Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Oy vey! Yiddish is alive and well in greater Orlando


Pamela Ruben

Yiddishe Maven John Pohl with Emily Newman, Pavilion program director.

Many believe Yiddish, a mixture of German and Hebrew spoken by Eastern and Central European Jews before WWII, is a dying language. However, Yiddish has been alive and well for the past two years in greater Orlando, thanks to Yiddishe maven Joan Pohl and the support of the Jewish Pavilion. 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 Pavilion sponsored and coordinated the course, providing the students, the snacks, and the helping hand of area Program Director Emily Newman.

"We create high interest programming to give our seniors something meaningful to do. The Pavilion's programs give them a break from their everyday routine, which can become repetitive and depressing. Joan's Yiddish class gives our seniors in elder care variety, mental exercise, and an opportunity to socialize within our greater community," said Pavilion Executive Director Nancy Ludin.

The Nosh of Yiddish brings a taste of the Yiddish culture and language to the 15-20 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 one-of-a-kind chance to communicate in a forgotten tongue.

Pohl is a hands-on educator, and uses contemporary teaching methods and best practices to impart this age-old language. She differentiates her lesson to appeal to her students' five senses, reaching the visual, tactile, and audial learner. The taste of Yiddish was found in the rich and flaky almond cookies baked by Joan Pohl's 80-year-old mother.

"I always like to bring a nosh from my mom. It's like I am bringing a part of her along with me," she said.

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 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 is 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 shared. "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 background in geriatric speech pathology helps her meet the needs of her students, and keeps the class running smoothly.

"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 noted. "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."

Pohl's spirited approach to teaching is a crowd pleaser, and ideas flowed freely around the classroom on a recent Thursday in September. As an opening exercise, Pohl shared some recent articles about the Yiddish language and culture, which recently appeared in periodicals from around the country. Pohl noted that the mainstream Time Magazine profiled a Yiddish educator this past June in their "high rent" back page. Additionally, she shared a copy of The Forward, presenting an English version of the nation's only Yiddish paper, as well as an article in the Jewish Journal about non-Jewish students learning Yiddish so they can research documents from the past at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Yiddish is a communal language, and the seniors making up the classroom community chimed in throughout the discussion. One participant said that she read The Forward for many years as she was employed in the same building as is headquarters for more than a quarter century. Another, added that she had taken classes at the Amherst Center, where Yiddish books are given a safe home after being rescued from destruction. The tomes are preserved, digitized, and stored for perpetuity.

According to Pohl, Yiddish words can have a variety of meaning or connotations, as something can be lost in the translation to English. "One word in Yiddish translated into English can mean so much more," she explained. Pohl presented her Yiddish learners with a list of words, asking "what do these words mean to you?" A lively discussion ensued about the meaning of the word "mensch," which most agreed meant "a good person." One senior added, "Everyone's heard someone say, 'He's such a good person. What a mensch.'" The word "plotz" came up in conversation, and was suggested to mean "fallen over" by student Berny Raff. Pohl agreed, but felt the word in Yiddish was more emotionally charged. An enthusiastic senior shouted out an example: "I ate so much; I'm going to plotz," causing her classmates to nod in agreement.

The Yiddish word "geschmack" came up, which was unfamiliar to some. Pohl said it meant "tasty or delicious." A discussion began about what foods from their past would be considered geschmack. Pohl shared that she loved her mother's traditional Lithuanian soup, yojeck. Newman recalled her grandmother's tzimmes (carrot and brisket stew) and matzo balls to be geshmack. While Chambrel resident Helen Tishman found her grandmother's stuffed cabbage or holishkes to be especially tasty.

The lesson ended with a feast for the ears, as Yiddish student and accomplished pianist Mimi Shader played a repertoire of old favorites. Mimi expressed that she loves collaborating with Pohl, a beloved friend. "When people hear me play 'My Yiddishe Mama' on the piano their eyes glisten with tears. It reminds them of their own mothers. Joan connects to the Yiddish students through her thoughts and I connect through my fingers, as the age-old music flows through them," Shader said, adding that the Yiddish class greatly benefits her husband, Stan, as well. "When I come to Yiddish class, I never have to schlep my husband. He always comes happily. It is a great opportunity for him to get out and socialize."

Pamela Ruben

Mimi and Stan Shader.

"Life is but a series of memories connecting what we have done. 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," Pohl concluded.

The magic of old memories became apparent as an older gentleman appeared out of nowhere during the recital and began to dance beside Shader's piano. The man snapped his fingers, and clapped rhythmically with wide, outstretched arms. The upbeat music and rhythm became infectious. The seniors began to sway in their seats, walkers, and wheel-chairs, moving as one to a familiar, age-old Yiddish tune.

This article is part of an ongoing series titled Beyond the challah: Healthy aging with the Pavilion.


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