Pedagogy

לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: The Great Weinreich Debate

Madeleine Cohen

INTRODUCTION

In an effort to pool the wisdom and questions acquired from our work in the classroom, In geveb regularly polls Yiddish language instructors on topics related to Yiddish pedagogy. The responses to these polls offer a cross section of the opinions, approaches, and experiences of Yiddish language 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 language, add your voice to the discussion in our next poll. And if you want to share your opinion on the topic presented below, please do so! We’ll publish an addendum with new responses.

To Weinreich, or Not to Weinreich?

In our inaugural poll we asked teachers which textbooks they prefer to use for introductory Yiddish classes. In the first installment of this series, we focused on the different needs of university classrooms and continuing education classrooms, and how those differences affect what kind of textbook to use (if any) and how.

The other topic that came up in almost every response to our poll was Uriel Weinreich’s seminal textbook, College Yiddish. Although it was published in 1949 and has never been updated, many teachers feel that it is still the most thorough textbook available for introductory Yiddish classes—and yet, even the teachers who swear by it acknowledge its limitations. Other teachers seem to never want to see the book again.

First, some of the pro-Weinreich opinions:

Several teachers mention the ubiquity of the textbook as a benefit: if many students begin their studies with Weinreich, teachers of intermediate and advanced classes can assess students’ levels based on what is presented in College Yiddish and how Weinreich teaches it.

Sunny Yudkoff (University of Chicago) identifies another benefit. “When using a textbook from 1949, students immediately comport themselves with respect when speaking about or in Yiddish,” she writes. “I find that the serious tone of Weinreich immediately quashes any kitschy conception [of Yiddish] that the students have or might be inclined to bring with them to class.”

Teachers also note how useful it is to have Weinreich’s presentation of grammar as a framework. The “synopsis of grammar” at the end of the textbook is essential for students and instructors alike. Even if College Yiddish doesn’t offer everything you need in a textbook, it remains an important reference.

Itzik Gottesman (University of Texas at Austin) notes that the length and breadth of material in College Yiddish works well for an intensive program. In his yearlong course that meets six hours per week, the amount of material was perfect: they finished the book in April. However, Gottesman writes, he will not be using College Yiddish in future years. Despite appreciating the structure of College Yiddish, its short chapters, and the texts and exercises, he has decided that “the readings at the beginning of each chapter used to be just embarrassing, but by now they are beyond embarrassing and when you have a non-Jewish student of color in the class you realize how unusable they are.” 1 1 Gottesman is likely referring to the text at the beginning of Lesson 3, “In nyu-york oyf der gas,” which includes the line “oyf der zelbiker gas voynen yidn, italiener, shpanyer, grikhn, negers, khinezer, irlender.” p. 45. No one would question Weinreich’s intentions—Lesson 5 opens with Peretz’s poem “Ale mentshn zaynen brider”—but vocabulary and attitudes that were acceptable in 1949 are not in 2015 (certainly not an issue unique to Yiddish!). Even the assertion in the opening text (which most of us could probably recite from memory), “Yidish fareynikt yidn fun ale lender” is often seen by students today as Ashkenazi-centric, participating in the marginalization of other Jewish communities.

Jenna Ingalls (University of California, Berkeley) notes a similar problem, calling it the “time capsule nature of the book.” The texts are certainly of historical interest to students of Yiddish in the twentieth century, but she adds, “The overwhelming presence of the Holocaust makes it difficult to teach with when one has communicative goals in mind.” One example is the introduction of the past tense with a reading entitled “Yidn in geto.” Ingalls also notes that Weinreich is challenging for teachers with a communicative approach who want to use Yiddish as much as possible in a beginning classroom, partially because its grammar explanations are in English.

Many teachers end up striking a compromise: using Weinreich to frame and structure their courses, while supplementing that textbook with material from other textbooks or materials they make themselves. Hanan Bordin (Hebrew University of Jerusalem and instructor at many summer programs) published his own textbooks to pair with College Yiddish; he uses his book Vort bay vort: Materyaln far onheybers in combination with Weinreich. I myself find Vort bay vort essential when teaching the past tense, and always use its verb tables to supplement whatever other text I am using.

Ellie Kellman (Brandeis University) wrote that after using College Yiddish for years and creating her own supplementary materials along the way, she eventually realized that her supplementary materials stood on their own, and she no longer needed the textbook as a frame.

Aside from College Yiddish, the other textbook most frequently mentioned by teachers in our poll was Sheva Zucker’s Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture. Ingalls notes that Zucker is more adaptable than Weinreich to an “input +1” model, in which students “have to confront the real language situation of not knowing every word and grammatical concept, and subsequently have to develop skills to use what vocabulary and grammar they do have to negotiate meaning.” 2 2 See Krashen, Stephen D. 1985. The input hypothesis: issues and implications. London: Longman. Gottesman has also used Zucker, but notes that it is not enough material for his yearlong course. And if only we didn’t have to dig cassette players out of closets and attics to use the audio materials! 3 3 The audio material for Zucker’s textbooks are actually now available on CD as well as cassette and can be ordered here: http://www.shevazucker.com/audio-recordings-1.html

What’s the best solution to all of these problems? Start sharing those beautiful selfmade supplementary materials with your fellow Yiddish teachers here in In geveb’s pedagogy section! We hope you’ll consider submitting a lesson plan or activity you’ve designed. And, you can participate in our next poll: What do you do on your first day of class?

MLA STYLE
Cohen, Madeleine. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: The Great Weinreich Debate.” In geveb, September 2015: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/לויט-די-לערערס-teachers-weigh-in-the-great-weinreich-debate.
CHICAGO STYLE
Cohen, Madeleine. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: The Great Weinreich Debate.” In geveb (September 2015): Accessed Aug 21, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeleine Cohen

Madeleine Cohen received her PhD in Comparative Literature with a designated emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the Director of Translation and Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center and In geveb's Senior Editor.