Reporting in Yiddish, Without Speaking Yiddish

The ground rules were simple: I would report an article on Australia’s Yiddish speakers at Sof-Vokh Oystralye, a Yiddish immersion weekend outside Melbourne last May, and remain “a flig oyf der vant” — a fly on the wall.

I would not participate in the weekend’s games and activities. I would not disrupt the flow of Yiddish speaking and learning. And I would somehow make myself understood in Yiddish — or not at all.

As a reporter in The Times’s Australia bureau, I learned about Melbourne’s Yiddish-speaking community a year or so earlier, via a friend whose father spoke Yiddish at home. At least half of the city’s Jewish population is descended from mostly Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors who came to Australia from Eastern Europe after World War II. Many of their descendants have a striking commitment to keeping the language alive.

It was a far cry from my own family’s story — German-speaking Austrian Jews who had fled to Britain in 1939 — and as a journalist, I was fascinated.

As I observed the community over the months that followed, I heard smatterings of Yiddish on the main street of Elsternwick, one of Melbourne’s “bagel belt” neighborhoods, and attended Yiddish-language productions of “Yentl” and “Yiddish Divas,” a cabaret show.

Attending Sof-Vokh would be an opportunity to experience up close the kinds of constructed spaces in which the language continues to thrive and to meet many of the city’s Yiddish speakers for the first time.

Eastern Europeans brought Yiddish to Melbourne after World War II. Sof-Vokh is one of the events that keeps the language alive there.Credit…Christina Simons for The New York Times

I had pictured myself, ordinarily quite gregarious, adopting a rare remove and perching on the sidelines with my notebook in hand. What questions I might have for the weekend’s participants, I reasoned, I could ask at a later date, in a mutually intelligible language.

But I had not anticipated that those participants, surprised by the newcomer in their midst, might have questions for me — in Yiddish, a language I do not speak. Where was I from? Did I live in Melbourne? Where had my parents come from? Why had I moved to Australia? And how had I heard about Sof-Vokh?

Armed with vestigial high school German, Google Translate and an enthusiastic disposition, I stood in the foyer of a suburban conference center, stammering out mostly ungrammatical two- and three-word phrases in nascent Yiddish.

As the weekend wore on, I grew in confidence, if not skill. Speaking to Freydi Mrocki, 63, my occasional interpreter for the weekend, I ventured a full sentence in Yiddish: “How do you say ‘rusty’” — as in my German competency — “in Yiddish?”

My English accent stopped her in her tracks. “We don’t eat rösti,” she responded, referring to the Swiss potato cakes. “We eat latkes.”

Such were the pitfalls — some expected, others not — of reporting in a Yiddish environment without speaking the language, an experience that at times felt like trying to eat with my hands tied behind my back. It was possible, if messy, but with clear limitations.

A bakery in a Yiddish-speaking neighborhood of Melbourne.Credit…Christina Simons for The New York Times

“Ikh red nisht keyn Yiddish” — “I don’t speak Yiddish” — could get me some of the way, as could “yo” (yes) and “nein” (no). But more challenging phrases presented great difficulty, as did puzzling out the jokes and stories of my Yiddish-speaking sources.

After learning that I had grown up in New Zealand, Dr. Doodie Ringelblum, 60, an attendee who teaches secular bar and bat mitzvah courses, said something inscrutable that seemed to be poking fun at New Zealand. I must have looked lost because he repeated himself in English. “My sympathies,” he said, before returning to Yiddish to explain that he had worked in a small town there that had more churches than pubs.

The idiom passed me by, but I got the gist: He would not be rushing back to New Zealand.

Exhausted with the effort of communicating, and awed by the participants’ competence and commitment, my emotions ran high. At a lunch, I asked Ms. Mrocki to poll attendees in their teens and early 20s: Who intended to speak the language with their children and grandchildren?

Their arms shot into the air, and I was surprised to find myself tearing up.

It was only after the retreat, over more than a dozen interviews that sometimes lasted hours, that the colossal nature of their task — preserving Yiddish and its institutions — really sank in.

Josh Reuben, a 27-year-old Yiddish teacher, had battled bureaucracy to study the language throughout high school and college. Daniel Goldberg, 27, and his father had spent part of their coronavirus lockdown taking a high school course together in the language. He was also, he said, compiling a dictionary of Australian Yiddish words — including “keshene-khaye” (pocket animal) for “marsupial.” And Ms. Mrocki had raised her children with the language, even when they proved extremely resistant.

She described the rage of her daughter as a toddler: “English, Mame! English! English!” the child would cry. What did Ms. Mrocki do? “I kept on speaking Yiddish to her,” she said.

About a month after the retreat, I rang Dr. Ringelblum for an interview. I began my spiel before he broke in, with a laugh. “I’m not used to hearing you speak in English,” he said.

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