Critical Language Pedagogy: A Report from an AJS Roundtable

Meyer Weinshel, Sara Feldman and Orian Zakai


When In geveb asked in Spring 2021 if I (Mey­er) would chair a round­table on teach­ing at the upcom­ing AJS, I enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly said yes. My ini­tial idea for the round­table was to address the cur­rent role of crit­i­cal iden­ti­ties in our ped­a­go­gies when teach­ing Jew­ish lan­guages. Two of us (Sara Feld­man and I) had helped pilot the Yid­dish Book Center’s new begin­ner text­book, In eynem, and had nav­i­gat­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges that arose when cre­at­ing new cur­ric­u­la from scratch. In addi­tion, it quick­ly became clear to me that I need­ed to include instruc­tors of oth­er Jew­ish lan­guages in addi­tion to Yid­dish. A more com­par­a­tive lens would expose larg­er struc­tur­al issues fac­ing instruc­tors in our field(s), and with­in Jew­ish stud­ies at large. I also felt it impor­tant to have this dis­cus­sion at the AJS, a con­fer­ence that has incon­sis­tent­ly addressed labor, gen­der, and equi­ty with­in our profession(s).

The roundtable initially included four people—scholars and instructors of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Judeo-Spanish. 1 1 Dr. Bryan Kirschen, who was also set to participate in the roundtable, was forced to pull out of the conference due to the continued uncertainty we placed on holding the roundtable after two of us withdrew. We are grateful for his involvement in the initial planning discussions, and for his insights he planned to provide regarding Judeo-Spanish. Kirschen had planned to also discuss the development of new lexicons of endangered yet living Jewish languages. We wanted to address the structural challenges we face as language instructors teaching in higher- and community-education settings. Dwindling institutional support for language study in the United States and the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated already low enrollment numbers for less commonly taught languages. We all felt the repercussions of these declines in various ways, which have also affected colleagues across higher education.

Our title:


The context I set, and the questions I posed, for all of us to address included the following:

Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish, and Yiddish classrooms are sites of rapidly evolving language usage, due in part to the inevitable connection between language production and contemporary politics, from Black Lives Matter to Queer visibility in and outside of Jewish spaces. As virtual learning has proliferated in recent years, even prior to COVID, and online courses have become global sites of negotiating meaning of, and in, multiple languages, how has this:

- Allowed for broader community support of Jewish languages?

- Led to more (and more diverse) classroom spaces that extend beyond a physical university?

- Exposed certain opportunities and challenges?

    Language instruction has long been a casualized form of labor across higher education. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend in recent years. In addition to the labor crisis, I also wanted to highlight the structural, political, and cultural impediments to navigating new modalities (pre- and post-COVID), and to situating “old vs. new” forms of language usage among endangered languages. The stakes are also much higher for contingent instructors who have smaller networks of instructors for resource sharing.

    To make matters more complicated, the ongoing pandemic quickly reshaped our roundtable. The Omicron variant caused a surge of cases leading up to the conference, leading two of us (myself included) to cancel my plans to attend. I still feel uncertain about the decision I made, especially as one of the panelists (Sara Feldman) was already in Chicago, and Bryan Kirschen had to change his travel plans at the last minute as a result and wasn’t able to participate. Even if many people decided to suddenly withdraw from the conference, it is also important to note that professional organizations should seek more accessible conference options to mitigate the individual burdens placed on attendees during an ongoing health crisis such as this one.

    I am grateful that Sara Feldman and others in attendance in Chicago coordinated a virtual conversation with Orian Zakai and me, which provided a refreshing contrast to the AJS’ non-stance on COVID mitigation.

    The synopsis below contains a variety of the subjects the three of us discussed with the larger audience in attendance over the 90-minute session. I will start by introducing Sara Feldman.

    Sara Feldman, PhD is Preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University. She was previously the Hebrew and Yiddish Lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Frankel Fellow at the University of Michigan. Feldman holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies (also) from the University of Michigan.

    [Below in bold are questions I initially posed to Feldman leading up to the conference. I include the questions here, not to contrast what we ultimately discussed, but rather to show the developments within our own collaboration as we moved through the planning stages.]

    Question(s) for Feldman

    - How do course “sites” become necessary repositories for relevant terms and texts, as it relates to students’ political engagement in the target language? Can you speak to

    - representation of queer, trans, Hasidic, Jews of Color, (frum) Litvish, and non-Jewish identities in the Yiddish curriculum, and how language pedagogy must adapt to students’ own politics without lagging behind

    - tools students need to describe the world they inhabit, and to the purpose and limits of representation in the inevitably political space of the classroom.

        Feldman was (thankfully) adamant about departing from discussing virtual classroom dynamics, to instead look at other structural forces at play in teaching and learning Yiddish in this present moment. As just one example, Feldman stressed the importance of framing these questions around endangered language revitalization, which in turn resonates with activism taking place globally—largely among indigenous language activists and speakers.

        Feldman, however, also posited another way of framing the current trends within language pedagogy: even up-to-date teaching materials do not always reflect the needs of students. Lexifying new forms of gender-inclusive language is one example. Feldman emphasized, “Putting people on the spot to choose a gender is not the same thing. We all need language to speak to each other.” The incorporation of words such as “nibling” (a gender-neutral term in English for both “niece” and “nephew”) is in flux in both English and Yiddish. How can we encourage usage of Yiddish vocabulary for family members that involves creating lexicons of our own that do not promote ossification, and instead exist within a more “abolitionist framework” for language learning?

        As such, Feldman also contributed immensely to the roundtable with her advice around ungrading, 2 2 See also Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). Ed. Susan D. Blum. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2020. and emphasizing skills and skill building that can foster more supportive learning environments for students without having traditional assessments at the forefront.

        Orian Zakai is an Assistant Professor of Hebrew/Israeli Literature and Culture at the George Washington University, where she specializes in women and gender in Modern Hebrew literature, interrelations between Hebrew literature and nationalism, and the intersections of gender, nationality and ethnicity in Israeli culture.

        Question(s) for Zakai:

        - How do Jewish languages embrace non-gendered alternatives to gendered forms?

        - How to introduce nonbinary Hebrew into the Hebrew language classroom considering

        - the pedagogic challenges involved in including revisions of the language that presently have more currency in the US than in Israel

        - some students’ rejection of these innovations for religious and/or ideological reasons

        - how to nevertheless promote not only inclusivity and diversity but also deep thinking about the structure and history of language

        Zakai echoed many of Feldman’s remarks on revised assessments. Zakai also noted how critical identity and language intersect in language classrooms. In contrast with Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish, “Hebrew is a language with power, that uses power, and one that is entangled with elimination.” As such, Hebrew needs to be unmoored from pre-conceived narratives, from Zionism, and one way of doing that is noting Hebrew’s interaction with other languages. Zakai uses visuals to do this, namely a cartoon pointing to the hybridity of the Hebrew language that can account for its diasporic elements, and connections with different languages, including Yiddish, Arabic, and Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew found in everyday usage. In addition, Zakai notes the diversity of the student body, and how we can in turn think critically about languages and gender in a department that houses other language programs.

        To end the discussion, I posed some additional questions to the roundtable participants. I wonder whether they would resonate with other instructors.

        - How are broader discussions of critical race studies, feminist studies, queer studies, etc. shaping the learning of Jewish languages today?

        - What subfields, geographies, etc. have emerged (or have continued to remain obscure) in language classrooms as online access to coursework increases?

        - What are the ongoing challenges to “place” Jewish languages within larger area studies departments and curricula that are likewise in a state of flux? How does public humanities work, community education, etc. become an additional (and often contested) site for negotiating Jewish languages and cultures?

        - Place of/in Jewish languages: in the United States, the role of Israel/Palestine in our courses, the importance of representation for the marginalized voices within marginalized groups

            The Q&A centered around further discussions of ungrading, and what instructors can do to create more inclusive environments in their courses.

            The roundtable went as well as to be expected under the circumstances pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although I am optimistic that instructors in Jewish Studies are implementing important interventions in pedagogy, it is important to also highlight the continuing labor crises for those responsible for teaching the majority of language courses (i.e., graduate instructors and contingent faculty). It is challenging to envision a more inclusive future without taking these considerations around labor into mind. And similarly: the arenas in which we have discussions like these must become more inclusive, especially due to (but also regardless of) current health directives and political instability facing members of our professions.

            MLA STYLE
            Weinshel, Meyer, Sara Feldman, and Orian Zakai. “Critical Language Pedagogy: A Report from an AJS Roundtable.” In geveb, March 2022:
            CHICAGO STYLE
            Weinshel, Meyer, Sara Feldman, and Orian Zakai. “Critical Language Pedagogy: A Report from an AJS Roundtable.” In geveb (March 2022): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.


            Meyer Weinshel

            Meyer Weinshel works for the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program as well as the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

            Sara Feldman

            Sara Feldman is Preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University.

            Orian Zakai

            Orian Zakai is an Assistant Professor of Hebrew and Israeli literature and culture.