SOMERVILLE – In the late 1980s, Linda Gritz and Michael Katz were eagerly expecting the birth of their first child. They were young transplants from New York City who settled here while pursuing their careers – she in molecular biology and he as a theatrical technical director.
They first became friends some 18 years before when both were students at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. They bonded in the school chorus, where Yiddish versions of Hanukkah songs were added to the winter concert of Christmas carols.
They had no way of knowing that years later, they would reunite, settle in Somerville, and raise their two children in a Yiddish-speaking – and a Yiddish harmonizing – home, a rarity outside of Hasidic communities these days.
Now adults, their daughter Pauline (Pauli) and son Ben said their family’s Yiddish journey set the stage for the values that guide their lives.
Beyond their immediate family, Gritz and Katz played an instrumental role – from behind the scenes to choral performances – in bringing to life a vibrant Yiddish community across Greater Boston.
They come to their affinity for Yiddish naturally. Both grew up in secular Jewish homes whose parents and grandparents were rooted in Eastern European Yiddish life. Both attended after-school Yiddish programs, at different locations.
While her family was not religious, Gritz “felt completely Jewish at home, the food, the humor, and the outlook,” and especially the music.
Katz grew up steeped in Yiddish immigrant culture and language. One grandfather was a columnist for a Yiddish communist newspaper. His mother was a leader at the Isaac Raboy Yiddish School. They had little interest in religious life, “but wanted us to understand how to use our culture to be progressive,” Katz told the Journal.
In the mid-1980s in Boston, Gritz and Katz were among the pioneers in the unlikely resurgence of interest in Yiddish, the language and culture that was nearly destroyed by the Holocaust.
The Boston-based Klezmer Conservatory Band – which jump-started a national revival of the klezmer music brought from Eastern Europe by Yiddush-speaking immigrants – was founded by Hankus Netsky in 1980. That same year, against all odds, Aaron Lansky launched the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.
Gritz and Katz created opportunities to pursue their love of singing Yiddish music. After two years of formal language classes, they started their own conversation group, a Yiddish Vinkle, in their home.
They were among those at the forefront of rejuvenating the Boston Workmen’s Circle – now Boston Workers Circle – and its Yiddish children’s school. The Workmen’s Circle – Der Arbeter Ring in Yiddush – was started more than a century ago in New York City as an immigrant-era mutual aid organization.
Among those who joined their vinkle was Harry Bochner, the son of Holocaust survivors who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home.
“When Linda and Mike and others started – in the mid-1980s – it was hard to find anyone to talk to [in Yiddish]. There weren’t lectures. There was nothing,” said Bochner, a Medford resident and co-editor of the Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary.
In 1988, when Gritz was pregnant, it was Bochner who tossed out the idea that Gritz and Katz speak Yiddish to their baby.
Gritz was hardly convinced. She didn’t consider her Yiddish good enough to express herself with her child. “Not my broken Yiddish,” she insisted to Bochner.
But Bochner persisted, month after month.
“Better broken Yiddish than no Yiddish,” Gritz recalled him insisting.
That imperative to help keep the language alive sealed the decision for Gritz and Katz.
During the early years, it was all Yiddish for both kids. By the time both kids were teens, it was closer to half the time.
In a recent interview on Zoom, Katz, Gritz, and Pauli get a chuckle about Pauli’s first days at the Alef-Bet day care in Cambridge. The teacher said Pauli was talking, but they couldn’t understand her.
“I don’t remember my mom saying a word to me in English until I was about 8,” Ben Katz wrote in an email.
Being raised in a Yiddish-speaking home wasn’t uncomfortable, he said. “… It simply was how my life was. I had friends whose childhood homes were filled with Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese, mine was Yiddish,” wrote the 29-year-old, who now lives in Brooklyn.
At the Workers Circle, Gritz and Katz formed a community with others who were not joining synagogues but who wanted to connect with a tradition built on Yiddish culture.
“I am very committed to my Judaism, but I’m not a believer,” Katz said. “Once you make that choice, how do you transmit that culture and belief system without religion?”
Ben says the Jewish culture his parents instilled in him has influenced his life more than the language. “Being socially conscious, trying to build community, seeking to help those in need are all things that come to mind,” he wrote.
A few years after college, Pauli spent a summer as a Steiner fellow, an intensive Yiddish program at the National Yiddish Book Center. The experience inspired her to resume her interest in education. She now teaches English and history to English language learners at Revere High School, and also teaches seventh grade at the Boston Workers Circle school.
Pauli, 32, is grateful to her parents for their unusual decision three decades ago. Everything she has accomplished professionally has come from that Yiddish connection, she said.
On a deeply personal level, it has given her confidence in her Jewish identity.
“It goes back to who I am. It’s my heritage. I have 100 percent ownership. Because I grew up in it, it’s mine.”