Living in Yiddish: Ken Moss

Ken Moss
Ken Moss (Courtesy of Ken Moss)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Ken Moss, 46, watched two of his kids participate in a virtual Yiddish performance, then he hopped onto a call with the JT to talk about his work with modern Jewish history and why he and his wife are raising their children in a Yiddish-speaking home.

“We fell in love with the language,” Moss said of Yiddish. “I was studying it partly for my profession and partly for my studies during college and then, through it, I met some really fascinating and wonderful people in the small but very real world of non-Chasidic Yiddishists, Yiddish culture.”

Moss is a professor of modern Jewish history at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution.” He is currently working on another book called, “The Unchosen People: Polish Jewish Thought and Political Choice in the Age of Fascism.”

Moss lives with his wife, Anne Eakin Moss, and their three kids, Isaac, 17, Aaron, 14, and Celia, 6, who have all attended or attend Krieger Schechter Day School. The family belong to Beth Am. Moss is also involved in the Baltimore chapter of the New Israel Fund.

They decided to raise their children to be Yiddish speakers because it seemed like a valuable thing to pass on. They’re also connected to a Yiddish-speaking community, including a few other families in the Baltimore area. When it’s not COVID-19 times, Moss said, they go to Yidish-Vokh, an annual intensive Yiddish-language event in New York state.

“We wanted them to have a normal Jewish and general life, but also one in which Yiddish was just a language of everyday life and permeated everything they did,” Moss said.

Moss is originally from New Jersey, where he had a “fairly serious” Jewish upbringing at a Conservative synagogue. His mother worked as a medical doctor, and his father was a professor of chemistry.

“I came already to college thinking I wanted to … study Middle Eastern studies, with a particular focus on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Moss said. “I spent a year in Israel after high school working on Hebrew. When I began my studies a year after that at Rutgers, I very quickly decided I didn’t want to do international relations and that sort of stuff, but that I did want to study Jewish history for a living.”

After receiving a bachelor’s in history, with minors in political science and Hebraic studies, from Rutgers University, Moss attended Stanford University, where he attained a Ph.D. in Jewish history. He moved to Baltimore in 2003 to work at Johns Hopkins.

He was drawn to studying modern Jewish history for a variety of reasons, including that it felt particularly personal to him. He is also interested in how Jewish people confront a modern world.

“At a personal level, my own Jewish identity and Jewish interests, beyond the academic, are closely intertwined with Yiddish and Hebrew, with modern forms of Jewish culture, which are not religious or that are often quite aggressively secular,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m aggressively secular, but that’s certainly the stuff that excites me, is Jewish literature and the Hebrew and Yiddish literary renaissance and the kinds of ideas that informed it.”

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