Welcome to our series: Yiddish Teacher Spotlight! Throughout the year, we’ll interview as many of our Yiddish teachers as we can so the whole community can get to know them a little better.
Sasha Berenstein (she/they) is teaching the virtual section of Yiddish Beginner II this semester. Register for Yiddish classes today! Classes start the first week in February!
BWC: Can you tell us a little bit about why Yiddish is important to your life? And why do you like to teach Yiddish?
SB: I ask this kind of question at the beginning of all my beginner classes, and everyone always has their own story behind why they want to take a Yiddish class. My introduction to Jewish life was through the Lubavitch-Hasidic community which I found to be a very mixed bag. But one of the things that it gave me was a grounding in diaspora-based Ashkenazi culture, like the Hebrew that I learned was Ashkenazi Hebrew, the Jewish history that I learned was mainly centered around Hasidic Jewry and the history of the Baal Shem Tov, and the Alter Rebbe and the Frierdiker Rebbe, all the different Lubavitcher rebbes. When I was then exposed later to other, mainstream, Jewish communities, suddenly it felt like, you know, my Hebrew was wrong. That the centuries of Ashkenazi history that I learned about and was really grounded in just didn’t exist.
My own family, my parents immigrated to Boston, actually from Moscow a year before I was born. And so, the language in my household was Russian, the language of my Jewish community starting out was Russian, but it felt like there was this kind of background of Yiddish. There were a lot of Yiddish words that I learned later that I assumed were English. I thought shabes shluf was an English phrase until embarrassingly late! It was this abstract background thing that I didn’t really learn about until I was around 14-15 years old. Before that, the only good phrase I knew was my dad saying, “Kish mir tukhes und zay gezunt.”
Aaron Lansky, his book Outwitting History kind of changed my life. I learned reading that book that there is this enormous Yiddish cultural heritage, that I wasn’t taught about, and some of the reasons behind why I wasn’t taught about it. I realized more and more that this is something that is mine – that belongs to my family, but was taken from us, that was taken from me, and it felt like a way for me to really connect to that Jewish Ashkenazi core that is at the center of my being. When I was 18, I learned about Yiddish Vokh and it felt like home. I went back three additional times after that, and got connected to other Yiddish communities, including Yiddish Farm which I went to for a couple of weeks at one point.
I had kind of a back-of-my-mind dream of teaching Yiddish one day, and helping others rediscover the Yiddish heritage that was taken from them as well. It wasn’t until 2018, when I came out as transgender/nonbinary, and I had more and more friends interested in Yiddish, especially after 2016 when there was this political explosion of interest in the bund and Yiddish anarchists. People seeking Jewish connection, connected to liberatory struggles that is also independent of, at times counter to the Jewish establishment. As is common with queer and trans folks, before I even came out to myself I subconsciously sought out people that I felt comfortable with and people who I could connect with, around our shared Jewish and trans identities. Those friends of mine were increasingly interested in Yiddish. I never made my Yiddishism a secret from anyone, whether they liked it or not. But there was this barrier that kept getting hit – this wall – how do I talk about myself in a way that’s not gendered? Masculine, feminine? How do I talk about my transgender identity? Are there nonbinary pronouns that I can use? What are gender-neutral terms for these family terms? So I reached out to my friend Arun Viswanath through Yiddish Vokh. I asked him, when’s the trans and non-binary Yiddish Words of the Week coming out? He pointed out that nobody on the board was trans or nonbinary and that it would be important for someone from the community to lead such a project. So I asked my networks, what are important words that you would want to know in another language, especially Yiddish and with the translation help of Arun and others I put together a lexicon that is now famous, apparently!
The next logical step from there was teaching it to folks and teaching Yiddish to trans, non-binary, and queer people who want to feel that they’re in a safe environment and not the only trans or queer person in the room – they’re among people who are like them and they can learn from a teacher who knows how to talk about these things. I love to share those experiences, and create those spaces – helping queer, trans, and non-binary folks choose Yiddish names and pronouns for themselves has been one of the greatest honors of my life.
BWC: If you’ve taught both in person and on Zoom, can you talk a little bit about what’s different in those two settings? Do you have a preference for one or the other?
SB: I started out teaching in person with teaching a class through the Seattle Central College, which was in the senior series program – a Yiddish history through music class, which was more cultural. And then I started picking up more Yiddish language classes. I started teaching the queer Yiddish class through Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle in fall of 2019, shortly before the pandemic, so suddenly all my things had to go online. Luckily before that I was actually teaching a couple of private lessons online as well so switching to zoom wasn’t that hard for me, and it actually helped me reach a lot more folks who would otherwise not have access to Yiddish or queer Jewish spaces.
Since then, I’ve only taught online, and I live in an immunocompromised household, so I don’t really know when it will be safe to do things in person like that again. Needing to participate virtually myself gave me some really important perspectives on how disabled folks and how immunocompromised and high risk folks are shut out of our society. Creating that space, so that high risk folks also have access to Yiddish is really important to me.
BWC: Can you share a Yiddish word or phrase with us that you’re particularly fond of or think it would be great if everyone knew?
SB: I’m really fond of the Yiddish pronoun ez, coined by Zohar Weiman-Kelman in 2008. My friend Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky told me about this when I went to Yiddish New York for the first time, very soon after coming out as trans. I had been compiling this Google Doc for about a month or less, and I got to Yiddish New York and I started just grabbing anyone who looked even remotely gender non-conforming or queer at the festival to have lunch and connect about queer Yiddish and trans and non-binary Yiddish. And that’s where I found out about ez as an alternative to zey. I will absolutely defend the zey pronoun as a singular in Yiddish with my life. I’m, a very strong believer that just because Yiddish has not had the same centuries long history of “they” as singular, Yiddish does have a rich history of absorbing the cultural and linguistic aspects of the surrounding languages into Yiddish. There are Yiddish plays in the 1930s where every third word is English, so why not have a singular zey in Yiddish? But, for a number of nonbinary Yiddish speakers and for me personally,singular grammar feels more comfortable and “authentically Yiddish” and ez became this word that translates in English to singular they – zey can be both plural they and singular they – ez is specifically singular they. Zohar made ez as a hybrid of er and zi. It’s a really cool pronoun.
There are lots of words in my lexicon (the aforementioned Google Doc), that were translated by other folks and I collected them. There was one word that I coined myself, the word for nibling: “Dos plimenits.” I love this word, it’s my baby.
BWC: Can you share a link to a favorite Yiddish song or performance our readers might enjoy? Let us know what you love so much about it!
This is a very difficult question to think about and to answer because, you know, what does favorite even mean? There are so many songs that have been so influential in my life. I mean, Daniel Kahn’s, Geoff Berner’s work has been really influential and there are a couple of songs of theirs that are just really important to me personally. The incredible song that I think I would like to use for this is Ale Vayber Megn Shtimen (All Women Can Vote) by Isabel Frey. The history of the song is really, really cool, and is very in line with Yiddish music history in general. This was a Yiddish theater song about the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that granted women the right to vote, it was written by Rubin Doctor as a parody of the suffragette movement. But then it was adapted by Clara Gould, who was also a Yiddish theater singer, to be a feminist song. And then Isabel Frey, 100 or so years later, took that song, and re-adapted it to be less about the liberal feminism of the suffragette movement, she added this verse that is incredible:
“And now 100 years have passed and see where it has brought us?
Women in boards of companies, in Parliaments and startups.
But what have wealthy women done for care workers and migrants? It’s time to change our strategy, and work to fight all tyrants!”
Brilliant on so many levels, because not only is it saying liberal feminism isn’t enough, we need to actually think about liberation. We need to think in more broad ways – actually targeting the systems and power structures that are oppressive to all women and to all people, but also it does it in a way that is so in line with the Yiddish musical tradition of, for instance, taking non-Jewish music and turning it into a Jewish song or taking older Jewish music and turning it into a new Jewish song. Those are the reasons I love this song!