Audiobook: The Yiddish Radio Project

It's been a little while since NPR produced The Yiddish Radio Project -- 14 years precisely, as the show debuted in 2002. In that time, we've lost a few of the voices from the show. Clara Bagelman, better known as one of the Barry Sisters, passed away in 2014. Actor  Eli Wallach, who provided the English-language versions of some of the Yiddish excerpts, died the same year. Herta Freiberg, one of the interview subjects for the show, died in 2007. So I feel like I'm coming to the project a little late, although, thankfully, the program still has its website up. 

It was a project that seemed designed to produce satellite projects. I could listen to an entire show about Rabbi Rubin's Court of the Air, which sounds like a primitive version of Judge Judy with a slightly more reasonable judge (Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Rubin) and a considerably more emotional litigants. Instead of being a succession of court cases about unpaid cell phone bills, the disputes were rooted in the experience of being a collection of poor, recent residents of a new world, and the conflicts that develop with neighbors, friends, and especially family. The Yiddish Radio Project played an excerpt, and it was a decidedly farklemt fellow explaining that he wasn't supporting his mother financial because the woman was in a dispute with his wife. He had a thick New York accent and a strained quality, as though the whole experience had just left him frazzled, and Rabbi Rubin, chastising him in Yiddish, insisted he pay his mother, but also advised her to be nicer to her daughter-in-law.

A lot of the shows sound like they were dramas of the everyday experience, amped up to somewhat hysterical levels, which is an experience many Jews will know all too well from their own domestic experiences growing up, where little nothings could quickly turn into screaming matches. There were the soap operas of Nahum Stutchkoff, which traded in shame, betrayal, and often seemed to end with people screaming and sobbing. There was C. Israel Lutsky, the Jewish Philosopher, who, at least in temperament, also calls to mind Judge Judy, as we would often respond to letters by angrily shouting at the letter-writer.

I mean, I'd listen to more of this, if it had been made available. I suppose one day, when my Yiddish is better, I will have to camp out at the YIVO archives, or wherever there are stacks of transcription records from Yiddish radio, and just listen.

What's available is a lot of fun, though, even if it is necessarily brief. The show is as obsessed with the novelty song "Joe and Paul" as I am, and offers a detailed breakdown of its origin, as well as translating the song's machine-gun Yinglish. They spend some time with the still-popular Barry Sisters, nee Bagelman, who were the longest-lasting and perhaps only legacy of the popularity of "Bei Mir Bistu Shein" when it was recorded as a swing version by the Andrews Sisters. The Barrys demonstrated just how easily traditional Yiddish music could be revised as tight-harmony popular jazz, and vice versa, and I imagine there were plenty of Barry Sister knockoffs, but have not found any. Here, too, I want more, and more is not forthcoming. 

The closest we have is Seymour Rexite, who performed rather stripped-down, pleasingly crooned versions of popular standards, translated into Yiddish, and there were apparently thousands of his songs recorded -- in his house, and he'd play them for you if you went by. Rexrite also died, in 2002, and what happened to those recordings? He even released albums, but they have not, as far as I can tell, been digitized. You can hear some snippets of him singing on the Yiddish Radio Project's website, but, as far as I can tell, that's it, but for some things on YouTube. Here's his version of Misirlou, and it's just marvelous.

I know where this is leading, but I'm not ready to go down that path yet. I can't expect others to do the work for me. If I want to listen to Yiddish-inflected jazz, I am going to have to start to scour record stores and eBay for records, and they I am going to have to digitize them myself. Whatever my curiosity about Yiddish, if I continue down this path, it's going to turn me into an archivist and documentarian, because if not me, who?

But I've been at this three months. I can barely string a sentence together in Yiddish. It's a little early to ask me to commit my life to rounding up party records by Jewish comics, novelty records by Yiddish bands, and swing albums by Yiddish singers.

But the demand is there. It isn't overt, but it's there nonetheless. It's implicit, and it is implicitly saying: You like this? Go find some more of it.

All right, all right, stop bullying. I give. Sheesh.


Week 12: Dirty Yiddish Flipbook

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 86 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 38 hours
I have reviewed 1,129 individual flashcards
Correct learning: 70.28%
Correct young: 76.68%
Correct mature: 79.94%

I had a strange experience yesterday morning. When I woke up Yiddish words and phrases were just popping into my head. It was like my memory had just chosen to dump all of these words into another place and was cycling through them. This went on for about an hour, and it made me feel a little bit like a machine, albeit a machine that is trying to teach itself Yiddish.

I also noticed a sudden leap forward in my ability to learn words. When I started, it usually took me a little while before I could remember a new word. Now I see it once and it usually sticks for a while. This has not yet started to happen with anything else -- memorizing an entire sentence is still a lot of work for me, for example, and I still struggle to remember older words. But I feel like my brain is starting to teach itself how to learn a language.

I've experienced this before. I was a dance instructor years ago, and when I started, it would take hours of practice for me to learn new steps. Then, after a few months, I just started picking them up. I'd see a dance move and could duplicate it, and did not struggle to remember it. I've also done some theater, and, at the start, it was very hard for me to learn dialogue, and then, after a while, I just started to absorb the dialogue. Despite my having studied language quite a bit in the past, I don't recall ever having the experience of just seeing a new word and having it automatically enter my vocabulary.

We will see, though. One of the things that the Anki flashcard system does well is track what percent of words you remembered correctly, for words you are newly learning, words that you have studied for a while, and words that have been pushed to the back of the deck because you've demonstrated a comfort with (categorized as "learning," "young," and "mature" respectively.) I have added these stats to the top of the page, and, if I am genuinely learning how to learn a language, we should see the percent going up in each category.

Next week will be the end of my third month of studying Yiddish, and I will be curious to gauge my progress. I fond myself understanding a lot more of the headlines in the Yiddish Daily Forward, and I listened to an audio recording of a Sholem Aleichem story last night and was started to discover that, while I could not really follow the story, I got a sense of some of its shape -- who the characters were, where they were, how they related to each other, etc. A month ago it was all just babble.

A quick note: I have started work on one of my side quests, learning Yiddish curse words. I have plugged in about 30 words from "Talk Dirty Yiddish" by Ilene Schneider, which was an interesting process. Firstly, like a lot of American books about Yiddish, it uses Roman characters, and so it took me quite a while to figure out what the actual words were in Yiddish characters. A number of Yiddish curses come from Hebrew, such as "ben kalba," which literally means "son of a bitch." Additionally, Yiddish speakers tend to pronounce Hebrew a little idiosyncratically, so a word like "am ha'aretz," which means "people of the land" in Hebrew, becomes "amoretz" in Yiddish. So there was more than a little detective work required to create flashcards for these words.

Additionally, I wound up with a lot of words for obscene things, albeit treated a bit gingerly in Yiddish: words for women's privates include "down there" and "knish," the latter being a food. But you try to find appropriate images for the flashcard. So it is that an entire section of my Yiddish flashcard has essentially become a dirty flip book.


Week 11: Dress British, Think Yiddish

 The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 79 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 35 hours
I have reviewed 1,028 individual flashcards

I bought a new iPod on Friday. I have been using a relatively old iPhone for my studies, and it was not ideal. The memory was rapidly filling up, while the battery inevitably went kaput after a short while. The programs I used weren't happy with the phone's operating system or speed. I knew I was going to reach the end of what the phone could do relatively quickly, and so it was time for something new. I chose an iPod because, without all the space required for the phone, the device is able to make use of an enormous amount of memory, and it's a pleasure to use -- it just speeds along through all my tasks.

I suppose the project should now be called iPod Yiddish, but, honestly, the device doesn't matter. And I might change the name down the road anyway to something else as this project evolves. The first name I give a blog always seems like a placeholder for an eventual name I must give it.

I also bought a FitBit, which is neither here nor there, except that I can now track how much I walk. But the result of the FitBit is that I will be walking more, and so I will be listening to audiobooks. I took an hour-long walk last night and listened to several chapters of "The Yiddish Radio Project: Stories from the Golden Age of Yiddish Radio." I will write about that when I finish the book, and will be glad to -- this blog was never intended to simply be a description of the process of learning Yiddish, but, more broadly, a document of my engagement with the language.

But, in the meanwhile, I spent some time last week gamifying my learning. It's a rough draft just now, and I will continue to adapt and add to it as I continue my studies, but for now this is what I have planned:


A prize for every one of these completed

1. Learn first 625 words
2. Learn 1000 most common words
3. Learn entire grammar book
4. Learn entire Yiddish crash course
5. Go through entire dictionary, learning cognates and useful words


A prize for the completion of all of these

1. Learn 20 swear words
2. Learn 20 Yiddish phrases
3. Learn 20 Yiddish songs
4. Do 20 blog entries


Some with prizes, some without

1. Read 10 books about Yiddish (prize)
2. Convert cell phone to Yiddish (no prize)
3. Label objects around house (no prize)
4. Watch five Yiddish movies (no prize)
5. Play three Yiddish games (no prize)
6. Tell the time in Yiddish 100 times (prize)
7. Learn the vowel names (prize)

I have not yet really figured out how to make use of leveling up in the way games do it, which isn't surprising, as we do not level up in life the way we do in games. We don't win a certain number of points, and then divvy them up, suddenly claiming new knowledge and abilities. Yiddish is not a spell I can suddenly perform because I have earned enough experience points to buy it.

But I don't want to abandon the concept of leveling up; I'm just not sure how to apply the concept to the real world. I will continue to think about it, though, as I think it is useful to mark when you have accomplished enough to move up to another level. Perhaps it is as simple as taking the language test to determine level of fluency.

Games also mark accomplishments in another way: When you achieve certain things, you get prizes, often in the form of little medals. I have decided to give myself prizes for accomplishment, and, in fact, have already given myself one as a reward for having completed the first 625 word of Yiddish.

I ordered myself an old button that says "Dress British, Think Yiddish." As I understand it, this was a fairly popular Madison Avenue expression back in the 60s, and translated as "dress mainstream, think nonmainstream." It's also a perfect button for me, as my genetic background is from Ireland and Great Britain and I tend to dress like it, but I'm very much a product of my Jewish upbringing. More than that, thanks to this project, I genuinely am starting to think in Yiddish.


Week 10: Mini-missions

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 72 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 31 hours
I have reviewed 950 individual flashcards

There doesn't seem to be anything nowadays that can't be gamified, and language learning is no different. So a lot of language blogs use phrases drawn from the world of video games to describe their progress, and one especially popular term is "leveling up."

I presume you have played video games in the past, as you are a human in the 21st century, but if not, here is what it means to level up: It generally means that you have reached a new level of accomplishment, and, with that, you generally gain increased abilities, or new abilities.

It seems likely that the first person to use the phrase in language learning was a fellow named Moses McCormick, who is responsible for a series of videos where he goes out and locates strangers who speak a language he is studying and then engages them in conversation. It's his version of leveling up that you most often find on blogs, but it isn't very useful to me. There just aren't that many places in Omaha where I can go and find someone who speaks Yiddish and then start talking to them.

But I am in the thick of the grind right now, which, come to think of it, is another word stolen from video games. In the game word, "grinding" is any repetitive task required to move forward. It's notoriously a little dull and frustrating, because it feels like forward momentum has halted. And that's very much how I feel now.

Mostly I'm just adding new words to my flashcards, and bit by bit adding to my vocabulary, and am adding sentences from a grammar book, and so am bit by bit learning how Yiddish constructs sentences. The end goal of this is to be able to say whatever I want in Yiddish, and understand what I hear and read. And that's a really long-term goal.

But a well-designed game has a few things built in to keep players from getting bored, and I think I am going to borrow one of these: The mini-mission, or mini-game. These are tasks that can be accomplished relatively quickly and are meant to be fun.

I mean, right now I have a learning program that has very few major objectives: Learn the 1,000 most common words, learn everything from a grammar book, learn a hundred or so common phrases, and then keep adding to my vocabulary, presumably forever. I have a sense of various stations of language competence, about what you need to know to reach those stations, and about how long it typically takes to get there, and that's it.

But there is a lot more to language than simply reaching certain levels of fluency. I've already gestured at one of these: wanting to understand Yiddish songs. And I have broken down a few songs into their constituent parts and started to learn them, and this is a pretty enjoyable mini-mission. It's not necessarily useful -- songs tend to be written differently than people speak, and so a line from a song might not work that well in spoken language, especially the more tortuous lyrics that bend over backwards to make a rhyme. But songs are they way I primarily interact with Yiddish just now, and so I'd like to understand them.

There is something else I have always wanted to do with language, and I think I will turn this into an occasional mini-mission: I want to be able to complain in Yiddish. More than that, I want to be able to cuss and curse in the language, which it is famously good at. Again, this is not necessarily something useful, as these are the sorts of thing you mutter under your breath, and even if I shouted them at someone else, they probably won't understand. But I like the idea of Yiddish as a private language to grouse in.

I will think of similar mini-missions in the next few weeks. When the grind starts to get a bit exhausting, it will help to have these.

I would also like to think about my own approach to leveling up. Because right now I am not working with easily identifiable levels, but instead this sort of endless continuum of fluency. But there are things I want to be able to do with language, and I need to identify those things, and then identify how I will know when I can do them. I've actually already accomplished a few of these sorts of things without planning to: I can name every day of the week, every month of the year, the four seasons, and all four cardinal directions.

I know that people are suffering from a sort of gamification exhaustion, as the term became so popular, and then was so misapplied, that for a while everything seemed to have been gamified in a manipulative and decidedly unfun manner. But I think the essential tools are still sound, and, at the very least, I hope to be able to use them to keep language learning entertaining and recapture the sense of forward momentum I had when I started this.


Week 9: ESL and language acquisition

The stats:

I have studied Yiddish for 65 days
I have studied Yiddish flashcards for a total of 27 hours
I have reviewed 846 individual flashcards

It's the grind all right. I continue to add to my Yiddish without gaining any appreciable understanding of the language. I suppose, like everything else worth doing, language acquisition is a discipline, and the discipline is that you continue to do it when the benefits aren't obvious.

There are stages of language acquisition. ESL teachers divide it up into four stages, as summarized by me below with the amount of time they average it takes.

1. Pre-production: (Six months) This is when you have so little language as to not be able to communicate in it as all, although you might have as many as 500 passive words that you understand. Thankfully, I am passed this stage.

2. Early production: (six months to one year) This involves an active vocabulary of about 1,000 words, and learners can speak short, one- or two-sentence phrases. They also have memorized chunks of language for everyday use. This is very much where I am now.

3. Speech emergence: (one to three years) This involves a vocabulary of about 3,000 words, and learners can communicate short stories, ask simple questions, engage in short conversations, and follow easy-to-read stories. I feel like I am close to reaching this point.

4. Intermediate fluency: (three to five years) This involves a vocabulary of about 6,000 words, and learners are able to construct more complex sentences, including expressing opinions. They can ask clarifying questions.

5. Advanced fluency: (five to seven years) Students at this stage are at near-native levels of fluency.

In the next few weeks, I'll have acquired about 1,000 words, which means I can expect to have a vocabulary of between 4,000 and 5,000 words by the end of my first year.

If I were in an ASL class, I would barely be in the pre-production stage, and would have four more months, on average, before I reached speech emergence. But I am certainly well past that point -- I have a detailed argument with myself about what accent I should be using the other day, and the argument was entirely in Yiddish, albeit almost certainly in broken Yiddish.

Nonetheless, this means I am well into the early production stage, and starting to tip toward the speech emergence stage, none of which is expected for another four months to a year. So, credit to this approach to learning language -- it does work quite quickly, even if it feels like it is crawling just now.

Of course, I can't actually know how well I am learning the language until I test it in actual communication. Once I reach a thousand words, I think I shall have to start seeking some sort of mechanism of communication. There are online sites designed specifically for this, such as conversation exchange, but I'm not finding much by way of Yiddish on these sites. I'll start looking into it in earnest this week.