Rokhl Kafrissen

Yiddish feeds Rokhl Kafrissen's soul. She had this to say about the picture I've posted on the home page: 

"That picture was from a very special night in November 2020. After having the first public reading of my play cancelled due to the pandemic in April 2020, I got to present scenes from the play *virtually* at the Chutzpah Jewish Arts festival in Vancouver, Canada. That's my expression of trying very hard to appreciate what I had under very difficult new conditions. Sigh.


We had a chance to speak about her interest in the language and in teaching Yiddish History and Culture. Here are some of her thoughts:

Harrison: You've told me that you had a profession (you were a lawyer), and then you followed your passions--writing and Yiddish: how has that worked for you

Kafrissen: Writing is a tough way to make a living today, but it wasn’t any easier one hundred years ago. Some of the most famous figures in modern Yiddish literature also had day jobs. I.L. Peretz, considered one of the three classic forefathers of modern Yiddish literature, for example, had a thriving law practice for many years. Mark Varshavsky, author of some of the most famous modern Yiddish “folk” songs, was also a lawyer. I thought of people like Peretz and Varshavsky often during my years in law school, and then while practicing corporate law at a large, white shoe law firm. 

I had initially wanted to go to journalism school, and even got into my dream programs. But there was always the small problem of parnose, the Yiddish term for livelihood. I desperately wanted to live in the capital of modern Yiddish culture, New York City, but I couldn’t afford it on the precarious wages of a journalist. So I chose law school, relegating my writing and Yiddish activities to my too rare moments of free time.

I left the practice of law five years ago to write full time. Needless to say, the struggle to get by hasn’t gotten any easier. But, as I found last year, the culture of Ashkenaz holds yet another strategy for spiritual survival. Last September, between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I had the honor of visiting the grave of Morris Rosenfeld, one of the so-called New York “sweatshop poets.” Joining with a group of like-minded friends and colleagues, the visit was a foray into reviving the Eastern European practice of kneytlekh legn, using thread to measure the graves of family members and holy figures and then turning that thread into candle wicks. After a very hard year, there was a profound comfort in making and then lighting my candle in memory of Rosenfeld, a poet who so beautifully captured the grinding struggles of the average working person.

Though the material conditions of my life are light years away from those of
figures like Peretz, Varshavsky, and Rosenfeld, they, and many more like them, remain in my imagination as my own artistic forebears. Those artists struggled to forge a modern identity that could be both deeply Jewish and European, as well as being an artist and a politically engaged activist in the world. Not to mention that even when you’re in the middle of changing the world, you still have to pay the rent. I couldn’t think of anything more relatable.

Harrison: Why Yiddish; why now? What's in it for a student in 2023?

Kafrissen: I grew up in a fairly assimilated, middle class Jewish home in the New York suburbs. Nobody I knew spoke or read Yiddish and I didn’t have grandparents or many older folks in my life. Learning Yiddish in college became a key to accessing the many silent places in my own family history. In Yiddish class, I realized how many of the odd words my parents used weren’t odd, they were Yiddish. Reading classic Yiddish literature, I discovered the ways this very particular, Eastern European, Ashkenazi point of view still animated my own family, even if it now showed up cloaked in English. 

Most surprisingly, immersing myself in the literary-spiritual culture of those Jews revealed how deeply American I was! Of course, as an American-born, English speaking participant in the nation’s dominant culture, I had never really had to articulate the “American” values I had internalized, at least not until I began studying a culture in tension with those values. Just to name one example, internal bilingualism (and trilingualism) is a defining aspect of Ashkenazi culture, just as monolingualism, as I came to understand, is a defining aspect of American nationalism. Part of my cultural work around Yiddish in America has been to challenge the presumption of monolingualism, a project which, as you can imagine, has implications stretching far, far beyond my own small corner of Yiddishists.

People often assume that my passion for Yiddish must have come from a place of nostalgia or guilt, or a desire to speak it with my grandparents (halevai! If only!). But the language, history, and culture of Yiddish speaking Jews could not be more relevant to life today. In it you find, for example, a complex story of migration and diaspora. At the end of the 19th century, Eastern European Jews were the beneficiaries of free access to the United States. Starting in 1881, some 2.5 million Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States. By 1921, resurgent xenophobia and antisemitism resulted in drastic new federal legislation, slamming the doors on further immigration. Those doors remained resolutely shut, even in the late 1930s, as countless Jews sought refuge from the genocidal madness of the second world war. 

The campaign to exclude Jewish immigrants a century ago isn’t just Jewish history, it’s American history. It touches on everything from labor history to the evolution of racial categories, to continuing questions of who is worthy of being American. Having access to Yiddish sources provides invaluable perspectives from the margins of power, and sometimes, from surprisingly close to the center, too.


Want a preview of the class? Please check out Ms. Kafrissen's syllabus [pdf].