Apr 28, 2019
Here at In geveb, we often poll instructors in order to understand the world of contemporary Yiddish pedagogy as it is practiced, as well as to highlight novel and effective teaching strategies. Now that we have a bona-fide undergraduate student of Yiddish on board (yours truly), we thought it might prove fruitful to turn the tables and ask Yiddish students how they feel about Yiddish education. The responses we received were remarkably diverse. Students of Yiddish are all ages, and they learn the language with the aid of a whole slew of institutions, organizations, and materials.
The most striking themes running through our responses were the ways in which students of Yiddish identify with Yiddish itself. This is manifested in the diversity of age and experience, but also seems to be something that influences what sort of education they find most fulfilling. Our respondents seek a Yiddish pedagogy that is learned but vernacular, beautiful but practical, and above all accessible. Whether this means the inclusion of materials such as songs and exposure to non-standard Yiddish, a relaxed but rigorous classroom setting, or reduced fees for Yiddish programs, these responses show that when a student wants to learn Yiddish, they are often looking for much more than a language.
How old are you?
The ages of our respondents varied widely. The youngest respondent was 15, the oldest, 74. Around half reported that they were under 30, and the other half was spread evenly up to 74. The most well-represented ages were 22, 29, and 30.
What was your first exposure to Yiddish studies?
Again, there was a great deal of diversity. Some responded that they had been exposed to Yiddish from a very young age, hearing the language spoken by their parents and grandparents. Others came to Yiddish as students in education programs. The split was primarily correlated with age: older respondents were more likely to have heard Yiddish at home, while younger respondents had more often than not come to the language in a classroom setting.
Among those whose first experience with Yiddish was not at home, university classes were the most common alternative. Some took Yiddish as a part of a Jewish studies program; others learned it as an elective. The Yiddish Book Center takes second place as an introductory vector into Yiddish Studies, and Yiddish Farm receives an honorable mention.
What was your impression of Yiddish before your first exposure to Yiddish studies?
Although American Jewish culture has long fostered a repulsion toward Yiddish, our survey responses provided evidence of only casual disinterest. Only two responses mentioned a previous antipathy towards Yiddish (“I was passionately disinterested, and spent most of my life successfully avoiding it,” “A dusty, pre-modern, thoroughly uninteresting language of oppression”). Then again, a poll directed towards Yiddish students is likely not representative of larger, non-Yiddish-learning populations.
Many students related that to them Yiddish was a language of their older family. One writes that “[their] grandparents speak it but it always sounded very “diasporic” and foreign to [them],” another that Yiddish was “a secret code used by [their] parents long ago.”
For many, elements of post-vernacular Yiddish had become an important part of how they viewed the language. They did not “conceive of it as a speakable learnable language and thought of it as a set of words used otherwise with English;” they believed that it was “funny and phlegmy,” or that the “material was campy, tragic, or both.” It seems that in place of the ideological position that Yiddish is a language of exile that must be forgotten in order to assimilate, the decline in secular Yiddish speakers has brought about this denigration of Yiddish as non-language.
However, the absence of Yiddish from the contemporary public sphere in contrast to its high historical value has itself become something that attracts students to the language. The idea of Yiddish as a “secret code” or “lost treasure” runs through many of these responses. Knowledge of the language allows one to participate in this hidden cultural heritage, and probe documents and find information that would otherwise have been lost.
How proficient are you in Yiddish?
The respondents reported a wide variety of levels of proficiency. A quarter considered themselves beginners, and another quarter stated that they can read, speak, and listen but do so haltingly.
Around 20% reported that their Yiddish was advanced, with another 10% identifying as fluent.
What would you identify as your primary interest in Yiddish?
A plurality of students, 25%, responded that their primary interest in Yiddish was literature. Interest in history took second place, followed by interest in language/linguistics. While the art and religion responses were somewhat neglected (only two selections each), this was the question for which we received the most write-in responses. Many respondents wrote something along the lines of “culture” or “all of the above,” indicating that their interest in Yiddish was less tied to an individual application of the language, and instead to a broader investment in Yiddish language and culture as a whole.
What Yiddish studies classes have you taken?
In true Yiddish style, our students were highly itinerant, with very few responding that they only learned Yiddish from one program or at one location. Instead, almost every respondent had participated in a series of classes and programs and/or learned the language independently. Outside of universities, the most commonly mentioned Yiddish teaching institution was the Workmen’s Circle. Others had attended programs at the Yiddish Book Center, the Maison de La Culture Yiddish, YIVO, and elsewhere, from Monsey to Warsaw and everywhere in between.
What ideas, themes, or characteristics do you look for in a Yiddish studies class?
The responses overwhelmingly favored classes focused on practical Yiddish, in which one can engage with real material that would otherwise have been inaccessible because of its obscurity or the difficulty of the language. One student wrote that their ideal Yiddish class would contain “exposure to primary literature that we would not otherwise have access to (e.g. not translated), comprehensive and fast paced language learning.” Another wrote that they preferred “focus on spoken language rather than academic study.”
The preference for practical Yiddish ties into a more broadly overarching theme within the responses: that Yiddish classes should operate on Yiddish values. As one response put it:
“I look for a real embodiment of the context in which idioms and relationships existed and thrived. I want there to be an understanding of and respect for the people who spoke it as much as for their beliefs and practices. The language didn’t evolve in a linguistic vacuum, and I appreciate an acknowledgment of that.”
There is a widespread desire that Yiddish classes should not only teach the linguistic element of Yiddish, but do so in a way that reflects, honors, and transmits the culture of its speakers. The idea is that without these elements all one does is learn a language that sounds like Yiddish.
For many, this means that Yiddish classrooms must be places of radical inclusion. To exclude minority voices from the classroom in which a minority language is being taught could only hinder learning. Students wrote that “queer participation,” “social activism,” “and Jewish radicalism” were all elements that made Yiddish classes effective.
What particular texts have you found meaningful or instructive in your development as a student of Yiddish or Yiddish studies?
Not surprisingly, Weinreich’s College Yiddish was the most popular response. Other textbooks mentioned include Kahn’s Colloquial Yiddish, Jacobs’s Yiddish: A Linguistic Introduction, Goldberg’s Yidish af yidish, the Yiddish Book Center’s In eynem, and Zucker’s Introduction to Yiddish.
In terms of reading material, the Forverts was far and away the most mentioned. From articles to videos, many students reported that they found the Yiddish published by Forverts to be particularly helpful in learning the language.
The literary tastes of our respondents were quite varied, with the works of Itzik Manger, Kadya Molodowsky, Avrom Sutzkever, Elie Wiesel, Y.Y. Singer, and Mendele Moykher Sforim cited as especially important.
Scholarship also served an important role for many students, who responded that scholars such as Ruth Wisse, Jeffrey Shandler, Jeremy Dauber, Samuel Kassow, and Dovid Katz had inspired their work with the language.
What is your favorite piece of Yiddish media?
Again, the responses varied. Some preferred classic Yiddish media like Ansky’s Der Dybbuk, Aaron Zeitlin’s poetry, the stories of Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Moykher Sforim, the prose of Abraham Cahan and Abraham Sutzkever. The Yiddish Book Center’s digital collection was the primary source through which these works were read.
Still others were most interested in contemporary Yiddish media. Again, the Forverts ranked among the best loved sources for good Yiddish. Vaybertaytsh, the queer feminist podcast in Yiddish, also received a large number of mentions, with students noting its clear language and forward-looking, non-Yiddish-focused content. Your humble servants here at In geveb got a few shouts-out as well, which was nice.
Other pieces of media mentioned included the journal Der Veker, the album Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II (a collaboration by Psoy Korolenko and Anna Shternshis), and the comedy series YidLife Crisis.
Is there anything else you’d like to share that our questions didn’t cover?
In response to the question “Is there anything else you’d like to share that our questions didn’t cover?” some people left salient criticisms of Yiddish language pedagogy:
One student writes: “Yiddish pedagogy could really benefit from looking at current second language acquisition theory of how only very few people can acquire a language through grammar. Students would really benefit from their [sic] being texts available at their level of comprehension. Comprehensible input is the key to language acquisition and I have so far never seen the approaches that have been developed to maximize comprehensible input for students used in any Yiddish language classroom.”
Another critiqued the practice of teaching primarily klal Yiddish:
“I noticed that many older people that speak dialects of Yiddish rather than klal-yidish can feel “intimidated” by what they might feel is promoted as ”proper” Yiddish. I guess that it would be good for Yiddish students to be able to meet with ”natural” speakers and learn from them in a context where they feel that their knowledge in Yiddish is appreciated..”
A third respondent stated simply: “Cost of programs is hard to justify”
We hope you enjoyed this survey and that you were able to glean some insight from the responses we received from Yiddish students! This poll received the most responses in the history of In geveb pedagogy polls, and we are excited to continue this project as a way to hear student voices. So, in line with this idea, we asked students what sort of poll they would be interested in in the future. Some ideas included:
- Relationships between Yiddish learning and community building
- Common mistakes when learning Yiddish
- How Yiddish students are learning, performing, and enjoying Yiddish song
- In what ways is religion a part of your Yiddish learning
Stay tuned for future surveys for Yiddish students on these or other topics, and if you have suggestions about other things we should be asking about, please let us know. If you didn’t respond to this poll but would like to tell us about your experiences as a Yiddish language learner, please write to [email protected].