Making Sense of Squiggles: Teaching and Learning Yiddish Stenography

Elena Hoffenberg

Before the widespread use of typewriters, never mind laptops and voice-recognition word processors, stenography allowed people to capture spoken information more quickly than hand-written transcription could. Using lines, loops, and dots to represent words and phrases, stenography was practical and efficient, and stenographers were in demand in offices throughout the modern world. Stenography allowed something decided in a meeting to be quickly written as dictation, then transcribed into full text for dissemination. In offices of metropolitan centers of Europe and North America, this system of writing, which had emerged in the nineteenth century, quickly gained new traction in the early years of the twentieth century. Industrialization spurred a proliferation of documents used to communicate across international borders in commercial trading and manufacturing and across the short distances between departments and branches of corporations. Such documents increased the demand on office work, and stenography caught on during this period as a way to cope with the increasing speed and volume of communication in these new businesses which depended on communication technologies to document its work and connect different parts of its ever-growing structure. Yiddish organizations, such as labor unions, newspapers, and religious councils, were no exception. The leaders of such organizations, the David Dubinskys and Abe Cahans, are remembered for their words, but they did not write and deliver such statements alone.

Instead, the prominent thinkers and organizers of the early twentieth century—labor union leaders, newspaper and journal editors, directors of mutual aid societies, politicians, rabbis; both in and out of Jewish life—relied on assistants trained to copy down their statements by hand with speed and accuracy. Once recorded, these speeches could reach audiences far beyond those that had been there to hear the spoken words; stenography was an invaluable step in ensuring these messages could be recorded and reproduced in full. In fields as disparate as business, politics, and religion, the ability to transcribe a written statement and later type up the text made stenographers a crucial part of daily operations.

Training in stenography, which was taught both in schools and by correspondence courses, gave a person access to employment off the factory floor. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, secretarial duties could ensure entry into a comfortable life, and in the postwar era when women continued to work outside the home, many sought training in stenography to equip them for jobs in offices of businesses and organizations. This skill prepared them for paid positions, but only certain ones, reinforcing the idea of “women’s work” in the workplace.

Stenography is by its very nature ephemeral: if few typed manuscripts of published works have been preserved, even fewer of the first transcribed drafts have survived. But published educational materials illuminate the trends of linguistic assimilation as they played out in Yiddish stenographic theory and practice. Even after World War II, many businesses, offices, and publications operated in Yiddish, and throughout the twentieth century, Yiddish stenography manuals were published in order to train the people whose not-yet-practiced hands would record everything from drashes to diatribes. But beyond their practical utility, the educational materials used to prepare individuals for office work also illuminate the changing state of modern Yiddish. One pamphlet, published in Berlin in 1925, lays out a system of stenography that is more of a linguistic experiment than a practical guide. Two versions of a mid-century guide demonstrate how the usefulness of Yiddish stenography persisted after the Holocaust. The first was published in the late 1930s and based on a 1937 edition created for use in classrooms; the second reissued the same instructional material with an expanded introduction reinforcing the need for stenography for its 1960s audience. In 1983, the Jewish Teachers Seminary - Herzliah released another work on Yiddish stenography as a tool for teachers in schools. This publishing history over half a century demonstrates stenography’s lasting importance in the teaching and usage of Yiddish in organizational life.

Yiddish stenography started reaching towards modernity in 1925, when, in Berlin, F. Shargorodskaya published the stenography manual Idishe Stenografye through the Jewish cultural organization “Yalkut.” Shargorodskaya published this manual as “Dr. F. Shargorodskaya,” using a title and first initial in the place of a first name, which would have given her away as a woman, but kept the feminine ending to her name (-aya, instead of -y) while publishing in Yiddish. Fanya, or Fanny, Shargorodskaya was born in 1879 and died in 1950. In addition to writing about Mandate Palestine, She developed stenographic systems for both Hebrew and Yiddish, both published in 1925. 1 1 F. Shargorodska, Stenografyah ‘Ivrit (Berlin: Yalkut, 1925). This was not as simple as applying a single alphabet, since a stenographic system relies on frequency of letters appearing together to determine the symbols used. She was aware of her role in breaking new ground for Yiddish in developing stenography; her manual opens by declaring itself the first to do so, but qualifies this resolve with a footnote “as far as I am aware.” 2 2 די אידישע סטענאָגראַפֿיע, וואָס ווערט דאָ פֿאָרגעלייגט, איז די ערשטע אין דער אידישער שפּראַך, אַזוי ווײַט ווי מיר איז באַקאַנט. F. Shargorodska, Idishe Stenografye (Berlin: Yalkut, 1925), 3.

For F. Shargorodskaya, creating a Yiddish stenography offered an escape from the past, but didn’t present a practical path for the present or future. In the preface to the manual, she writes, “We stand now on the threshold of the history of Yiddish stenography, free from the over-mentioned traditional mistakes of historical writing which created many difficulties, which stenography will overcome.” 3 3 מיר שטייען איצט אויף דער שוועל פֿון דער געשיכטע פֿון דער אידישער סטענאָגראַפֿיע פֿרײַ פֿון די אויבנדערמאָנטע טראַדיצאָנעלע פֿעלער פֿונם היסט. כתב, וואָס האָט געשאַפֿן פֿיל שוויריגקייטן, וועלכע די סט. האָט גובֿר צו זײַן. F. Shargaradskaya, Idishe Stenografye (Berlin: Yilkut Farlag, 1925), 8. According to Shargorodskaya, Yiddish could become a truly modern language through stenography, once it overcame certain practical problems. The system could not simply be borrowed from a language with a shared alphabet, as one had not yet been formalized, so when Shargorodskaya proposed a scheme for Yiddish stenography in the 1920s, she developed one for Hebrew as well. Other modern languages—English, French, German—served as her models. Her interest lay not with the application of such a system, but with its development. In the introduction to her manual, she does not discuss how stenography is used. Instead, she focuses on the linguistic and theoretical underpinnings of this system. She acknowledges that what she is presenting will be changed by stenographers as they apply the system, with changes as they see fit for their work. Revealing just how far her approach diverges from daily usage, Shargorodskaya instructs the student of stenography to transcribe the manual’s introduction as the culminating exercise; four and a half pages of this slim twenty-four-page guide is devoted to printing the answer key. This guide marks an important starting point for the development of a stenographic system. As a published work, this system–albeit one that does not claim to be the standard–can extend its influence beyond the reach of a single stenographer.

By the next decade, usable Yiddish stenography had been realized by M. L. Ellick, who published a practical guide for students of the language. Lernt Idishe Stenografiye promised to be a practical method for learning writing for speed. 4 4 [M. L. Ellick], Lerent Idishe Stenografiye: a Praktishe Metode far Shnelshrift (New York: Friend Publishing, 1937). The exercises that the workbook provides range from fables about a dog and a wolf or a farmer and a lion to letters that give a glimpse into the transactions facilitated by stenography. One set of four letters provides an exchange between Isidore Levin of New Haven and George Abrahams of New York City. Levin writes to Abrahams inquiring as to whether he has recommendations for someone who could teach Hebrew to students at a Jewish School in Connecticut. Levin offers a salary of $150 per week; Abrahams asks if the school would be willing to pay travel costs as well. He has someone in mind for the position who, as an extra qualification, also knows English. Levin agrees to pay the travel costs, so long as the person can come as quickly as possible. This brief exchange of letters paint a picture of the dynamics of life in the northeast. Even after the restriction of Eastern European immigration in 1924, New York remained an important source of people who were more traditionally educated and who could educate the American-born children of immigrants living throughout the northeast in communities where such education was valued. The second collection of letters extends the network beyond New York City to Newark, New Jersey and Worcester, Massachusetts, where individuals write with important requests for loans and shipments for their enterprises. Impassioned pleas are made for a loan in order to repay a vendor with the writer’s entire business at stake. Another writes to a manufacturer threatening to purchase wares from another company if his order is not fulfilled by the end of the month. One letter asks forgiveness for his inability to pay the total amount that he owes, while another letter corrects an account balance incorrectly reported in a previous letter. This business, carried out in Yiddish, stretches across the United States to industrial centers in the northeast and midwest. Abbreviations provided at the back of the book provide shortenings for terminology used most frequently in business: information, telephoning, advertisements, and departments. These are not poetic letters, redolent with emotion and imagery; these are communications where urgency is of utmost importance.

However, the capstone exercise presented by Ellick suggests a different approach altogether. Once this business-oriented practice has been completed, Ellick suggests students of stenography can best test their grasp of the method by transcribing a Yiddish translation of the Tanakh. It is on the one hand a practical suggestion—a copy of the Tanakh may be one of the easiest books to find for a Yiddish-speaker, whether they are in the heart of New York City or far from central Jewish communities—but can present particular challenges for a stenographer. The text’s translator may draw extensively on Hebrew, transposing words and phrases from the original rather than translating them, which produces letter combinations in the spellings of words that would be seldom seen in Yiddish. Ellick acknowledges this “If the translation is of a pure Yiddish,” Ellick suggests, “it is much easier to write in stenography.” 5 5 אויב די איבערזעצונג איז פֿון אַ ריינעם אידיש איז עס אַ סך לײַכטער צו סטענאָגראַפֿירן. Ellick, 63 Starting with Tehilim, each short sentence should be read out loud and written down. Writing the same phrase for three minutes will allow the writer to hone her ability. This daily practice should work towards the goal of 100 words per minute, although Ellick warns even that is enough only for office work and not for the transcription of long speeches.

In 1960, in the introduction to Lerent Idishe Stenografye, L. Blat described the textbook as “a work that will surely help to prepare Yiddish as a world language.” 6 6 ’’אַ ווערק וואָס קען זיכער העלפֿען צוגרייטען אידיש פֿאַר אַ וועלט שפּראַך’’ L. Blat, Lerent Idishe Stenografye (New York: Otzar Hasefarim Publishers, 1960), 2. It presented an updated collection of the lessons and exercises of the 1937 publication, with some slight changes. The expansion of suggested phrases to practice and master demonstrates the settings in which Yiddish stenography was used. These guides offer a glimpse into how words of Hebrew and English origin entered Yiddish usage in the contexts where recording written statements with stenography proved most useful. Because the stenographic systems rest on a basis of ranking the common occurrences of letters consecutively, words of Hebraic origin pose a challenge. For example, a stroke for consonant and vowel combinations may not carry over so clearly into how to represent the two consonants one after another. Yiddish stenographic systems assume that “גע” will appear quite often, and formulate the system to represent these two letters with a mark that is easy to produce; to emphasize this, the introduction to Lerent Idishe Stenografye includes a list of commonly-used words: “געפּסקענט, געגנבעט, געט געמופט, געסייפט, געדעמעדזשט, געספּוילט.” The first three use the Hebrew words for decision, thief, and divorce, and turn them into Yiddish verbs. The last four borrow verbs from English meaning move, save, damage, and spoil; and turn them into Yiddish verbs with the recognizable “גע” prefix and “ט” suffix. The common terms from law and business suggest that stenography met a need that arose in these fields, drawing on the halakhic basis of legal discussions and on the American context of commercial activities. The suggested phrases provided for practice in the back of the book include specific business, but many others as well. “To come to the meeting” (קומען צו דער אכפה) appears alongside “to arrive unexpectedly to minyan” (אונטערקומען צום מנין); “To take down the sukkah” (איינווארפן די סוכה) comes right before “to deal cards” (אויסווארפן קארטן). From the language itself, with the incorporation of English business terms and Hebrew religious terms into Yiddish grammatical structures, to the useful phrases in business and everyday life, the added exercises in this edition of the manual illustrate the continued usefulness of Yiddish stenography in 1960.

As late as the 1980s, stenography instruction remained an important part of the education required to prepare individuals for positions in Jewish communal organizations, but it was just one element of a larger educational program. To honor the contributions of Aida Liberson-Sercarz, Jewish Teacher’s Seminar - Herzliah published the materials she compiled over decades of teaching stenography to students. While she equipped generations of students to serve as stenographers in Yiddish-speaking organizations, her seminar in stenography encouraged her students to receive a broad education. They took courses in Yiddish and Hebrew language to understand linguistics and grammar, studied literature and history, and emerged as secretaries who were highly prepared to carry out work on both technical and cultural levels. Jacob Katzman, the chair of the board for Jewish Teacher’s Seminar - Herzliah, described the graduates of her seminar as “אויסגעבילדערט, ” cultivated, not merely trained. 7 7 Katzman, 2.

Although the other guides hardly make mention of the gender of those learning stenography, the text published in the 1980s takes pains to draw attention to the fact that it’s not only women who are learning stenography. The introduction of Aida Liberson-Sercarz’s textbook for stenography emphasizes that “hundreds of young women—and a number of young men” had completed courses in the department. 8 8 Jacob Katzman, introduction to Aida Liberson-Sercarz, Yidishe Stenografye (New York: Jewish Teachers Seminary - Herzliah, 1983), 1. When one imagines a stenographer, one pictures a woman, transcribing quickly as her boss dictates a letter or report that she will later type. While it is difficult to know with certainty about the gender ratio of people who worked as stenographers–unlike other office workers, such as typesetters or writers, stenographers remained without an organized union–the field has historically been filled mostly by women. These jobs required women to work outside the home, suggesting that women had made some progress in the workplace, or merely documenting the intense economic need for another income during these times, especially in the Great Depression. While working in an office setting suggested assimilation, as opposed to other workplaces more closely associated with newly-arrived immigrants such as sweatshops or taking in piecework in one’s own home, these students of Yiddish stenography worked in offices where Yiddish was the language of business, keeping linguistic assimilation at bay even with increased economic mobility.

After students received their training and entered the working world, their skills allowed for the recording and dissemination of important writings, but their contributions were seldom recognized. The name of the author, the rabbi, the union leader, or the editor would be remembered and preserved in the written work, but the names of those who recorded their ideas in writing—the assistants, the aides, and the office managers—and those who produced the page—the stenographers, the typesetters, the printers—have been lost. These educational guides serve as a reminder of the importance of the work of stenographers, and the role of stenography in providing access to office work to immigrants and members of the working class, and especially to women. Their names may be in the margins of the historical record, or on documents as ephemeral as stenographic dictations, but their work was important despite its invisibility. Katzman, looking back at what Liberson-Sercaz accomplished in teaching stenography for much of the twentieth century, places her “in the pleiad of Yiddish writers and leaders with whom she worked, literally a cross-section of the exuberant, creative Yiddish life, that characterized the best years of Eastern European immigration to America.” 9 9 אַ זייער באַשיידענער מענטש, פֿאַרקערפּערט זי אין אירע אייגענע לעבנסדערפֿאַרונגען, אין די אַלע וויכטיקע פּאָזיציעס וואָס זי האָט אין פֿאַרשיידענע צײַטן אָנגעהאַלטן, און אין דער פּליאַדע פֿון ייִדישע שרײַבערס און פֿירערס מיט וועמען זי האָט מיטגעאַרבעט, ממש אַ קווערשניט פֿון דאָס שפּרודלדיקע, שעפֿערישע ייִדיש לעבן, וואָס האָט כאַראַקטעריזירט די בעסטע יאָרן פֿון דער מזרח אייראָפּעאישע אימיגראַציע אין אַמעריקע. Jacob Katzman, introduction to Aida Liberson-Sercarz, Yidishe Stenografye (New York: Jewish Teachers Seminary - Herzliah, 1983), 3. Stenographers supported the prolific writing and publishing of this era of Yiddish life, especially in America, facilitating the spread of ideas that shaped Jewish life with writing formed by a series of simple lines and loops.

Hoffenberg, Elena. “Making Sense of Squiggles: Teaching and Learning Yiddish Stenography.” In geveb, October 2017:
Hoffenberg, Elena. “Making Sense of Squiggles: Teaching and Learning Yiddish Stenography.” In geveb (October 2017): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Elena Hoffenberg

Elena Hoffenberg is a PhD student in modern Jewish history at the University of Chicago.