Opening my TikTok app, a young woman, maybe 25 years old, pops up on my screen. She’s standing in her yard, wearing athletic shorts and a t-shirt, looking like any other Zillenial. The text on the video reads: “The emotional rollercoaster this book took me on,” and she holds up a book. All of this seems pretty typical to a TikTok video, but when I look a little closer, I pause for a second.
The book she’s holding is “Dineh: an Autobiographical Novel” by Ida Maze, originally written in Yiddish. It doesn’t seem to add up — Yiddish is the language I knew to be spoken by my great-grandparents, not people barely older than I am. I navigate to the woman’s profile and see that the creator is Cameron Bernstein, a TikTok star with over 40,000 followers. In hundreds of short videos, Bernstein teaches an ancient Jewish language to a new generation.
In the past few years, Yiddish has made a major comeback.
The traditional language of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, Yiddish at one point boasted eleven million speakers. However, after the Holocaust, the use of the language plummeted to just around 100,000 people. But now, new technology is enabling the spread of this traditional language.
In April 2021, the popular language learning app Duolingo added a Yiddish course. Just a few weeks ago, the entertainer Dylan Seders Hoffman released a short film recreating the iconic four-way phone call scene from 2004 blockbuster Mean Girls. For years, Yiddish has seemed like a dying language, but a new movement of young creatives is giving the language a new life.
To Bernstein, the movement to preserve Yiddish is nothing new. “There have always been people who have been passing the baton from one generation to the other,” Bernstein said. She noted though that where an interest in Yiddish had previously been isolating, the coronavirus pandemic had enabled a new wave of learning. “When we all had to live online, it really connected you to all of these resources and all of these people in a very quick way.”
Like many other American Jews, Bernstein heard family members throw some Yiddish words around while growing up. The first time she formally learned the language was during her senior year of college at the University of Chicago, and she was struck by the way there was so much Jewish history that only existed in Yiddish.
“Unless I knew this language, it’s almost like these voices didn’t exist in the world,” Bernstein realized. “There was no one to listen to them, no one to read the stories.”
When COVID lockdowns began, Bernstein didn’t want to let the language go. So, like millions of people her age, she joined TikTok. She began posting videos speaking Yiddish, initially just as a way of practicing the language for herself.
Bernstein began creating recipe and sewing videos with Yiddish voiceovers to serve as an introduction to the language. Early videos had simple titles like “Introducing myself in Yiddish” and “So you want to learn Yiddish.” Bernstein quickly amassed a significant following and has since found ways to engage more deeply with the language in her videos.
Many of the videos now feature Bernstein singing Yiddish versions of songs, accompanied by her ukelele, or lean into humor. Others are videos featuring books from her work at the Yiddish Book Center. Some even look at scenes from older Yiddish films, like the 1937 film “The Dybbuk.”
Like other TikTok influencers, Bernstein often builds on trending TikToks, giving a “Yiddish spin” to the latest trends, as she puts it. As TikTok enthusiasts know, one of the best ways to engage with the TikTok community is to use trending sounds on tiktok, either directly or through the “duet” feature. Bernstein does both: Earlier this fall, Bernstein created a video with the popular “It’s Corn” song while driving through New York to showcase examples of Yiddish in the wild. Another video uses the “My Birkin” sound to demonstrate the differences between Hebrew and Yiddish, two Jewish languages that use the same characters. By using Yiddish in this way, Bernstein sees a way to connect Yiddish to the larger internet culture.
While the videos vary in their content, they consistently provide an opportunity for Bernstein’s viewers and followers to learn the language. Bernstein starts many of her videos by addressing the audience with the greeting “Sholem Aleykhem” which she has translated as “Hey y’all” but literally means “peace upon you.” Since many videos show both Yiddish and English subtitles, it is easy to pick up words as a viewer. In watching a video of Bernstein take her dog on a walk, I quickly learned that “in droysn” means outside and “gut yingl” means good boy.
Bernstein takes her role as an educator seriously. She wants to become a role model for those interested in learning Yiddish or other languages.
TikTok “is a place for people to get a taste of what there is in the larger world,” Bernstein said. “It exposes you to so many things so quickly that you’re never going to get a full understanding of something by watching a TikTok, but it can give you an idea of what things are out there.”
Bernstein says TikTok allows her to “collapse these borders between the old and the new.” More broadly, Bernstein’s work demonstrates how TikTok can be a tool for breaking down barriers. Videos, like the ones described, where Bernstein unexpectedly loops in elements of Yiddish show how tradition can shape the present and the leaders of the future.