Yiddish buffs from near and far shlep to Millbrae

Phil Kutner calls them “virtual shtetls” — the 100 Yiddish clubs around the world, with some 4,000 members kibitzing in person or online, keeping the Mamaloshen alive.

For more than 20 years from his home in San Mateo, Kutner has been a driving force with the International Association of Yiddish Clubs, both as a founding delegate and as the macher behind Der Bay, an Anglo-Yiddish newsletter he publishes monthly.

Add one more feather in his Yiddishe kop. Kutner, 83, will serve as master of ceremonies for the 13th IAYC conference, a four-day gathering starting Friday, April 23 at the Westin San Francisco Airport in Millbrae. It’s the first time the event has been held in Northern California, and Kutner is expecting scores of club delegates from across North America, Israel, South Africa and Spain.

Kutner and his IAYC colleagues booked what he says will be an interesting lineup of speakers and workshop leaders. The general idea is to mix learning with freilach (joy), so several entertainers will perform as well.

Yiddish conference chair Phil Kutner displays an old family photo in his newly published book, “Hrabina of Huntingdon.”

Speakers include Zachary Baker of the Stanford University Judaica library, Joel Schechter of San Francisco State University, Yiddish professor Chava Lapin of Queens College in New York, and Sheva Zucker, a Yiddish professor, author and translator.

One guest speaker, Yosiji Hirose, is a Yiddish expert from Japan.

Performers include singer Cindy Paley from the San Fernando Valley, local klezmer favorite Gerry Tenney, Yiddish dance expert Ruth Botchan of Berkeley and the Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco.

But the real stars of the show are the attendees: lovers of Yiddish who collectively form a center of linguistic gravity.

“We fall into three categories,” Kutner says of the IAYC membership. “Academia and native speakers; people who have taken a few courses or were raised on [Yiddish] but not fluent. Then a third are beginners.”

Kutner is no beginner. As a kid in Harlem and later New Jersey, he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home. As an adult he lost touch with the language, becoming a high school and university earth sciences teacher. Two decades ago, however, his interest was rekindled, and he began studying Yiddish anew.

He also started Der Bay (The Bay), which over the years has grown from one printed sheet into a 16-page newsletter and a Web-based monthly (it includes a calendar of club events and a pen-pal pool of nearly 500 Yiddish enthusiasts). He is also active with the National Yiddish Book Center and the Workmen’s Circle.

Like Yiddish speakers of old, the debate continues over which dialect is the most authentic: Litvak or Galitzianer. But Kutner says the debate has calmed down since a  standard Yiddish, with more Galitzianer grammar and more Litvak pronunciation, emerged in the 1930s.

The odds have been stacked against Yiddish over the last 100 years. Hitler wiped out vast numbers of native speakers. Migration to the United States and assimilation further decimated the number. And though Yiddish lives on as a daily language in small Chassidic communities, Hebrew began dominating as the language of many Jews, especially in Israel, of course.

But not entirely.

There’s a “big push” to learn Yiddish among young people in Israel, Kutner says. “Three universities teach Yiddish. Bar-Ilan University has 10 Yiddish instructors, and 57 [Israeli] high schools teach Yiddish as a second language. You also have the entire Chassidic community, where everybody speaks Yiddish.”

In the Bay Area, U.C. Berkeley regularly offers a Yiddish class and has done so for the last six years.

The klezmer revival has done a lot to crank up the interest in Yiddish language and culture; even Yiddish theater is on the rise again.

The 2000 census counted nearly 179,000 speakers of Yiddish in the United States — and the U.S. Census Bureau made some news recently by providing informational materials in Yiddish (visit www.tinyurl.

com/y2qno4f for a Yiddish explanation on how to fill out the census form).

The Bay Area is home to IAYC clubs in San Francisco, Contra Costa County, Santa Rosa and beyond, some meeting as often as twice a month. Kutner describes three kinds of Yiddish clubs: the shraybkrayz is for the most fluent. Then there is the leyenkrayz (reading circles). And for beginners there is the shmoozekrayz.

“It’s easier to do it in larger cities like L.A. and the Bay Area,” he says. “Our clubs average 25 to 50 members, with some as large as 650 and some as small as 10.”

Of course, when the club members gather, sometimes they get stumped on vocabulary. Being that Yiddish evolved around 1,000 years ago, it isn’t always totally up to date. That’s when the club members get creative.

“We have Yinglish,” Kutner says. “The Yiddish word for computer is ‘computer.’ ”

The 13th Conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs takes place Friday, April 23 to Monday, April 26 at the Westin San Francisco Airport, 1 Old Bayshore Highway, Millbrae. Information: www.derbay.org/millbrae.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.