JYF in Paris: A Family Legacy

Paris Eiffel TowerSweet Briar’s Junior Year in France program — these days known as JYF in Paris — is America’s longest-running coeducational study-abroad program in Paris. Study-abroad experiences are some of the most meaningful a student can have, so it is perhaps no surprise that some JYF attendees are not the first members of their family to participate.

The Kadish family is one example.

The Kadish family tradition of studying in France actually began with Doris Kadish’s father, a Russian who studied in France when he was young. Doris thought it was a wonderful thing that he’d studied in France. Though her mother was fearful of her daughter spending a year in France, her father won the argument and in 1959, a young Doris — majoring in French at Skidmore College in New York — spent a year in Paris, launching a legacy that would see both her son, Matt, and granddaughter, Melissa, attend the JYF program.

Doris arrived in a country still suffering the effects of World War II. “I think it’s probably hard for younger people to realize what it was like after the second world war and how tough things were in Europe in terms of physical conditions and mental attitudes,” Doris told us. “I think that the French were hurting. They had lived through very horrible times.”

Doris Kadish

Doris remembers her granddaughter, Melissa, being in Paris last year and sending pictures of herself eating crêpes or ice cream. Doris’s experience was more stark. “We didn’t have heating. [My host] would give us a bucket of coal every morning and we had a stove in our room. There was no heating in the bathroom. The toilet was down the hall and there was newspaper for toilet paper.” That was quite the change for Doris, who, although having grown up in modest circumstances, was used to things being less primitive. But the Latin Quarter location was great and the family was interesting and after just one year, Doris’s French was fluent, which she attributes to conversations with her host family.

More than just perfecting her French, the experience helped shape a more mature Doris. One of her Skidmore professors had encouraged her not to attend the program because he didn’t think she was ready. Thankfully, she didn’t listen to him. She said, “I went from being this, you know, babyish little hick to being a sophisticated person and then I went on to live in New York City. It completely transformed me in terms of maturity level.”

She would come home and marry and have children, as women often did then. “At the time, at schools like Skidmore, women did not have career paths; the term didn’t even exist,” she said. “They were finishing schools and many times women walked out the door and got married that very summer. That’s what I did.” But eventually, she would go on to get a Ph.D. in French, which led her to a 40-year career as a French professor.

She feels strongly about study-abroad programs and still believes that Sweet Briar’s is the best, but she has little use for what she calls “study-abroad tourism,” where students go to a foreign country for cultural experiences without knowing the language. “I think that before people go to a non-English-speaking country, they should have a good command of the language and then be perfecting it,” she said.

In the early 80s, Doris’s son, Matthew, then a French major at Williams College, chose the JYF program on his mother’s recommendation. Like his mother, he lived with a family, though unlike his mother, the family didn’t live in Paris, but rather in a suburb: Asnières-sure-Seine. That family was his second host family, as the first was not a good fit for young Matt. But Mme. Denis, the JYF coordinator was caring and arranged for him to move to an especially warm family, one Matt said she kept in reserve in the event someone had a bad experience. At that time, Asnières was a 10-minute train ride from the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. “I made it a project to write a poem each way for three months and it became a book of just my poetry sketches,” he said. In fact, that train ride is one of Matt’s favorite memories. “I made use of that time and it became something I still have to this day in that book.”

Matt and Doris Kadish
Matt Kadish (right) enjoys dinner in Geneva with his mother, Doris (center), and his girlfriend.

He also remembers fondly a French girlfriend with whom he enjoyed exploring France — and  getting lost. The pair traveled all over the country in her car and Matt became part of her family. Like his mother, Matt was devoted to perfecting his French so he “went native” and didn’t talk much to other Americans during that year. While he didn’t become a French Professor like his mother, he ended up going into law and, he says, “it’s just like another language.”

In the days before the internet, he only got one or two phone calls the entire year and airmail letters were expensive, so there were only a few of those. Despite the challenge of isolation, Matt said the loneliness was good for him, but, like a lot of things that are good for you, it wasn’t always fun. Remembering that Christmas — his first away from his family — he said they were down in Bordeaux staying in a cheap hotel. “I found a small plastic trash can that was green, turned it upside down and put a balloon on top. That was the ornament,” he said. “We put our presents underneath. we opened them at 12:01 in the morning.” It was pushing beyond the loneliness that allowed him to learn and grow.

Flash forward to 2017. Matt’s daughter, Melissa, a French and Psychology major at the College of Wooster, was looking for her own study-abroad experience. She’d looked at several French-speaking places — like Morocco and Senegal — but Sweet Briar’s program allowed students to study and directly enroll at local universities, which was the kind of experience Melissa was looking for. Oddly, Melissa didn’t realize until after she’d started the application process that it was the same program her father and grandmother had attended. “They always referred to it as the Sweet Briar program and it was advertised to my college primarily as Junior Year in France. I didn’t get the name Sweet Briar in conjunction with it until partway through the application process,” she said. But once she did know, their glowing reviews of the program made her try a little bit harder.

Seine ParisMelissa spent the Fall 2017 semester living right in Paris — for her, the 17th district — and like her father, she ended up at the Gare Saint-Lazare most days, taking a Metro train there before boarding another train to class. “I really enjoyed the Metro,” she said. “Because no matter where I was in Paris, I could get to pretty much anywhere else in an hour or less. It was amazing.” Also like her dad, she didn’t mind getting a little bit lost. Her normal stop was the second to last one on the train, and she wondered what was in the other direction. “So I got on the train and said, ‘Let’s figure out where this goes.’” She doesn’t remember where she got off, but she does remember getting out, wandering around and grabbing a bite to eat.

Like many JYF students, Melissa improved her fluency in French a lot from living with her host mom. “It was a little bit like living with a French professor who’s going to call you out on your language all the time,” she laughed. And her host mom wasn’t the only person who corrected her French, she said. She made an effort to befriend some French students in her classes at the university. “I found my French wasn’t perfect. I made a lot of mistakes and I had to correct myself, but as long as I was trying, people were really accommodating. Some of them pointed out my errors and I would say, ‘Thank you so much. I was working on that.’” But sometimes, fluency in a language is about more than just grammar. “I had a lot of trouble in Paris understanding the subtext of what my peers were saying,” Melissa told us. “A lot of it relied on social knowledge and general people skills. One thing I’ve learned is that if there are two different words, they mean different things and there’s no way to learn them until you learn them because it’s all about context.” After graduation, Melissa hopes to continue exploring and learning the complexities of language as a teaching assistant in France or elsewhere.

Kadish on ship
On the ship back to the U.S., Doris Kadish (second from right) celebrates her birthday.

The whole family acknowledges that you get out of the program what you put in. All three talked about getting out and experiencing the country. The Sweet Briar program, Melissa added, was great about taking students on field trips to locations such as Versailles and Normandy. “Sweet Briar will get you there and does an amazing job of giving you a strong foundation. But you have to use it,” she said.

The other thing all three agree on? That the JYF experience builds confidence and gives students perspective on the world. “You learn about yourself and you build self-reliance and confidence,” Matt said. “You learn how to communicate differently on a new level.”

This article first appeared in the JYF in Paris Alumni Magazine (Dec. 2018) and was reprinted recently in Sweet Briar’s Spring 2019 Alumnae Magazine.