Sep 14, 2017
In an effort to pool the wisdom and questions acquired from our contributors’ work in the classroom, In geveb regularly polls Yiddish instructors on topics related to Yiddish pedagogy. The responses to these polls offer a cross-section of the opinions, approaches, and experiences of instructors from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, from children’s programs to university classes to continuing education courses, from new teachers to those with a lifetime of experience. If you teach Yiddish, teach with Yiddish, or teach about Yiddish, add your voice to the discussion in our next poll, on the ways teachers do (or do not) bring their private selves to their teaching. And if you wish to share your opinion on the topic presented below, please do so! We may publish an addendum with new responses.
In this “Loyt Di Lerers” forum, we return to the Yiddish language classroom to discuss the topic of Intermediate language learners. We have discussed textbooks for the beginner’s classroom in the past, and we know that the resources available for beginners are growing in number and sophistication. But what happens after students have mastered the first year of language learning? What new material should they learn next? What are the unique challenges facing instructors of Yiddish at the Intermediate level? In geveb is grateful to those who participated in this poll and helped to shed light on this topic.
The Goals of Intermediate Yiddish
Yiddish language instructors at the Intermediate level approach their courses with different goals in mind, and this influences the resources they use and the way they focus their attention. While some teachers focus specifically on texts, others are interested in a broader array of language skills.
According to Rebecca Margolis (University of Ottowa), the Intermediate Yiddish classroom should introduce students to “a variety of texts and materials.” Students should produce English translations of Yiddish texts as well as their own original Yiddish texts. Margolis goes on to explain that “Yiddish learning should remain fun beyond the beginner level. Students should be able to talk about their lives and use Yiddish in real and meaningful ways and not just learn to read texts.” Sheva Zucker (Weinreich Summer Program and Workmen’s Circle) agrees with this assessment, adding that the goal of Intermediate Yiddish is “to make it possible for students to begin reading Yiddish literature (whether prose, the newspaper, history, etc)” as well as learning grammar and conversational skills. Other teachers also emphasize the importance of skills beyond texts. As one instructor describes her course, the purpose is to have students “improve and develop reading, writing, speaking skills, not necessarily in that order.” Isaac Bleaman (New York University) echoes that sentiment, insisting that an Intermediate Yiddish class should be conducted entirely in Yiddish so that students are not simply learning about Yiddish but are gaining comfort and fluency in the language.
For many teachers, the overarching goals of the Intermediate Yiddish language class go beyond any particular skill. The purpose of the course, as one teacher explains, is “to impart a love and respect for the language and culture,” or, as Bleaman puts it, “to instill in the students a desire to learn more!”
Intermediate Yiddish is not an easy course to teach. Instructors explain that it can be difficult to convince students to continue with Yiddish beyond the first year—to commit to serious study, rather than just getting a taste for the language. Those who do begin Intermediate Yiddish courses are often of varying levels, having come from summer programs and with knowledge of different related languages and concepts. Intermediate Yiddish teachers also explain that teaching at this level requires “dealing with the more rigorous challenges of advanced grammatical and cultural concepts” and it is hard to do so in a way that excites and engages students. Bleaman shared that he feels a responsibility to familiarize students at the Intermediate Yiddish level with the Hasidic/Haredi dialect that most Yiddish-speaking people speak and write today, even though this dialect is not represented in much of the available pedagogical material. He notes that he would be interested in learning how other instructors meet this particular challenge. Please write to us if you have ideas to share with our readership about this issue.
Intermediate instructors draw upon a variety of textbooks. Teachers specifically mentioned the second volume of Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish: An Introduction, with its accompanying CDs, the second half of Weinreich’s College Yiddish, and David Goldberg’s Yidish af Yidish. Several of our respondents indicated that they also create their own material and supplement with materials they find outside the textbooks.
Intermediate Yiddish teachers draw from a variety of primary sources including literary texts, films, and songs. For songs in particular, many teachers turn to the CDs that accompany Sheva Zucker’s textbook. They look for songs that use grammatical structures that they focus on in class. Bleaman mentioned in particular his interest in teaching texts that introduce students to multiple dialects of Yiddish.
One teacher shared that she uses class time to teach students to navigate the Yiddish Book Center’s Digital Library so that they can discover and select resources themselves. She explains that she draws on students suggestions and preferences when choosing texts for the class. Students find pieces that they develop into larger projects of research and translation.
Another teacher requires students to learn some of Manger’s “Megilleh Lider,” along with the musical production, and to present them at the end of the semester.
Zucker recommends the newly published student adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Peysi dem Khazns, complete with glossaries, exercises, illustrations, and an audio recording,as particularly well suited for the Intermediate classroom. She also explains that she requires students in an intensive summer program to choose a book and read a chapter a week on their own. She recommends autobiographies because of their straightforward storytelling and usually simpler language. Students in the past have enjoyed works by Shloyme Simon, Shmerl Nar, Khaver Paver, and Yehoyash. When translations exist Zucker makes them available for students to read at home. “I think this is one way that makes it possible to deal with various levels,” she writes. “If students can get oriented by reading something in their native language it enables them to participate even if the work is somewhat beyond their comfort level.”
Margolis offered many suggestions of texts and resources that are appropriate for Intermediate students. Among these she highlights these Pre-World War II Polish Jewish travelogues.
Games, Projects, and Activities
In addition to texts, teachers of Intermediate Yiddish rely on games to reinforce grammar and encourage students to speak. Teachers mentioned creating Yiddish variants of Go Fish, Twister, twenty questions, charades, and crossword puzzles.
Zucker’s Intermediate Yiddish classes focus on literature, and her students read texts out loud in groups, with discussion questions to facilitate conversation. Students are sometimes asked to write their own discussion questions to pose to other groups of students. One activity she recommends is to have students retell the story of a literary work from a different character’s perspective.
One teacher explains that she tasks her Intermediate Yiddish students with an assignment in which they have to gain familiarity with a Yiddish book. The students are asked to find a Yiddish book in their university library, “check it out, scan the title page and colophon, table of contents, and a couple of pages at the beginning and the end of the book. Then they have to figure out what the book is, and who the author was, when and where published, and what it’s about. I introduce them to the Leksikon fun der nayer yiddisher literatur, which they bravely attempt. They then present a brief oral account of the book in class and write a two page essay in Yiddish to hand in at the end of the semester.” She has also extended this project into the following semester, asking students to read further into the Yiddish texts and research about them, translate excerpts of the text, give another oral presentation on what they’d learned and write up a slightly longer essay about their chosen text.
And Bleaman reminds us exams are also an important and useful class activity!
The Grammar of Intermediate Yiddish
We asked Intermediate Yiddish teachers to explain to us the grammatical concepts they feel are central to this level of language learning. One teacher explained that she expects to cover the grammar outlined in the second half of College Yiddish, and another emphasized that students should leave Intermediate Yiddish understanding how to construct a grammatical Yiddish sentence in all tenses, with pronouns, the reflexive zikh, negation, and complex verbs (with converbs, prefixes, and loshn-koydesh elements), as well as passive constructions. In addition to specific grammatical points, a third teacher offers that Intermediate Yiddish students should leave the class understanding that Yiddish “is highly complex and nuanced.”
A Call for Resources
Last year Sunny Yudkoff (University of Wisconsin-Madison) shared with us reflections on working with Yiddish radio with her Intermediate Yiddish students. We are eager to compile and share resources of this sort: worksheets, activities, reflections on projects, annotated texts with discussion questions. If you are compiling and creating your own materials for the Yiddish language classroom, let us share your materials so that other instructors can learn from your work! Send your submissions to [email protected].org.