So naturally, I was excited when Bruce Mitchell, a single father raising 4 Yiddish-speaking children near Worcester, MA, wrote to me this summer about starting a “Yiddish Playgroup for New England Families.” He had located a handful of young Yiddish-speaking families in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut and suggested we organize monthly playgroups in a central location. It would still mean driving 45 minutes or an hour to get there, but what a wonderful opportunity!
Our First Playgroup: A Rough Beginning
Our Second Playgroup: Betzalel Gets His Hair Cut
Our Third Playgroup: A Great Success
I had agreed in advance to bring a Yiddish picture book to read out-loud to everyone, and this led to a very poignant experience. By pure coincidence, our playgroup consisted of 7 boys and 1 girl, and the book that I brought in happened to be about a group of little girls and their mother (Keynmol Nisht Aleyn by Leyeles Mame, with illustrations by Rus Bafus). As soon as Bruce's daughter saw the book's cover – a large illustration of the female main character – she got visibly excited: “Look,” she said, “a girl who speaks Yiddish!” She immediately sat down and began reading the book with her father. Earlier this fall, I wrote in my blog about some problematic gender dynamics in Yiddish children's culture and about the efforts I've made to give female characters equal space in the songs and stories I share with my son. Now that I've noticed the severe gender imbalance within our own playgroup, I'm going to make special efforts to continue bringing books with strong female characters.
Another special moment was when we sang the Yiddish Chanukah songs that Bruce had written in advance on the chalkboard. Shira and Ken are both extremely musical, as am I and my wife, and our singalong quickly spiraled into a whole festival of song. Shira and Ken spontaneously shared Yiddish Chanukah songs that they knew, and Rachel and I shared some Yiddish songs of our own, including a Yiddish translation of “America the Beautiful” and a beloved Yiddish children's song about butterflies by the late Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman. Then Bruce took out a book of holiday sheet music, including a Yiddish Chanukah song that none of us knew before – “Hekher Vi Tsvey Toyznt Yor” (More Than Two Thousand Years). Ken sight-sang it from the sheet music, then we all sang it together, and then Ken recorded it on Bruce's computer so that we could later listen to it at home and learn it in time for the holidays. Though we had organized this group for our children, I dare say we parents had a good time ourselves!
Creating an Environment Where Children Need to Speak Yiddish
As Adam Beck has written on his blog, Bilingual Monkeys, most kids won't speak their minority language unless they feel an acute need to do so. It sounds so simple, yet it's notoriously hard to get kids to feel this need, especially once they go to school and discover that all of their friends speak the majority language. Of the “96 Things You Can Do Today To Boost Your Child's Bilingual Ability” listed by Beck on his website, over 60 deal with simply getting your child to actively use their language.
I will never forget my first summer going to the annual Yiddish Vokh (Yiddish Week) retreat in Reiserstown, MD (now in Copake, NY), where approximately 150 kids and adults hang out for a week entirely in Yiddish. As I was walking through the lobby of our retreat center one night, I noticed a little kid on the floor crying and holding his butt, while another little kid stood triumphantly over him. When I asked them what happened, the triumphant kid announced that he'd caught his friend speaking English, so he hit him, to which his victim cried in response: “I didn't! I spoke Yiddish! I swear! Only Yiddish!” I'm not advocating violence, and this scene was painful to witness. But it opened my eyes to a world that I didn't know existed, a world where kids not only speak Yiddish, but where they need to speak Yiddish, want to speak Yiddish, and even pressure each other to do so. Without that need, desire, and peer pressure, how can we expect our kids to use and master their minority language(s)?
This is why it's so important that our Yiddish-speaking children forge friendships with other Yiddish-speaking children and that they have frequent, ongoing opportunities to play together in Yiddish, even if we have to drive an hour each way to get to a central location. It places them in an atmosphere where they are not only required to speak Yiddish, but where they actually feel peer pressure to do so. It creates a world for them where Yiddish is not just the language that their parents insist they speak at home, but also a language of friendship, a language that they use to hang out with their friends – a language that their friends expect them to use and that they expect their friends to use. I'm so grateful to my friend Bruce Mitchell for initiating these first three meetings of our playgroup, and I'm looking forward to many more in the months and years ahead.