Book, paintings bring Yiddish to life

Artist Jessica Rehfield spent part of the pandemic researching Jewish-American identity and has been inspired by her findings. 
“Luckily, I was able to take a lot of time to look more deeply into organizations that talk about this subject in America, like the YIVO Institute, which is pretty well-known in the Yiddish-American community,” says the artist.
As a Jewish person with only minimal exposure to the Yiddish language, she found herself increasingly drawn to it. While working on her graduate thesis at the now-defunct Oregon College of Art and Craft, she combed YIVO’s archives of photos, letters and academic articles.
Jessica’s studies have led her to write and illustrate Mayn Kneydl, a new book about matzah ball soup that doubles as a Yiddish-English primer. The artist aims to spread awareness of the Yiddish language among younger generations while helping older generations reconnect with the language they heard or knew as a child. 
“The primer is for everyone who wants to have an introduction to Yiddish as a vernacular, spoken language and to learn vocabulary that is outside of the popular phrases often referred to when one encounters or thinks of Yiddish,” she says.
“I started looking at Yiddish as one of those lost things that I may have had access to in the past if I had grown up in a different era. I didn’t grow up with it in my household,” says Jessica. “One of the things that led me to study Yiddish was that all of these organizations I was looking at kept pointing to the influences of Jewish immigrants in America, and how much Yiddish-speaking immigrants have influenced American popular culture. The influence is so profound.” 
The artist, who also has a background in the French language, continues: “Languages have to do with senses of identity and community and belonging, as well as “othering” or being “othered.” Part of my heartache is that we should be celebrating people’s abilities to speak multiple languages (in the United States); it’s a crazy type of oppression to say that we should only speak English.”
Jessica was chosen for the 2021-22 Artist Accelerator Program at the Art Center. During her residency, she developed all the text and most of the illustrations for her book. 
 “I used my resident studio there as a generative space for composition and illustration,” she says. “I used the walls as a place to brainstorm and plot all of the text and storyboards for illustrations. The basement of the Arts Center has these metallic walls, which I used to put my manuscript pages and paintings up with magnets and rearrange and try changes in the order of pages to refine the story text.” 
The artist has also connected with senior citizens who have firsthand knowledge of Yiddish; they responded well to her project. 
“I did have a really good interaction with the woman visiting from a senior living center in Corvallis, who recognized Yiddish when she saw my work at the Arts Center,” says Jessica. “She saw the picture with the word geshmak (delicious) and said, ‘I know what that means.’ We had a nice conversation about how she had grown up on the East Coast with her mother speaking Yiddish … It was very meaningful for me.”
See more about Jessica and her work at The Arts Center,

MAY 14, 6 pm: Jessica Rehfield will do a live painting (not for the book) during Havdallah Café at the Eastside Jewish Commons
MAY 16-JUNE 30 (7 am-6 pm M-F): 
Exhibit of illustrations from Mayn Kneydl at at Friendly House (1737 NW 26th Ave., Portland)
JUNE 15, 7-8 pm: Book Talk with light refreshments at Friendly House
A fundraiser to support publication of Mayn Kneydl can be found at



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