Yiddishe maven (Yiddish expert) Joan Pohl of Winter Park and the support of the Jewish Pavilion are helping to bring it back.
Yiddish may be considered a dying language, but it’s been alive and well for the past two years in greater Orlando, thanks to a local teacher.
Yiddish, a mixture of German and Hebrew spoken by Eastern and Central European Jews before World War II, had already seen a steady decline before the war. According to the Pew Research Center, it’s endangered and at risk of becoming extinct. But Yiddishe maven (Yiddish expert) Joan Pohl of Winter Park and the support of the Jewish Pavilion are helping to bring it back.
Pohl can be found in a makeshift classroom at Chambrel Assisted Living Center on the third Thursday of each month surrounded by a crowd of seniors, eager to practice the Yiddish language during the one-hour “Nosh of Yiddish” class. The Jewish Pavilion sponsored and coordinated the course, providing the students, the snacks, and the helping hand of area program director Emily Newman.
Learning Yiddish can bring cultures together in more ways than just simple translation, she said.
“One word in Yiddish translated into English can mean so much more,” Pohl said.
Pohl’s spirited approach to teaching is a crowd pleaser, with ideas, smells and tastes flowing freely around the classroom on a recent Thursday.
“The Nosh of Yiddish” literally brings a taste of the Yiddish culture and language to the 15 to 20 students who attend the monthly class. Pohl, a retired speech pathologist, welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds. She noted that the class contained both fluent speakers and “curiosity seekers,” with the majority having some exposure to the Yiddish language. While most students are Chambrel residents, others have driven from surrounding areas, even as far away as the Villages, for the chance to communicate in a forgotten tongue.
Pohl differentiated her lesson to appeal to her students’ five senses, reaching the visual, tactile, and auditory learner. The taste of Yiddish was found in the rich and flaky almond cookies baked by Joan Pohl’s 80-year-old mother. Their buttery smell evoked memories of a warm and inviting kitchen that could have belonged to any of their grandmothers. Like most Jewish mothers, Pohl took great pleasure in feeding her guests.
“I always like to bring a nosh from my mom,” she said. “It’s like I’m bringing a part of her along with me.”
During the next 60 minutes, students saw, heard and manipulated Yiddish words and vocabulary. The class ended with a concert of traditional Yiddish- and Jewish-influenced music played by class participant and pianist, Mimi Shader.
Pohl grew up in New York and Miami, the child of two Holocaust survivors. Her grandmother, Rachel Kornicki, spoke Yiddish in the home while her parents were away at work. Pohl has fond memories of her Yiddish roots, and said she’s happy to have a skill that she can she share with the senior community.
“I love being able to see a senior recall old memories,” she said. “The languages we speak in our childhoods become some of our longest lasting memories. Students often become emotional or get tears in their eyes when they think of a word, expression, or memory that they haven’t accessed for many years.”
Pohl’s said her background in geriatric speech pathology helps her adapt to students of different ages and abilities.
“Because of my background, I know when to push a senior to help pull out a thought, and I also know when to stop and to give a senior a moment to put their own thoughts together,” she said. “Practicing Yiddish or any other language is great mental exercise, and encourages healthy aging. In addition it can be helpful therapy for seniors with memory issues, and can help ward off decline. When the language class and music program are combined, they are an excellent form of therapy, bringing seniors back to their earliest connections.”
Maybe Yiddish is making a comeback too. Time Magazine profiled a Yiddish educator this past June in their “high rent” back page.
“I love it when I find examples that Yiddish is thriving and the past is being rekindled,” Pohl said.
The lesson ended with a feast for the ears, as Yiddish student and accomplished pianist Mimi Shader played a repertoire of old favorites. Mimi said she loves collaborating with Pohl, an old and beloved friend.
Those connections are what learning a new language — or relearning and old one — is all about.
“Life is but a series of memories connecting what we have done,” Pohl said. “We give these magical memories and connections back to our seniors, and help them continue to live a meaningful life with a sense of purpose. Everyone who comes to our class feels moved or touched by a song, words, a taste, or an experience.”
A Nosh of Yiddish takes place on the third Thursday of each month and is open to the community. For more information, contact The Jewish Pavilion at 407-678-9363 or visit jewishpavilion.org