Feb 23, 2020
In an effort to pool the wisdom and experience acquired by our contributors’ work in the classroom, In geveb regularly polls Yiddish instructors on topics related to Yiddish pedagogy. In our Loyt Di Lerers series, we compile ideas and best practices for teachers who teach Yiddish, teach about Yiddish, and teach with texts from Yiddish sources. The responses to these polls offer a cross-section of the opinions, approaches, and experiences of Yiddish 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.
This past summer, YIVO organized a teachers’ seminar, led by Miriam Trinh and Eliezer Niborski and dedicated to discussing issues of Yiddish language pedagogy. While every day of the seminar provided extremely rich food for thought—ranging from “How and when do we teach our students to use dictionaries and which dictionaries?“ to “How can we instruct our students in correct Yiddish handwriting?”—it was in particular the question of “How and when do we teach khurbn materials in our language classes?” that struck a nerve among participants.
Therefore, following the seminar, we posed the same question to all In geveb readers.The respondents to this poll teach Yiddish to adults of all ages in a variety of settings: at colleges and universities, community institutions, and synagogues (all in Anglophone settings). Most of their students are Jewish and some of them may have heard Yiddish growing up or may be children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. With their permission, we have assembled their responses below.
Including the khurbn in a Yiddish curriculum
Although it might come as a surprise to some readers, overall, the khurbn does not feature very prominently (“it tends to come up obliquely”) in the respondents’ Yiddish language classes. This is the case for several reasons: time constraints, balancing teaching the khurbn—which is prominent in many other settings—with all other topics, and the desire to avoid that students “see Yiddish civilization primarily through its destruction.” The latter reason echoed strongly across most responses, where one respondent noted that “the challenge is that [the khurbn] could decenter and also make lachrymose the vibrant world of Yiddish culture that existed prior,” while another said “it makes sense to hold off on a fuller confrontation with the Holocaust until [students] have a more mature grip on the language and some appreciation of its other riches.” Consequently, a third teacher explained: “When I do cover materials that were produced during or about the khurbn I tend to focus on resistance, humour, etc. to create a different idea about the past—e.g. songs from Yiddish Glory or tales of the underground,” particularly because this teacher recalls reading several khurbn poems in their own first Yiddish course that were “upsetting for other students.” It is not surprising, then, that no respondent has created a separate “khurbn unit” for their classes. The opportunity to consider what a “khurbn unit” might look like seems ripe for exploration, especially in a Yiddish classroom where both teachers and students are increasingly historically removed from the Holocaust, and particularly in a more advanced Yiddish class where the pitfall of presenting Jewish Eastern Europe as just one point along the long lachrymose history of Jewry is less present. Another open question is how the pushback among some young Jews against centering the Holocaust in the construction of contemporary Jewish identity might affect our teaching of the khurbn in decades to come.
While entire khurbn units in language classes are not a popular choice, some teachers do opt for individual sessions on the topic. Meyer Weinshel explains: “I find that devoting specific sessions to the topic helps. At the same time, I make sure students are cognizant of these topics throughout the time they spend learning a language.” To create her khurbn sessions, Perl Teitelbaum combines commemoration and teaching on Tisha b’Av or on April 19th. She explains: “I integrate the Jewish calendar into my Yiddish language classes, and use the holidays and commemorative occasions as an opportunity to teach both language and culture. In April, we mark the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and honor the memory of the 6,000,000 Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Whether I am teaching a first semester beginners class or another level, I always include a reading text, a PowerPoint presentation, or a song to mark the occasion.” Similarly, one respondent explains that they sang Beyze vintn and Partizaner lid in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh attack, although without discussing the khurbn much.
Other teachers place their khurbn session toward the end of their course (Yom HaShoah sometimes falls towards the end of spring semesters), or only during the second semester so that students “feel that Yiddish is more than just Holocaust studies—so much of our identity as Jews in golus is already based on the khurbn.”
Materials for teaching the khurbn
Respondents incorporate a variety of materials into their khurbn curriculum: songs, poetry, a calendar from a concentration camp, yizkor books, and oral history excerpts. Among all respondents, song was the genre listed most often, with poetry a close second. For instance, Sheva Zucker’s textbook includes Aaron Zeitlin’s “Children of Majdanek” as a supplemental text. Meyer Weinshel teaches Kadya Molodowsky’s “El Khanun,” Avrom Sutzkever’s “Blayerne platn fun roms drukeray,” and Malka Heifetz-Tussman’s “Tsu dir, Miryem.” Weinshel relates that “some were deeply moved by Molodowsky and Sutzkever, and others were less so. I am not sure how else to articulate this, but it seems to coincide with the lack of Jewish literacy in general, and nuanced discourse regarding Yiddish that many Jews are subjected to throughout their lives, and which has been happening for generations.” Non-fiction and multi-media materials appear to be less commonly taught even though oral history excerpts are often incorporated into other class sessions, such as those on daily life or religious holidays, or to showcase particular types of speech or vocabulary. One respondent explained that they teach Holocaust films in a culture class on Yiddish film rather than in a language class. A third respondent mentioned incorporating snippets of Image Before My Eyes into their class. Perl Teitelbaum noted that while she does not use oral history videos, she does use topical videos from the Forverts or Yiddish Book Center.
Linguistic elements of teaching the khurbn
Our respondents only teach a relatively limited amount of khurbn-specific vocabulary, such as the following words (which include a fair number of loshn-koydesh words): khurbn, lager, sheyres-hapleyte, kedoyshim, korbones, hazkore, umkumen, lebn-geblibene, partizaner. The word khurbn in itself presents a linguistic teaching opportunity in that it differs from the more familiar Holocaust or Shoah and in that the assimilation of the beys-nun ending to -bm (khurbm) can be practiced. One respondent explained that they “don’t feel the need to spend class time going over lists of things like different types of weapons or ways to kill people.” Family members and geography might also be particularly relevant vocabulary, especially if students would like to discuss their personal and family histories.
Our respondents draw connections between the primary sources they present in the context of khurbn sessions and certain grammatical concepts and vocabulary in several ways: A handwritten concentration camp calendar can be connected to time-related language and grammar; a discussion of the poem Mayn shvester Khaye can highlight possessive verbs, colors, and family names; a discussion of the poem “Children of Majdanek” can highlight the function of the diminutives and the structure of a lullaby. Perl Teitelbaum created a PowerPoint presentation about the Riverside Park commemoration to accompany her session on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and made it a point to include many complemented verbs.
Contextualizing the khurbn
Overall, our respondents do not spend too much time teaching more general Holocaust history as background information but may alert their students to relevant lectures, screenings etc. Instead, these language teachers opt for teaching history as it emerges from the Yiddish content they teach. One teacher responded that they are “aware that [these materials are] different in Yiddish, the language of much of Jewish experience of these events” and would hope to incorporate this knowledge into a more general Holocaust Studies class. Meyer Weinshel explains that he provides “a brief lecture/powerpoint on forms of resistance, and include[s] these events [and] groups in trying to convey what was at stake [and] what/who survived thanks to their efforts.” He also relates how discussing family histories in his Yiddish class led to a discussion “about the role of multiple languages/translation for Holocaust memory” and curiosity about other source materials. In my own teaching I have noticed that even students who attended Jewish secondary schools often lack sufficient contextual knowledge to dive into Yiddish source texts right away. For instance, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (and the Bund’s role therein), the Oyneg Shabes archive, the presence of Jews in the Red Army that liberated many camps, Jews fleeing deep into the Soviet Union’s Eastern provinces, and much more cannot be assumed as existing background knowledge on Holocaust history. Personally, I’d be keen to see more exploration among Yiddish educators of what corrective our Yiddish classes might be able to offer to more mainstream and monolingual versions of Holocaust education. Moreover, none of the respondents to this poll work in Europe or Israel; I would be eager to engage with reflections on this topic from colleagues working in these places, where the khurbn and Holocaust memory operate differently in both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.