,” says Paul Glasser, a member since 1974 and a longtime chair of the organization’s board. “We weren’t getting many new people, and when we did, they were mostly middle-aged, not students.”

That began to change this year, when Manachem Ejdelman, 24, grandson of Morkhe Schaecter, planned and organized the “Yiddish Break” event. Around the same time, the organization’s longtime executive director stepped down and urged younger members to take a more active role. Within months, all but one member of Yugntruf’s aging board was replaced by a younger group, and Ejdelman was named chair.

For the most part, the older members were happy to turn over the organization, says Glasser. “It’s a youth organization,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense that the average age [of the active membership] was 50. Yugntruf is going back to its roots.”

Many of the new student leaders are children and grandchildren of the old guard, and grew up speaking Yiddish. Others were drawn to the group for a variety of reasons. For Julie Sugar, 23, the group’s newly hired office manger, Yugntruf is not only a way to connect to the past, but also a way to connect with peers. “I started learning Yiddish because my boyfriend had a whole group of Yiddishist friends who only spoke Yiddish to one another,” Sugar says. “I didn’t want them to switch to English because I was around, and I also wanted to understand what was going on, and be able to crack jokes, and just be involved in the conversation in general.”

Ejdelman and the new board have big plans for the future of Yugntruf. While they will continue the organization’s current programs, including the annual Yidish-vokh, a yearly retreat in which participants of all ages spend a week conversing completely in Yiddish, they also plan to make “Yididsh Break” an annual event, and to revive the group’s all-Yiddish literary magazine.

When Ejdelman is confronted with the assertion that it is unusual for young, modern Americans to be so infatuated with Yiddish, he says, “Sometimes people think innovation is the best thing. We feel the opposite – that what is old and unconventional is more interesting. What we need is to hold onto the past. Yiddish allows us to do this.”

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