Yiddish lands with a bang at Sonoma County festival

Anyone who says Yiddish is a dead language must not have been in Cotati last weekend for Yiddishland.

Reb Irwin Keller teaches children to say “bukh” in Yiddish. photo/shoshana hebshi

Held over two days at Congregation Ner Shalom, the first-time festival included everything from a performance by the North Bay’s own “Yiddish Cowboy” to slices of sour cream coffee cake to a lesson on Yiddish cursing.

About 300 people, along with more than 20 entertainers and educators, attended, prompting one of the organizers, Reb Irwin Keller, spiritual leader of Ner Shalom, to say that Yiddishland will surely be back again next year.

“In our community,” Keller said, “there’s been more interest in Yiddish than ever before.”

The event was divided into an “Evening of Yiddish Performance” on Nov. 15 and a “Yiddish Cultural Festival” during the day on Nov. 16. At both, there was an overwhelming feeling of people connecting with their roots.

The Nov. 15 festivities featured music from Sonoma County’s own Mama Loshn and performances by juggler-playwright Sara Felder, “Yiddish Cowboy” Scott Gerber and the Jubilee Klezmer Ensemble. The event sold out of more than 200 seats, and organizers had to turn away people at the door in order not to violate the fire code.

The next day, 11 free workshops were held in three sessions between 12:30 and 4 p.m. All the while, there were Old Country–inspired foods to be eaten, musical interludes to be enjoyed, and two ongoing activities, “Mapping Your Roots” and “Yiddish Lives,” to help connect the generations.

In the “Mapping Your Roots” program, Gesher Calmenson helps Susan Richter trace her lineage. photo/shoshana hebshi

Gesher Calmenson, who, with the help of Keller, came up with the idea of Yiddishland, facilitated the mapping activity by encouraging people to draw a line on the map from their family’s origin in Eastern Europe to the United States and the Bay Area.

Calmenson, whose first language was Yiddish, said most American Jews can trace their roots back only two generations. “It became clear,” he said, “that everyone’s question was, ‘Who am I and how did I get here?’ ”

Added Keller: “Our ancestors arrived at Ellis Island … and they severed everything that would remind them of the generations of persecution they had endured.”

That decision, Keller continued, left the next generation of American Jews with little or no memory of the rich Yiddish ancestry that cultivated learning, art, music and writing.

For the “Yiddish Lives” oral history activity, Eric Edelstein set up a video camera to capture interviews with Yiddish speakers.

Edelstein, who has interviewed more than 100 people for his Yiddish Lives project, said the task is not only about preserving a language and history, but also about breaking down barriers. “This is how people think, how people feel,” he said. “I am recording the last breaths. I feel a lot of personal pressure to record all Yiddish speakers before they die.”

If Keller has anything to do with it, Yiddish isn’t going anywhere. During his workshop teaching basic Yiddish words to children and their parents, he said Yiddish is easy because it sounds so much like English.

Sonia Tubridy (on accordion) and Bruce Bierman (on microphone) lead a Yiddish dance lesson. photo/congregation ner shalom

Apple is epl, book is bukh, cat is katz — words so simple that even the toddler in the room could say them.

“Yiddish is not a hard language to learn. It’s much easier to learn than Hebrew,” Keller said. “When you learn Yiddish there’s a lot that opens up to you in literature and history.”

Loretta Denner, who ran a workshop on comedy, grew up speaking Yiddish in New York. She said she enjoys the opportunity to speak Yiddish when she can, and she teaches Yiddish classes at the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County.

“It’s nice to know there are people who are interested,” she said.

At least one non-Jew came to Yiddishland on Nov. 16. Though Andrea Davis-Cetina of Sonoma Valley was raised Catholic, the 31-year-old organic vegetable farmer traces her roots to Jews in Eastern Europe, and she said she is attracted to anything Yiddish. “I enjoy it and want to support it as a language,” she said.

Gayle Farkas of Santa Rosa connected with her Yiddish heritage by making a collage in the art room. She grew up with Yiddish-speaking parents and siblings but had no interest in learning it then. She now sees it as a big part of Jewish tradition. “It’s very important to me,” she said.

Keller said he realized Yiddishland was going to be a success when he started asking performers and workshop leaders to participate. “Everyone said yes,” he said. “It suggests that this is something that is wanted deeply right at this moment.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.