Interview

In eynem’s Communicative Approach to Yiddish Pedagogy: An Interview with Asya Vaisman Schulman

Meyer Weinshel

INTRODUCTION

In August 2018, I was one of fifteen instructors who arrived at the Yiddish Book Center for the Yiddish Pedagogy Program. The focus of the program was training instructors to teach beginner students of Yiddish with In eynem, the Yiddish Book Center’s forthcoming communicative language textbook (available July 2020). We spent a total of three weekends in Amherst over the course of the 2018-19 academic year, designing and implementing language lessons based on communicative language teaching, and receiving feedback from leading experts in Yiddish pedagogy who had worked on the textbook: Brukhe Lang (Language Program Director and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins), Rivke Margolis (then Professor of Yiddish at the University of Ottawa and now Director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University), and Asya Vaisman Schulman, Director of the Yiddish Book Center’s Yiddish Language Institute and a co-author of In eynem.

The fifteen of us who participated went on to pilot the textbook in various settings, ranging from colleges and universities, Workers Circle branches, JCCs, and other local organizations like Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis, where I have taught beginner Yiddish for the past year. To mark the upcoming publication of In eynem, Asya and I chatted via Zoom about her own background as an experienced instructor of Yiddish, how she and others began working on the project, and some of the challenges facing language instructors in an age of social distancing.

Meyer Weinshel: Asya, can you say a little bit about your background? Specifically: how and when you started teaching Yiddish, and when you began working at the Yiddish Book Center?

Asya Vaisman Schulman: I began teaching Yiddish when I was still learning it (as probably happens with most Yiddish teachers these days). I had been the president of the Yiddish club in college, but my first full class was through Harvard Hillel, when I was in graduate school. Around the same time, I was a teaching assistant for Brukhe Lang’s Yiddish class, which was a transformative experience. It was my first exposure to teaching Yiddish with the communicative approach to language learning, which I immediately adopted for all of my subsequent courses. I also taught a number of community classes through the Workers Circle and at Gann Academy, as well as at various festivals, including the Eldridge Street Shul’s Egg Creams and Egg Rolls (a meeting of Chinese and Jewish cultures on the Lower East Side).

I was ultimately hired to teach at the Summer Workshop for Slavic and Eastern European Languages at Indiana University. I don’t think they offer Yiddish any longer, but when I taught there, it was probably the most intensive Yiddish summer program for beginners. It was four hours of class a day for eight weeks, plus conversation sections, extracurriculars, etc., all taught by one person. I also taught during the year at Indiana University.

Right after that, I started working at the Yiddish Book Center. I founded the YiddishSchool program for adult learners and revamped the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. I also began teaching a year-long course, first at Hampshire College and then at UMass Amherst.

I have almost exclusively taught beginners, except for at Indiana University, where I taught intermediate students as well.

MW: When you first started teaching, at Indiana and in these other settings, what teaching materials did you use?

AVS: Because I was committed to using the communicative approach, I adopted Brukhe [Lang]’s course pack, which was modeled on the German communicative textbook Kontakte. However, those materials were largely missing a cultural component, so I supplemented the course pack with exercises from Sheva Zucker’s textbook [Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature, and Culture], as well as with a tremendous amount of my own exercises based on authentic texts.

MW: So what was the impetus for writing In eynem? Was it the dearth of authentic materials?

AVS: Yes, the amount of time I spent on creating and adapting my own materials hints at the problem I (and many others) had: there was a need for a centralized effort to create up-to-date communicative multimedia materials that could be developed, tested, and edited to then be reused over a longer period of time.

To most effectively teach with the communicative approach, it is crucial to have full-color illustrations that specifically fit your lesson plans. At the Yiddish Book Center, I was so fortunate to have the unprecedented logistical and financial support that made it possible to create these colorful materials. Being at the Center gave me the further advantage of familiarity with all of its multimedia Yiddish resources that I could draw on for teaching materials: the Frances Brandt archival recordings, the Wexler oral history recordings, and of course the Spielberg digital Yiddish library.

Brukhe and I had talked for many years about writing a Yiddish textbook together, but unfortunately when the opportunity presented itself, Brukhe was already employed by YiddishPop. She was, however, involved [with In eynem] as one of the pedagogy editors.

MW: This gets at the collaborative nature of textbook writing; a lot of work goes into creating the content. But one also needs to format, edit, etc. Can you tell us about who was involved in creating the textbook?

AVS: Jordan Brown and Mikhl Yashinsky both started out as Steiner Yiddish Summer Program students in 2014 (which was a great cohort of Steiner students; many returned to the Yiddish Book Center in later years as fellows, recipients of translation fellowships, interns, and employees). Jordan and Mikhl returned as fellows the year following. Jordan was the fellow for the Yiddish Language institute, which I run, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into the textbook project. He contributed to every aspect of the work, from the planning and structuring, to researching pedagogical materials, to writing and editing chapters. His creativity and deep interest in Yiddish grammar and idiom had a profound influence on the way the book developed. Later in the year, Mikhl began working with us, first writing biographical notes about the Yiddish writers, artists, and performers whose works are presented in the book, and then creating many of the exercises surrounding those texts, as well as selecting fascinating new texts to include, especially in the chapters about Jewish holidays.

In addition to Jordan and Mikhl, we had two pedagogy editors: Brukhe Lang (whom I mentioned before) and Rivke Margolis. They read each chapter and commented on how well they thought the exercises would work in an actual classroom. We also had two Yiddish language editors, Yitskhok Niborski and Yankl-Peretz Blum, who checked for accuracy as well as idiomatic language, making sure we avoided “textbook” Yiddish.

Two artists worked on the book: my uncle, professional artist Alexander Vaisman, created the characters and settings, and then my mother, Shura Vaisman, converted the art into illustrations that fit the appropriate exercises. We had a production team: Alexander Isley Design and especially Christina Holland worked with us very closely on the beautiful layout and design of the book. Yankl Salant helped set a lot of the Yiddish text, proofread, and compiled the index.

The list is neverending. Many of my coworkers at the Yiddish Book Center played an important role as well, including Gretchen Fiordalice and Lisa Newman (who worked on project management and production), Mindl Cohen (who helped with editing), Sebastian Schulman (who wrote the introduction), Amber Clooney (who developed the website), Jessica Parker (who worked on proofing and on the answer key), and all of the fellows who worked with me over the years. Allison Posner and Rola Younes helped with initial structuring and contributed exercises, and later Adah Hetko and Rebecca White worked on the geographical and reference information and on the textbook website. Of course all of this work was made possible with the strong support of Yiddish Book Center President Aaron Lansky and Executive Director Susan Bronson and with generous sponsorship from Michael G. & Tatiana Reiff. Several coworkers who weren’t Yiddish speakers tested activities to see if they worked on beginners. Four native Yiddish-speaking actors recorded all of the book’s dialogues: Paula Teitelbaum, Eli Rosen, Allen Lewis Rickman, and Eleanor Reissa. An endless number of people have contributed—this is by no means a comprehensive list! You can read more in the book’s acknowledgments.

MW: The book’s plethora of characters serves as a reminder that the Yiddish world, both past and present, is vast and diverse. It’s something the students really enjoy about the textbook, and something I enjoy incorporating into my teaching. Who came up with the cast of characters? Did you intend to have such a large group? How did you go about reflecting the diverse world of Yiddish today?

AVS: The cast of characters was one of the first things that was created for the book. Almost everything from the early stages has been completely redone by now, except for this. I came up with most of them, and developed the core characters, and Allison Posner also helped. She named the Yiddish professor character —Professor Kluger — which I really appreciate.

The selection of characters was based on my desire to reflect every type of person in the contemporary world who either speaks or studies Yiddish. I began with a list of everybody I knew: there are Jewish characters and non-Jewish characters, there’s a Hasidic family and a family that is veltlekh, there are people of color, people of diverse backgrounds and identities. There is a class of students who study Yiddish with Professor Kluger, and the students come from all over the world: Argentina, Poland, Germany, Russia, Israel, Canada, and the United States. And again, they are Jewish, non-Jewish, observant, and non-observant. One of the most popular characters [among students using the textbook] is Velvl, an atheist graduate student who is an anarchist. There are klezmer musicians, former Hasidim, Yiddish theater actors, retirees in Florida, and a Japanese professor of Jewish studies. When Jordan started working with me, he also pointed out that it is important for future and potential students of all backgrounds to see themselves represented in the book, and so we added several more characters and expanded this diversity even further.

I once posted on Facebook with a question for the Yiddish world, asking what characters should be represented in a Yiddish textbook, and I got some great feedback. One suggestion in particular stood out: Eve Jochnowitz proposed adding a character whose biography, it seemed to me, perfectly captured the life story of so many Yiddish-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. I immediately added her to the book. We called her Berte. As Eve described her, she had once worked as a dentist in Kishinev, and now lives in Brighton Beach where she works as a house cleaner. I gave her a sister, Beyle, who lives in Erfurt, Germany, where there is also a large population of post-Soviet Yiddish speakers. I find it a bit ironic that I hadn’t thought of similar characters myself, since their background so closely resembles my own family’s story of immigration and Yiddish continuity.

There are so many more examples. I tried to cover as much of the innate diversity in the Yiddish world as I could.

MW: In addition to the characters, what other factors were important to you when structuring the textbook?

AVS: The book is structured in such a way as to enable communication from the very beginning. So for example: what does an absolute beginner, without any Yiddish, need to know first to be able to say something? Well, the first things you usually say to someone are what your name is, where you’re from, and where you live. So we start with introductions and with a short geography lesson. That’s the first chapter. An added bonus of teaching geography early on is that the proper nouns are mostly cognate to English, which makes for good practice reading in the alef-beys and gives the students “free” vocab—words they already know. The introductory phrases also serve to acquaint the students with verb conjugations and pronouns, the preliminary building blocks of a sentence.

By the second chapter, the students and the instructor have already met. Now that we are seeing each other again, we add on “how are you doing?” phrases. Then we move on to common verbs and further conjugation work, with all lessons fully contextualized to mirror natural speech. Language elements cannot be taught in a vacuum, so students learn verbs in the context of activities that are done during certain times of day or on certain days of the week. We thus teach verbs with time expressions. I read on Monday morning; Tuesday afternoon I drink coffee, and so on. The addition of adverbs of time naturally leads to learning about word order and the verb second rule. All of this is in Unit I. So creating the textbook structure involved thinking through what vocabulary the students could use first and subsequently which grammar topics would be woven together with that vocabulary as organically as possible.

The rest of the units are based on thematic topics. The theme of Unit II is the classroom, because classroom objects are what students see right in front of them, which makes it easy to talk about these objects. A key aspect of my methodology is associating Yiddish words directly with the objects and concepts that they represent, with an absolutely minimal reliance on other languages as intermediaries. So if I can point at an actual pencil and say “blayer,” that creates a direct association between the object and the Yiddish word. The grammar topics follow naturally here, too: once you know how to say “pencil,” you may want to talk about how many pencils there are in the classroom (learning “es iz/zaynen do” phrases), and which classroom objects we don’t have (learning negation). Once we have a large enough group of nouns, we can also start learning about grammatical gender. Adjectives and colors follow: once you know that I have a pencil, you may want to know whether it’s red or short.

The themes of the subsequent units include family and professions — which go along with the study of nominative and accusative cases, so we can use descriptive adjectives when talking about family members — then food, table settings, and furniture — which are accompanied by learning the dative case, so you can describe the relative positions of various objects using prepositional phrases.

In addition to that, each unit contains a chapter on Jewish holidays: starting with shabes, then High Holidays, and so forth, following the Jewish calendar. Each holiday chapter introduces the basics of that cultural information in a short text, generally followed by a song, fictional text, and/or multimedia activity. At the end of each unit is a review section, which always contains a free-writing exercise based on a piece of fine art, both to introduce students to that aspect of Yiddish culture and to allow them to consolidate the vocab and grammar topics covered in that unit in a creative way. Finally, there is an exercise based on an archival image, generally ephemera such as postcards, posters, and so on.

MW: Do you know how instructors incorporate all of these different sections? Do others tend to pick and choose? This perhaps gets to the intended audience of the textbook.

AVS: The book is meant to be a menu; going through every single exercise in order, it would take a very long time to get through the book. There’s a variety of options available, and instructors can pick and choose what makes sense for them based on the setting, the students’ goals, how often the class meets, etc. I’ve used this book in a variety of settings: intensive programs for college students, intensive week-long courses for older adults, and a regular, year-long college course, as well as “festival courses” (a weeklong course that meets for an hour each day). And I’ve used it differently in each instance. For example, I have summer program students learn the alef-beys ahead of time. But during a festival or a year-long college course, students might come to the first day of class without having learned the alphabet. The textbook can accommodate both scenarios, because there’s a way to teach the entire first unit orally, while the students work on the alef-beys outside of class. One thing that I don’t do is use any transliteration at all. It can become a crutch, and students can end up relying on it too heavily. It becomes so much harder for them to read without it later on. So if students don’t have the alef-beys, I just teach orally and have them work on reading for homework, rather than using transliteration.

When I teach a festival class, I might skip over some of the finer grammar points in the early chapters in favor of focusing on the culturally rich idiomatic phrases highlighted in the book (keyn-e[yn]-hore, refue-shleyme, etc.) that festival students generally appreciate learning about. If you know your audience, you can pick and choose and adapt this book to a myriad of different situations. You can skip certain exercises or sections entirely, or you can assign them for homework, or you can do them at a later point in the class.

I forgot to mention earlier that a crucial component of the textbook is the teacher guide. The book as it stands is meant to be used by independent learners. If you don’t have the opportunity to learn with other people, you can still go through it yourself, and follow the instructions/do everything in writing. That doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities that become available when multiple people are learning together, though. For that reason, every chapter has a teacher guide that teachers can access on the textbook website that explains how to present the material in an optimized way for classroom teaching. The teacher guide thus describes activities that are completely different from those in the book. There are partner as well as small- and large-group activities that teach the same material in ways that are more effective for a classroom setting.

MW: You have also led the Book Center’s Yiddish Pedagogy Program (which I took part in in 2018-19), which has allowed Yiddish instructors to pilot the materials in their courses around the country/world. How does teacher training play a role in the publication of the textbook? And for the Center?

AVS: The communicative approach, and the way it is used in this book, is quite specific in terms of the ways one teaches the materials. If you are not familiar with this method of teaching, it can be tricky to use these materials in an optimal way, and that was one of the goals of the pedagogy program: to teach Yiddish instructors how to use the communicative approach.

The specifics of my method are grounded primarily in the work of Erwin Tschirner, one of the authors of Kontakte, a communicative textbook for German language teaching. He outlines, step by step, the optimal ways for carrying out communicative activities in the language classroom, from vocabulary presentations, to autograph activities, to info-gap activities, and so on. Each requires the instructor to model language and link it to meaning before students produce the language and complete an activity. There is a debrief where students report back on what they’ve learned. 1 1 Erwin Tschirner, “From Input to Output: Communication-Based Teaching
Techniques,” Foreign Language Annals 25, no. 6 (1992), 507-518.

There is also a separate process for teaching authentic texts. The textbook relies heavily on authentic materials — literary texts, film, radio, songs, and archival images. Our model for working with authentic texts is taken from Lee and Van Patten’s Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen, which uses a nice bridge metaphor: you prepare students to cross the bridge, then you guide them across, and then students analyze how the bridge-crossing went. 2 2 James F. Lee and Bill Van Patten, Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen, 2nd. ed (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003).

One of the goals of the Pedagogy Program was to practice these methods, so that when teachers use them in class they are better prepared.

MW: What sort of feedback have you received from instructors piloting these materials? Has the feedback resulted in any changes to the published book?

AVS: Yes, another purpose of the program was to test out the materials. I had been using the textbook for years, and I knew how to use it, but it was important to see how well it worked for other people. There was a lot of valuable feedback. Instructors commented on everything from tiny typos they spotted to activities that were too confusing and needed to be broken down. One of my favorite outcomes of this testing was that instructors made their own materials to go along with some of the lessons and then shared them with one another. [Ed. note: In geveb has published one such supplemental activity here.]

In terms of how it affected the book, the book was quite far along already by the time the pedagogy program convened, but the typos were obviously fixed as well as some organizational aspects people had commented on: “Flipping back to p. 20 to do an activity on p. 40 was tedious; can you reproduce the art on p. 40?”, “Split up this exercise that has too many parts,” etc. Aside from that, what I plan to do is incorporate some of the remaining feedback into the teacher guide on the website, which is still in progress, and reach out to teachers to see if they will share their own materials more widely.

MW: How else do you see the book, or the ways instructors and students use the book, evolving over time?

AVS: Once the book is in print, any evolution will have to happen on the website, because that’s the dynamic portion of this project. There is always more one can add. For example, Rebecca White is currently creating interactive exercises for the website, such as virtual flashcards and image maps, and one can keep making activities like that almost indefinitely. The website will also provide us with an opportunity to make subsequent additions, and include units we left out.

MW: That leads me to the next question: what had to be left out for the sake of time, resources, etc.?

AVS: The book currently contains six units and is 900 pages. It is so large we’ve had to split it into two volumes so that students won’t throw out their backs carrying it around. The very, very first draft outline was divided into ten units, but it was very quickly narrowed down to a fundamental core of eight units. And at some point, once we realized how long the units were — both in terms of page numbers, and also how long it took to get through them in class — the eighth unit had to go. And at a certain point, when the book was already quite long, we realized the seventh unit had to go as well. So we took all of the presentations (vocabulary displays and accompanying exercises), and we placed them into a supplementary chapter at the back of the book. Although that material isn’t fully taught, at least it’s introduced to instructors and students and can be worked into a lesson.

When everything else is done, we hope to make Unit VII available in full on the website. Unit VIII is still in a much, much earlier phase, and will require a lot more work to get it ready. But as an eventual goal it could also be made available through the website.

There are also so many contemporary Hasidic resources that I use but couldn’t include in the book itself due to copyright issues. But I can add to the website information on where teachers and students can get these materials themselves and provide accompanying exercises.

MW: When used in a college or university setting, how do you see the book being used for multiple terms?

AVS: It was meant to be used over two semesters for a beginner course, but if you do all of the exercises and activities as they are presented, there is material for at least a year and a half of Yiddish instruction. And then if those other two units are completed and posted, it could easily become a two-year course. I realized that when I am working at maximum speed, and skipping around on the non-essential components, I still only get through 4.5 units in a full-year course (or summer intensive equivalent to two semesters). Other teachers who have used the book usually get halfway through unit 4 in a year. What you miss out on in that first year in breadth, however, you more than make up for in depth—by the end of year one, my students don’t necessarily know complex time phrases or the conditional, but they can fluently and accurately use the vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and structures that they have studied, easily conversing with one another and expressing themselves in creative writing.

MW: Apart from keeping up-to-date teaching materials on the website and publishing new textbooks, what other challenges for Yiddish language pedagogy are you and others facing, especially as they relate to language study more broadly?

AVS: Well, today, there are a lot of challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully it will be temporary, but right now everyone is moving to online coursework for the immediate future. There’s a chance that this will become more long-term if universities like the model. While I have spent time converting my [Steiner Program] class to an online format, and it’s doable, it took a tremendous amount of work. And although there is great value in online instruction when there are no other options, for instance for people who don’t have Yiddish classes available where they live, much is lost when you can’t be in a physical space together. There are activities that I had to modify and cut out that weren’t Zoom friendly. That’s one challenge, and it might make communicative language teaching more difficult if the reality of the current situation continues.

One thing that I think many struggle with when teaching Yiddish is finding materials for more advanced levels. There are a lot of wonderful textbooks out there, but it depends on your approach to teaching, and some materials don’t fit well with a particular teaching method. With advanced levels, other questions come up in addition to what materials to use. For example, how does one use authentic texts? How does one choose them and process them for a class? And again, a lot of people are creating their own materials, which is wonderful, but there is not a centralized place where these materials can be edited and shared.

MW: When will the book become available, and who will be publishing the book?

AVS: The Yiddish Book Center is publishing it through their in-house imprint, White Goat Press, and it will be available through the Yiddish Book Center store. The book is going to press this month [May 2020], so hopefully it will be available this summer, probably in early July. There is still a lot of work to be done on the website, particularly on the teacher guide, and exercises that are web-only, but the book itself is (keyn-eyn-hore) done. We just finished putting the final touches on the index. We wanted to have it ready in July so that teachers could pre-order it for their fall semester classes.

It is a two-volume book (about 450 pages in each volume), only in the sense that it is being printed that way; it is packaged as one book, and the pagination is continuous. The textbook includes website access, which houses the multimedia resources, interactive exercises, and teacher resources including guides, visuals, materials for activities, and worksheets. Students also have access to high-resolution versions of images found in the book.

MW: Before we conclude, is there anything else you would like to say about the book?

AVS: In being able to write this book, I am of course very indebted to all of my Yiddish teachers, and the examples they set in all of their classes. I am also indebted to a number of Yiddish pedagogy seminars I myself attended over the years. There was one year I attended a seminar with Sheva Zucker, where we read an article by Claire Kramsch [Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley], which ultimately shaped some of the ways the textbook deals with authentic texts. 3 3 Claire Kramsch, “The Cultural Discourse of Foreign Language Textbooks,” Toward a New Integration of Language and Culture, ed. Alan J. Singerman (Middlebury, VT: Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1988). It had a lot of great ideas about interactive activities for students based around authentic texts.

We talked earlier about the characters representing the Yiddish world, but another important cultural component of the book is the authentic texts, which were selected to represent Yiddish culture as broadly as possible, both “big C” and “little c”— not just canonical literary texts by Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, but also postcards, tkhines, radio shows, songs, posters, advertisements, and oral histories. We wanted to present materials from as broad a geographic, chronological, and political/religious spectrum as possible, to expose the students to as many Yiddishes as possible. We also wanted to represent different orthographies and different dialects.

MW: That is another amazing feature about this book; it makes students work through some of the preconceived notions some might have when learning Yiddish.

AVS: Practically, it’s very important to prepare students to encounter all of these different things once they go out and encounter Yiddish outside of class. You need to be prepared to read about Shvues and know what it is, you need to be prepared to read Soviet orthography and encounter loshn-koydesh words that are spelled phonetically, or open an older edition of Sholem Aleichem and see the letter hey where you might not expect it. It’s important for their next forays into Yiddishland.

MLA STYLE
Weinshel, Meyer. “In eynem’s Communicative Approach to Yiddish Pedagogy: An Interview with Asya Vaisman Schulman.” In geveb, June 2020: https://ingeveb.org/blog/interview-with-asya-vaisman-schulman.
CHICAGO STYLE
Weinshel, Meyer. “In eynem’s Communicative Approach to Yiddish Pedagogy: An Interview with Asya Vaisman Schulman.” In geveb (June 2020): Accessed Sep 28, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meyer Weinshel

Meyer Weinshel is a PhD Candidate in Germanic Studies and History at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. He teaches Yiddish language and culture classes with Jewish Community Action in Minneapolis.