Dr. Han­nah S. Press­man is the co-edi­tor, with Lara Rabi­novitch and Shiri Goren, of Choos­ing Yid­dish: New Fron­tiers of Lan­guage and Cul­ture. She is the edi­tor of stroum​jew​ish​stud​ies​.org and affil­i­ate fac­ul­ty for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington’s Stroum Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

When I first began study­ing Yid­dish, I felt like I was remem­ber­ing some­thing I already knew.

It was a love­ly sen­sa­tion, this feel­ing at home in a lan­guage I was still acquir­ing. There I was, bare­ly a few weeks into my first sum­mer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Wein­re­ich Pro­gram, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yid­dish — not per­fect­ly, but hap­pi­ly. Rel­ish­ing my new­found abil­i­ties, I absorbed vocab­u­lary lists, salu­ta­tions, and songs, delight­ed to be able to talk about the weath­er or kvetch (com­plain) about an injury in Yid­dish.

Grant­ed, I’ve always had some­what of a knack for learn­ing lan­guages. Gram­mar and syn­tax just fall into place for me. I also under­took my Yid­dish stud­ies armed with flu­en­cy in Hebrew, a def­i­nite advan­tage when it came to the alpha­bet and loshn-koy­desh (holy tongue) com­po­nents of Yid­dish.

How­ev­er, I had nev­er heard any­thing close to a flu­ent con­ver­sa­tion in Yid­dish pri­or to that first YIVO sum­mer. I had heard a smat­ter­ing of Yid­dish words and phras­es grow­ing up, the typ­i­cal excla­ma­tions about so-and-so’s mar­velous punim (face) and polkes (thighs), pro­tec­tions against the evil eye, and of course, food-relat­ed words. These were the lin­guis­tic traces left by the her­itage of my father’s fam­i­ly, Lit­vak shtetl-dwellers who migrat­ed to south­ern Africa at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

So how did I, Han­naleh (as my Yid­dish diminu­tive nick­name went), end up choos­ing to study Yid­dish? Part of it was sim­ple aca­d­e­m­ic neces­si­ty. I had just embarked upon doc­tor­al work in mod­ern Hebrew lit­er­a­ture at NYU. Ear­ly Hebrew writ­ers, ded­i­cat­ed cul­tur­al activists scat­tered among cities like Berlin, Odessa, War­saw, and even­tu­al­ly Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, were daz­zling­ly mul­ti-lin­gual and, in some cas­es, trans­lat­ed their own work from one lan­guage to the oth­er. Learn­ing Yid­dish was one way I could start to under­stand the var­ie­gat­ed world they inhab­it­ed.

Beyond the dis­ci­pli­nary use­ful­ness of Yid­dish, how­ev­er, I remem­ber hav­ing the dis­tinct feel­ing that some­thing big was hap­pen­ing with Yid­dish in the ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Among my cohort in Jew­ish Stud­ies at NYU, which includ­ed bud­ding his­to­ri­ans, anthro­pol­o­gists, philoso­phers, and lit­er­ary schol­ars, every­one was tak­ing Yid­dish. News­pa­pers start­ed report­ing on the increased inter­est in Yid­dish on col­lege cam­pus­es. Michael Wexs Born to Kvetch, detail­ing the lan­guage in all of its moods,” was New York Times best-sell­er.

More broad­ly, in the ear­ly 00’s, the cul­ture of East­ern Europe was hav­ing a moment. The klezmer revival evi­denced a grow­ing fan base for the musi­cal her­itage of East­ern Europe. And the suc­cess of Jonathan Safran Foers Every­thing is Illu­mi­nat­ed showed us, on the page (in 2002) and the sil­ver screen (in 2005), that read­ers were thirst­ing for a back-to-the-shtetl fan­ta­sy. Foer’s book artic­u­lat­ed our col­lec­tive com­pul­sion to return, retrace, and recre­ate the folk­ways of shtetl life — and, as this For­ward arti­cle explains, actu­al­ly result­ed in the recon­nec­tion of peo­ple who had lived in Trochen­brod, his grandfather’s shtetl in Ukraine.

By study­ing Yid­dish, singing songs about pota­toes, immers­ing myself in the world­view of Yid­dish speak­ers from bygone days, I too was part of this what­ev­er-it-was — a trend? A move­ment? A renais­sance?

Or maybe a home­com­ing, as it often felt when I opened up my note­book to write a Yid­dish com­po­si­tion for my teacher. Lit­tle did I know, as I con­ju­gat­ed my first Yid­dish verbs on a warm sum­mer day in 2003, that this incred­i­bly heimish (homey) lan­guage, which seemed to fit me like a sec­ond skin, would even­tu­al­ly become the focus of a major aca­d­e­m­ic project — but that is a sub­ject for anoth­er blog post.

Check back here all week for more posts from Dr. Han­nah Press­man.