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Yiddish comes alive at Midtown language program

Nikolai Borodulin, Associate Director for Yiddish Programming, teaches

Nikolai Borodulin, Associate Director for Yiddish Programming, teaches Yiddish to students online at The Workmen's Circle in midtown Manhattan on Nov. 30, 2016. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Nikolai Borodulin once had only a faint connection to his Yiddish heritage — ironic for someone born in the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.

But now, 55 years later, Borodulin is associate director for Yiddish Programming at the Workmen’s Circle in midtown Manhattan, where Jews and non-Jews from Brooklyn to Japan come to awaken their linguistic appetites for Yiddish.

Borodulin grew up in Soviet Russia, where people did not ask questions about one’s religion or culture.

“In my time we totally assimilated. People didn’t need Yiddish,” Borodulin explained. “We were raised in the spirit of Communism.”

His vague connection to his Jewish roots was kept alive by his bubbe — Yiddish for “grandmother” — who baked matzo for Passover, a practice Borodulin never inquired about.

“I never asked even one question,” he said. But at 27, prompted by a school director who asked him to teach a Yiddish class, he taught himself the language and engrossed himself in his culture.

Birobidzhan, Borodulin’s birthplace, was established by the Soviet government in 1928 to give Russian Jews their own homeland.

The settlement encouraged the Yiddish language and culture, enticing artists and intellectuals to relocate to this Jewish haven. This sovereign idea, however, quickly dissipated under dictator Josef Stalin, who began his purge of Russian Jews in the 1930s.

Borodulin became involved with the Yiddish Program within a few years after he arrived in New York in the 1990s.

The program, whose students both in classrooms and online learn about Yiddish literature, music and theater, reached its highest registration this year, with more than 220 students from 25 states and 10 countries.

“This gives me an enormous satisfaction to connect people from around the world who want to preserve this precious language and culture,” Borodulin said, adding that before the Holocaust, Yiddish was “a living language.”

Japanese linguist Satoko Kamoshida, 37, of Tokyo, takes the online course and teaches Yiddish.

As a child, she read books “about Jewish people,” she wrote in an email.

“I was very much moved,” she wrote. “I came to understand what language means for them, and as a linguist it is exciting.”

For Marilyn Rock and her daughter, Emma Rock, both of Marine Park, Brooklyn, the beginners’ Yiddish class bonds them as they delve into their Jewish heritage together.

“My daughter is named after my grandmother. It is a nice sentimental feeling to have this historical continuity,” said Marilyn, 68, who said she understood her grandmother’s Yiddish but never spoke the language herself. “I always answered her in English,” she said.

Emma, 24, said: “What I like about Yiddish is I can speak it with a Brooklyn accent. It seems very natural … Being Jewish is having everything out in the open. It can get messy but it makes me feel good inside. Yiddish adds another dimension to my personality.”

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