Years ago I stumbled onto a book called "Radiotext(e)," an anthology of essays about the early years of radio. The book was both fascinating and frustrating, as it detailed a wildly experimental era of radio. Because the medium had not developed, had not been monetized, had not been corporatized, radio could be anything that involved the transmission of sound.
This was not the radio I grew up with, for the most part. There were a few eccentricities here and there, from rebroadcasts of radio dramas to the novelty songs found on Dr. Demento's show. But radio had cycled its way down to a decreasing collection of options, including top-40s pop music, very serious newscasts, and, most awfully, the rising popularity of right wing talk radio.
I don't know how long it will last, but this moment, now, the early years of podcasting, recalls the madly experimental early era of radio. I listen to a lot of podcasts, hungrily, thrilled by the variety, the recklessness, the sheer abandon of it all.
So you can imagine I was thrilled to discover a Yiddish podcast recently. Not just Yiddish -- Yiddish and explicitly feminist, called Vaybertaytsh. I can't imagine how large or how small the audience for such a podcast might be, but, then, one of the great pleasures of podcasting is that this need not be a concern. If you wish, you can narrowcast to as small an audience as you wish to reach. How many feminists speak enough Yiddish to enjoy such a program? 100? 1,000? Well, that's the audience, along with anyone else who wishes to listen.
I'm the audience, to an extent. I certainly support the show's feminism, although my Yiddish is just barely good enough for me to catch the drift of what is being discussed on the show. No matter -- my Yiddish will get better, and I can always go back and relisten to the show as it improves, and follow more of the discussion.
I reached out to the creator of the show, Sandy Fox, to discuss Vaybertaytsh.
First, could I get some background on you. I gather from your bio that you're a PhD candidate in American Jewish history at New York University, and that, delightfully, you have studied summer camps. But can you fill me in on a little more of your bio, especially how you got to be interested in Yiddish and where you learned?
I got into Yiddish by accident: I had to take a department exam in a relevant research language, and I had just started to think of changing fields from Israel studies to American Jewish history when my friend Naftali Ejdelman started urging me to spend time on his farm in upstate New York -- Yiddish Farm -- learning Yiddish intensively.
At the time I thought, okay, sounds like a pretty fun, charming way to learn Yiddish quickly, and to knock out this exam -- it’ll be sort of like going back to summer camp, which, of course, I’m always down for. In those two weeks at Yiddish Farm, I fell in love with the language quite unexpectedly, and the interest grew from there. That was three and a half years ago.
How did you come up with the idea for the podcast, and how does goes from idea to actually being a podcast. Is there much of it that is scripted in advance?
I came up with the idea from the podcast because I love podcasts, plain and simple. I don’t just listen to them, though: I sit and dissect them, thinking about what I like or don’t like about the sounds, transitions, voices, and formats. I've wanted to make something in Yiddish for a while now, and I suppose I just naturally gravitated to my favorite medium.
I’ve taken all of the stuff I’ve learned from listening and attempted to combine the good parts of my favorite podcasts to make Vaybertaytsh’s sound and format work for me. (For podcast listeners who are curious, Vaybertaytsh’s sound is most inspired by “Death, Sex, and Money,” “The Heart,” and “Strong Opinions Loosely Held.” I also aim to interview like Terri Gross, but of course that’s an extremely high bar that practically no one can meet). In terms of scripting, I don’t script much in advance, but I do have notes to keep the order in check.
I am interested in particular in your decision to do the podcast entirely in Yiddish. I don't know that I have any specific questions, but it seems to me that you probably have some thoughts on the subject, and I'd be curious to hear those.
There was no question in my mind that this podcast had to be entirely in Yiddish. I’d love to make another podcast someday in English, but in that imaginary scenario, that podcast would probably have little or nothing to do with Yiddish, because I’m just not interested in talking about Yiddish in English. I’m interested in using Yiddish to talk about the world around us, our lives, relationships, histories. That’s how, I believe, a language moves forward.
Your podcast is explicitly feminist. Can you discuss that a little, and discuss how feminism informs your use of Yiddish and your choice of subjects for discussion, as well as how Jewish history and Yiddish inform your feminism? I know there is a long history of Jewish feminism, but I am curious to know if there are explicitly feminist Yiddish models you are drawing from.
Being a Yiddishist and a feminist are two crucial elements of my identity. As I said before, I really didn’t want to make a Yiddish-speaking podcast about Yiddish, so I thought about what I would want to talk about week after week, and how the podcast could be, in some small way, contributing to making this world more just. Combining the two interests and identities seemed rather obvious.
Getting involved in Yiddish has strengthened my feminist resolve, for at least two reasons: firstly, Yiddish led me back into more Orthodox spaces and social situations (mainly at the farm, and in the social extension of the farm in NYC), and though I am fairly observant, I’m committed to egalitarian Judaism for feminist reasons. Facing orthodoxy again after many years (my parents tried orthodoxy on when I was a pre-teen) brought my feminism above the surface.
Secondly, I noticed a certain gender dynamic when I first started learning Yiddish among a lot of the younger Yiddishists I know. Most of my most fluent friends, the people who have been learning or speaking Yiddish for a longer amount of time, are men. My teachers have also been, by and large, male. I found that sys-men's voices were being heard more often than those of sys-women and transfolk. I want to be clear that I’m not pointing fingers -- I love my guy friends who speak Yiddish, and have learned so much from them.
The disparity probably stems from a broader trend of men being more interested in the nitty-gritty of languages. Men are more likely to be hyperpolyglots, too, according to some research I’ve seen. I want Vaybertaytsh to be a space for women, and for feminists more broadly (anyone, regardless of gender identity, can participate, as long as they are interested in creating what can loosely be defined as feminist content) to speak unselfconsciously and be heard, partly to even out that dynamic.
You mentioned your accent in an interview I read, and it struck me that you don't seem to be attempting any sort of classic Yiddish accent, but instead are speaking Yiddish with your own American accent. I like this fact, because as far as I am concerned any accent used by a Yiddish speaker becomes a de facto Yiddish accent, but I wonder if you have any comments on the subject?
Recording alone is a very strange experience. I’ve found that it is extremely hard to put on an accent in a room alone by myself. When I speak to someone else in a natural conversation who does have an accent, I tend to speak a bit differently, a little less American. No matter what, though, I sound American, because I learned Yiddish from Americans who have American accents, even if they do a nice resh and speak a heymish dialect, even if they learned it from the home.
I wish I could tell you that my accent in the episodes stems from some big ideological decision on my part. Though I agree with you that an American accent has it's own legitimacy, I would be happy to have the ability to speak a bit differently. But when you put on an accent, you need someone to mimic. In Hebrew, I can turn on an Israeli accent when it comes in handy, because there’s this whole country of accents to emulate. Whose Yiddish accent can I mimic when 95% of the time I’m speaking to people who also have an American accent?
The thing is though: it's totally fine. Through all the editing and listening to my own voice, I’ve come to really like my Yiddish voice, American and imperfect as it may be. I think the show is making my Yiddish better, which is an added bonus. (I listen to my mistakes and re-record myself when possible, which turns out to be a great autodidactic practice). I hope future contributors and interviewees will also find that they love their own Yiddish voice, even with mistakes and American, Israeli, or any other "inauthentic" accents. It can be a very affirming exercise to just hear your voice and be cool with it.
The podcast is still very new, so I wonder if you have specific plans for the future of it, and to what extent is it an experiment, where you will discover what the podcast is in the process of making it?
It’s very much an experiment. I can tell right now that my personal interest lies interviews and conversations on specific themes, but I’m hoping that other people will bring different types of content to the table. Vaybertaytsh has several new episodes in the works right now, including some that are produced by other people (though I’ll still be introducing and editing them). I find that really exciting. I can’t wait to see what other people come up with!