Crushing on oral history and language

Zohar Berman ’20 interns at the Yiddish Book Center, working with the organization's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program and Wexler Oral History Project.

By Sasha Nyary

Zohar Berman ’20 has found an intellectual home at the Yiddish Book Center in nearby Amherst, Massachusetts.

Berman, a Mount Holyoke College student who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is spending the summer at the center’s Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, a seven-week program in Yiddish language and culture.

Part of the program includes working in some aspect of the center. As this is Berman’s second summer, they now have enough Yiddish to help transcribe the headlines from “Gerechtigkeit,” or “justice,” a weekly socialist labor newspaper published in New York City by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union between 1919 and 1958.

Berman and their coworker access the newspapers on a computer, where they have been saved as scans of microfilm.

Zohar Berman ’20 transcribes the headlines from “Gerechtigkeit,” or “justice,” a weekly socialist labor newspaper published in Yiddish in the first half of the 20th century.

“Part of the transcription process is like, ‘What does this headline even say? What letter is this?’ It’s almost like translation,” they said. “We put the text into standardized Yiddish and then transliterate that, which means we put the Yiddish characters written with the Hebrew letter alphabet into a Latin-character alphabet. We also add the bylines we find.”

Berman, who grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire, first came to the Yiddish Book Center in summer 2018 through a recommendation from Mara Benjamin, the Irene Kaplan Leiwant Associate Professor of Jewish Studies. They have been deeply immersed in Yiddish language and culture over the past year.

The center’s offerings are perfect for Berman, who is double majoring in Middle Eastern studies and politics. They are also the co-chair of Mount Holyoke’s Jewish Student Union and the fellow for the Mozone Peer Education Program.

“A lot of people think that Yiddish is a dead language, like ancient Greek or Latin,” Berman said. “It wasn’t seen as a real language, even though it obviously had its own culture, its own literature, its own history and stories and oral tradition.”

Berman has learned about that culture and oral tradition by working extensively with the center’s Wexler Oral History Project as an interview-indexing assistant. The Wexler project has recorded more than 900 in-depth video interviews in Yiddish and English, providing a deeper understanding of the Ashkenazi — eastern European — Jewish experience and Yiddish language and culture.

“Intellectually I have a huge crush on oral history,” Berman said. “It’s a super important way of thinking about history. I’ve used it as an academic myself. This past year at Mount Holyoke I’ve done a lot of work learning about revolutions and social movements. My work on the Jewish labor movement has been supplemented by being able to go to the collection.”

Many of their academic efforts have been informed by their rich experience at the Yiddish Book Center, they noted.

“What I’ve learned from all my work at the center is that linguistics can be and is so very political, in so many ways,” Berman said. “For instance, a lot of Yiddishists go to the language because they feel like it connects more with their Ashkenazi heritage than studying modern Hebrew.”

Others study Yiddish for political reasons, they said. “Indigenous languages, in many cases, were intentionally wiped out by government policies, which targeted them for eradication or provided incentives to not teach them. People don’t know the modern manifestations of Yiddish and the implications for the modern age.”

Berman’s experience at the center has been illuminating on a practical level as well, they noted.

“Working here has given me a baseline for what I should be able to expect as a human being in a work environment,” they said. “Not just what I should be able to expect as far as respect as a trans nonbinary person, but also in general. As a worker, I should be able to hear my boss ask me, ‘I think this about the work you did, but what do you think?’”

Their internships and work at the center has come at the perfect time in their life, Berman said.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have the experience where my supervisor is genuinely interested in how I approach things and she gives genuine feedback,” they said. “She’ll say, ‘I love how you laid this out. I like how you segmented these interviews. The way that your brain works is like perfect for this.’ That feedback lets me know that these are skills that I’m acquiring and perfecting. And it helps me when I’m thinking about the future, like what sort of jobs are a good match for me and what can I expect in the workplace.”

Those post-college options include pursuing the Consular Fellows Program at the U.S. State Department, continuing indexing on the Wexler Oral History Project, or getting involved in labor or community organizing, Berman said.