Ear­li­er this week, Dr. Han­nah S. Press­man wrote about when she first began to study Yid­dish. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The three of us wait­ed expec­tant­ly and some­what ner­vous­ly in the sem­i­nar room, won­der­ing why we had been sum­moned by our pro­fes­sor. Nu, what was going on – why the spe­cial meet­ing?

I glanced over at my class­mates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, stud­ied at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, and went on to a suc­cess­ful career as an edi­tor for IDF Radio and tele­vi­sion news. Like me, she was now pur­su­ing doc­tor­al work in Hebrew lit­er­a­ture. Lara Rabi­novitch grew up in Toron­to and attend­ed McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. She was enrolled joint­ly in Jew­ish Stud­ies and his­to­ry, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, and had stud­ied Eng­lish and Reli­gious Stud­ies at UVA.

Three stu­dents from very dif­fer­ent places, meet­ing week­ly to debate history’s impact on Yid­dish cul­tur­al expres­sion. Dur­ing our explo­ration of Yid­dishism in the 20th Cen­tu­ry” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture, the Yid­dish press, spelling reform (quite a con­tentious sub­ject!), and the language’s role in Israel, Amer­i­ca, and Cold War pol­i­tics.

Final­ly, Pro­fes­sor Gen­nady Estraikh came into the room and revealed his rea­son for con­ven­ing us: he want­ed us to plan a grad­u­ate stu­dent con­fer­ence about Yid­dish, fea­tur­ing the new gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars in the field. The even­tu­al con­fer­ence, Yid­dish / Jew­ish Cul­tures: Lit­er­a­ture, His­to­ry, Thought in East­ern Euro­pean Dias­po­ras,” was held at NYU in late Feb­ru­ary of 2006. Atten­dees came from as far as Fin­land, Italy, Poland, Jerusalem, and Cape Town to speak on pan­els with names like Per­form­ing Yid­dish Iden­ti­ties” and Dias­poric Expres­sions.”

With a klezmer band ser­e­nad­ing us at the conference’s con­clud­ing recep­tion, we toast­ed our hard work. How­ev­er, the end of the con­fer­ence was only the begin­ning of a six-year process to grap­ple with the phe­nom­e­non of new schol­ar­ship on Yid­dish.

In the ensu­ing years, Lara, Shiri, and I con­tin­ued the debates we had begun in Pro­fes­sor Estraikh’s sem­i­nar, argu­ing about the evo­lu­tion of Yid­dish Stud­ies and its con­tem­po­rary mean­ing both in acad­e­mia and in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Grad­u­al­ly, the NYU sem­i­nar table was replaced by Skype and con­fer­ence calls; we each left New York one by one, head­ing to New Haven, Los Ange­les, and Seat­tle. Mar­riages were made and babies were born, some­times appear­ing wide-eyed on com­put­er screens as we tele­con­fer­enced across the coun­try. We each wrapped up our respec­tive degrees and con­tin­ued to talk (and talk, and talk) about Yid­dish.

It is a con­ver­sa­tion that I hope to con­tin­ue for a very long time.

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.