Reyna Schaechter is only 18 and is not chasidic, but she has been speaking Yiddish her entire life.
A Hunter College High School senior who will attend Yale next year, Schaechter calls the mameloshen her “tateloshen” (father tongue) because she — along with her older brother and younger sister — learned it at the insistence of their father, Binyumen.
“It’s kind of like a family tradition,” she explains, noting that her grandfather, “a fervent Yiddishist,” raised his four children in the language, and they in turn gave him 16 “Yiddish-speaking grandchildren.”
Schaechter, her father and her 13-year-old sister, Temma, don’t just speak Yiddish: they sing it. Their group, The Schaechter Sisters, has performed original musical revues in schools, synagogues, retirement homes and festivals all over the country. They are the subject of a 2012 documentary film, “When Our Bubbas and Zaydes Were Young,” which has been making its way around the Jewish film festival circuit.
Schaechter has also put her Yiddish skills to work as a volunteer at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where she transcribes and translates recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors, part of a museum project to make thousands of survivor interviews accessible in an online database.
“I gain so much from hearing these amazing stories about countries and regions you don’t learn about in school,” she says. While the stories are sad, “the nice part is that some of the people are optimistic, and they also talked about the people who helped them out. You are able to see real acts of kindness in their stories.”
Schaechter, who traveled to Israel last summer through the Bronfman Youth Fellowship and participated in The Jewish Week’s “Write On For Israel” program, is hoping to eventually become fluent in Hebrew and Arabic also. (She already speaks fluent Spanish.)
Although her immediate family belongs to the Conservative Town & Village Synagogue, several aunts and cousins are Orthodox, including some who became fervently Orthodox. “The fact that we all speak Yiddish brings us closer,” she says. “We have that connection regardless of the differences in what we believe.”
Hold the chopped liver and kishke: Schaechter is a yoga enthusiast and onetime raw-foods vegan, who is very interested in “healthy living and nutrition.”