A Conversation at ASEEES: Teaching Yiddish during the War in Ukraine

Tanya Yakovleva, Sara Feldman, Oksana Sikorska and Jessica Kirzane


The out­break of the full-scale war in Ukraine in Feb­ru­ary 2022 shocked and hor­ri­fied the world. The vio­lence and bru­tal­i­ty of the inva­sion and the unfold­ing human­i­tar­i­an and refugee crises in Ukraine have trans­formed geopo­lit­i­cal real­i­ties and shak­en dai­ly lives of so many, includ­ing many of our readers. 

At the 2022 Asso­ci­a­tion for Slav­ic, East Euro­pean, and Eurasian Stud­ies (ASEEES) con­fer­ence this fall, a group of Yid­dish instruc­tors, orga­nized by Sara Feld­man, came togeth­er to dis­cuss the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges of teach­ing Yid­dish lan­guage dur­ing the war in Ukraine. Among the dis­cus­sants were both teach­ers whose lives were direct­ly impact­ed by war and oth­ers who teach in con­texts dis­tant from the con­flict. These teach­ers are devel­op­ing strate­gies to teach about the region in ways that are atten­tive to the war and to the Yid­dish speak­ers impact­ed by it, as well as to his­to­ries of pre­vi­ous waves of vio­lence vis­it­ed on Yid­dish-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Ukraine. The con­ver­sa­tion was mod­er­at­ed by In geveb’s edi­tor-in-chief, Jes­si­ca Kirzane.

In the wide-rang­ing con­ver­sa­tion that fol­lows, which has been edit­ed for length and clar­i­ty, these instruc­tors dis­cuss spe­cif­ic ways the war has impact­ed their lives and their teach­ing, as well as their sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty as Yid­dish instruc­tors, to teach about the region.

Jessica Kirzane: Perhaps you can begin by telling me about yourselves and the contexts in which you teach Yiddish.

Oksana Sikorska: I am currently in Lviv, in my hometown. I started teaching Yiddish four years ago. I teach only groups of beginners, though this year I have a second group of intermediate students. For me that’s a new experience. I teach at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, which is also my alma mater, but about once a year I also teach short open courses for different organizations to educate people aboutYiddish and Jewish culture in general and why it’s important to learn about it in Ukraine.

Tetyana Yakovleva: I was born and raised in Kharkiv in Ukraine, and I teach Yiddish for the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America (YAAANA), which is based in San Diego. I have been teaching there for three years, and I now live in Italy while I continue to teach Yiddish for YAAANA online.

Sara Feldman: I teach at Harvard University, where I offer three years of Yiddish instruction — beginner, intermediate, and advanced — to graduate and undergraduate students. We just came back in person last year, after some time online.

JK: Can you tell us about how the full scale war has directly impacted your teaching? Have the conditions of your teaching changed? Or if they haven’t, how have you been thinking about your teaching in relation to the war?

OS: When the full-scale war began [on February 24, 2022] we were a month into our second semester. Our classes stopped for a month, maybe more. It was a shock, a big shock for everyone, and we had to figure out what to do, what our next steps would be, and how we could continue teaching with these conditions. We started again in April, and almost all of my students were already in other European countries — many of them are still in the European Union, or in Israel, or elsewhere. Some remained in Ukraine, as I did, but they moved from the eastern to western regions of Ukraine to be as far as possible from the battlefield. So of course that was the biggest difference between my teaching in February and in April. There were two students who couldn’t continue, so they stopped not only learning Yiddish but also their studies at the university in general.

We had already been online since March 2020, so nothing really changed in terms of how the class was taught. We resumed online classes in April and we finished our semester in July. So we completed the course almost as it was initially planned.

JK: Can you tell us more about your students who take Yiddish? How do they come to Yiddish? Have you had any new students since the outbreak of the full-scale war?

OS: The Yiddish course at the university is open to the public. There weren’t so many students taking Yiddish at the Ukrainian Catholic University, so we opened it to the public. We now have two groups, about eight students in one group and ten to twelve in the other. They are a very diverse group of all ages, educational backgrounds, and religions. They each have their own reasons for learning Yiddish, so it’s hard to generalize. Some are Jewish, some are ethnically Ukrainian; some are students of history, or artists or musicians.

TY: As I mentioned before, my teaching is based in San Diego, so my students are not from Ukraine. They are mostly from the United States, though some are from Canada, Australia, Germany, France, and Latin America. They are also interested for a variety of reasons, mostly related to heritage.

When the full-scale war broke out my native city, Kharkiv, was shelled, and it continues to be shelled, day and night. It is unstoppable. I was in a different situation than Oksana, but I was affected because all of my family was in Kharkiv, though my students were in secure places, all of them. My students know where I come from. They were all very worried about me. I was going through a mental and emotional crisis. But I understood — I wrote about this for In geveb — that showing up to teach Yiddish helped me to survive those days when I couldn’t physically help my family. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep, but I could teach Yiddish, and this was an incredible source of energy for me. My students were also grateful. We spoke about Yiddish. We spoke about grammar. We spoke about literature. It helped me be able to breathe in and out. That’s how it was for me.

SF: Teaching in North America, I haven’t had the kind of disruptions that Oksana has experienced, and coincidentally at the time when Russia invaded Ukraine I didn’t have many students who had a strong personal connection to Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. So while I had some family connection to the war — a family member’s in-law, who I never got to meet, perished in Kharkiv — my students, it seems to me, were mostly encountering the region through our class, through Yiddish. I felt a greater obligation to educate people as best I could in the context of this class, and with what I know, so that they could better understand what was happening, and how it relates to the Yiddish world. I already had, of course, previously incorporated Ukraine into my classes, but the war changed the way that I do that, and the motivation as well.

JK: I teach in a very similar context to Sara, in an American university, and I don’t have any family in Eastern Europe myself. My expertise is not in Eastern Europe particularly — I study American Yiddish literature — and so I felt the same sense of obligation that Sara describes, but with less knowledge that would allow me to fulfill that obligation, which is part of why I’m so eager to learn from all of you.

Let’s talk specifically about this question of motivation and goals, which Sara’s comment directed us toward. Have your pedagogical goals as a Yiddish language instructor changed during, or as a result of the war? Did you feel like there was a particular ideological, personal, historical, or moral motivation behind your teaching Yiddish, and has that changed?

OS: My goals did not change. But there was one small — or maybe not so small — difference. These lessons became like a shelter for my students, who were undergoing enormous stress. Many had relatives on the front or in occupied cities. Yiddish classes were a place where they could escape from what was going on. I did not concentrate on topics related to the war. We read fun stories, we told jokes. Maybe it sounds strange, but I knew they needed this. They needed to laugh, at least a little bit, during this whole situation. So it’s not that the goals changed, so much as the atmosphere.

JK: In a very different context — forgive the comparison — that was something that I was feeling very strongly during the beginning of the pandemic. I had these very anxious and stressed students, so in addition to the goals of language pedagogy, I had goals of community building, of providing moral support, play, and fun. Did you feel like these other goals meant shifting the target of how much language would be accomplished, or did you feel like you were able to accomplish the competency goals you had in terms of language while focusing on playfulness?

OS: You’re right that my goals did change, and maybe I’m only noticing this now, but competency goals became much less important for me. I didn’t care as much what my students remembered or not, or whether they were doing their homework. Their ability to use Yiddish became less important than the fact that I was happy they were in our class at all.

In April and May the focus was really on helping get their attention off the war, but by June or July I was already trying to get them back into real studying so they could complete our program. Given the circumstances I think we did very well.

JK: Tanya, I want to connect this with what you said earlier about the Yiddish classroom as a refuge for you, and whether what Oksana described resonates with your experience.

TY: It was interesting to listen to you, but I haven’t experienced this kind of shift into more playful communication. During the pandemic — I don’t want to compare — we changed our teaching, and at that time we thought it could not get worse. And then the full-scale world started, and this was worse. So we forgot about the pandemic. So, in a way these two events are connected for us.

Speaking about goals and the motivations, during the full-scale war it suddenly became clear to me how parallel the history of Jews and Ukrainians are. The Russian colonization of Jews and Ukrainians is very similar. Reading about the massacres in Bucha and Izium as someone who is familiar with literary texts and the history of the pogroms of 1905, in Odessa, and 1903 in Kishinev, I saw striking parallels, despite the one hundred-year, or even more, distance between these events. So I started to include these details into my Yiddish lessons with more intentionality. I speak about history and literature even when I’m working through a grammar rule. When we read a text, let’s say, by Sholem Aleichem, who was born in Ukraine and spent a lot of his life in Odessa, now, more than before, I will discuss the histories of colonization that are evident in the text, and I try to be precise. Before, I would generalize about the influence of Slavic languages on Yiddish. Now, I’m very careful. I try to give as many synonyms as possible for words — from Hebraic, Germanic, or Slavic origins, and within Slavic I point out when words are from Ukrainian or Polish as opposed to Russian. I note that the Russian words often have negative connotations, though maybe that’s my prejudice. But I look at linguistic and historical facts differently in light of contemporary events.

JK: This disambiguation between Slavic components seems like a really useful way to bring some of the histories of people and languages into the language classroom.

Sara, can you tell me something about changes in goals or motivations in your experience?

SF: Working with students in the United States, over years of teaching Yiddish, I’ve tried to ensure that people who take my class don’t see Yiddish as a dead language from a terrible past. I make sure that, like in any other language class, contemporary culture plays a very large role in the class. Not to over-generalize, but I think in North America and other places where Jews live right now in large numbers, many of whom have Ashkenazi (European Jewish) ancestry, there is a very negative feeling about the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. So I’ve been trying to incorporate more knowledge about Yiddish and Jewish life in Ukraine, and not only the bad times that people are expecting to hear about, not just pogroms, not just genocide, but also daily life. I introduce students to different accents that they might hear through a recording of pilgrimages people are making to Ukraine, and I try to show them something about Yiddish in Ukraine today. I think of this as being a part of teaching Yiddish as a language which is both endangered, but also global. And I try to show how the war is a huge calamity specifically for Yiddish. I do this in class, especially when students are advanced enough where we can address it in such terms.

So I bring in guest speakers, I share materials that are from Yiddish culture in Ukraine in its heyday, like the poetry and other resources In geveb compiled. I share material that is of historical and cultural interest. But I also want to show the contemporary. One place I turn to is the AHEYM archives. They aren’t exactly contemporary Yiddish culture being created in Ukraine, but they show people who lived long past the purges, long past the Holocaust, speaking in Yiddish about their culture and lives. The Hasidic world is another area that I try to emphasize, including the ex-Hasidic world. Hasidic outlets have been regularly reporting on what’s happening during the war and the relief efforts among Jews, and they’ve been doing it in Yiddish, on internet radio. There are Hasidic music videos about the war and emotional reactions to the war, and it seems like the Hasidic community is one of the conduits through which North American culture and Ukrainian culture among Jews are shared. It’s not that I don’t share information that’s more classic. We look at Yiddish maps of Ukraine, we watch a film about Lviv that’s in Yiddish. I don’t want to downplay the importance of classic sources from Ukraine. But I also think it’s not the only thing to think about when we’re addressing the war.

One last thought: Even if students don’t have access to a lot of Yiddish media about the war, they can give current events reports in Yiddish to their class. They can make presentations in Yiddish about the war from what they read in another language.

JK: Tanya, and Oksana, are there particular texts, songs, news, articles, videos, anything that you have been using in your class that you want to tell us about?

TY: About two and a half years ago, before the full-scale war, I started to research texts in different languages about my native city, Kharkiv. I found texts in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. I ran a reading circle about a utopian short novel “In der tsukunft-shtot edenia” by Kalman Zingman, which is available on In geveb. There’s also an article on In geveb about the exhibition that took place about six years ago at Yermilov Center in Kharkiv based around this novel. In reading this work, I discovered a lot about my city. Zingman doesn’t refer to the city by name, but he lived in Kharkiv in the interwar period, which was a time of turmoil but also a period of Yiddish modernism. I also presented on this topic at some conferences, which helped me articulate how I remain close to Ukraine by being in Yiddish Studies. My dissertation was about Odesa so I also ran a reading circle on a work of popular fiction, Di geheymnise fun odes, by Shimen Bekerman, the kind of literature Sholem Aleichem criticized as shund, trashy. It was a bestseller of its time, in 1885. And my students loved it. There are also of course classic texts about Odesa, like Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Fishke der krumer or Sholem Aleichem’s Menachem Mendl. I also like to teach pogrom-related texts, especially modernist poetry. There are a lot of parallels to our current moment, when speaking about violence in this territory.

OS: There aren’t particular works of literature that come to mind, mostly because I teach beginner students, so we learn simple topics related to our daily life. But also because the majority of my students who come to learn the Yiddish don’t know very much about what Yiddish even is, or the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish. So one of my tasks is to show them the parallels between Yiddish — and Jewish culture in Yiddish — and Ukrainian culture. I want to demonstrate my strong opinion that Jewish culture in Yiddish is our culture, Ukrainian culture. All this literature and treasures of Jewish culture were born here and it’s so important to study them and understand them, take care of them and appreciate them. Unfortunately, for many — not only my students but students in general — it is something new that they have never heard about before. So my task is to open for them this whole world of Jewish culture in Yiddish.

Usually I do this by showing parallels — between, for instance, Yiddish kloles (curses) and Ukrainian folk sayings. I want to show them how similar these things are, how close these cultures are to one another because they developed side by side.

JK: One question that emerges from the question of texts and content is that of language levels, and what you can accomplish in different language levels. To what extent can you teach, or should you teach, about the war in Ukraine in a beginner’s class? And if you do, are there particular strategies you use? For instance, when the full-scare war broke out, I said, “Let’s throw Yiddish language class out the window for a day. Let’s talk about the war.” And I gave my students some Yiddish poetry translated into English about Ukraine, just something to at least acknowledge the moment. And then, later, when I had more time to think about how to be more planful, I incorporated materials in Yiddish appropriate to the level and learning goals of the class.

So I wonder, for you all, do language competency goals and teaching about the war compete? Sara, for you in particular, in teaching people who are less knowledgeable or less engaged with the topic, and need basic information — how do you manage this in the language classroom? Do you see these goals as being in conflict, where you have to figure out how much time to give to one or the other? Or do you see them as complementary? Oksana, what you’re doing with the folk sayings is a good example of bringing language learning, and cultural learning together. What strategies do you use at various levels of language instruction to bring language and culture or current events together?

SF: When this full-scale war broke out my beginner class was in their second semester, so we could already talk a bit about the war. I could introduce some basic terms like milkhome (war), and there was actually potential to have a conversation about it in Yiddish. They could do some basic listening activities as well.

I don’t see a real conflict between language acquisition and any topic that we want to discuss and learn about using the target language. We do that with culture from the very beginning, when we introduce concepts like Jewish holidays, or other elements of Yiddish culture that are not necessarily familiar to all of our students.

But now, as the war continues, and I have fresh beginners who have only taken a few weeks of Yiddish, it has been more challenging to find ways for that class to access the war with the language they have. One thing I did — I don’t know if I recommend this for education about the war — but I put up pictures of Putin and Zelensky and asked students to answer vi heyst der mentsh (what’s that person’s name) with those faces. So, now everybody knows what the heads of State of Ukraine and Russia look like, and if they didn’t know before, now they know their names. People in the United States don’t always know what world leaders look like, or what their names are. They can’t match the name with the face. So we worked on that very early.

And we also have looked a little bit at maps, which is something I’d like to do even more. Whether they’re from Ukraine or from the United States, beginner students all learn about how to describe maps and practice reading place names, so a Yiddish map can be a way into the topic. You can ask: Where is Ukraine? What countries are near Ukraine? What are the cities and the rivers? That is something that students can really benefit from, both in terms of geopolitical knowledge and also language learning. They are learning how things sound and where they are in space.

So you can integrate the war into a class at any level. Maps are a good way to do it with beginners.

TY: I agree with Sara that you can teach any topic at any level, you just have to adjust the language goals based on the students’ levels. With children, you have to think about what they are capable of and ready for. I have a four year old at home and I try to avoid the topic of war because she is not ready. But our students — whatever their language ability — are all adults, so we don’t have to shield them. They already know about war from different contexts. So we can make parallels to what they already know.

Speaking of maps, for me, it’s important to show my students Yiddishland. Even if it doesn’t exist politically, you can show it geographically: where people spoke and continue to speak Yiddish in the world. And you can’t speak about Yiddishland without speaking about Ukraine. You can use maps and pictures to do that. It’s great if you can find a video in Yiddish. That’s a great resource.

JK: I’m also thinking about ways we could use each other as resources. Our teachers could be pen pals with a student somewhere else in Yiddishland, as it were, and that would help give them a sense of the global reach of Yiddish. We can help each other.

In addition to what you’re doing in your own classrooms, what else is out there in the world of Yiddish pedagogy that you are finding useful? And what else do you need? What kind of infrastructure could the world of Yiddish language instruction, such as it is, be providing, in terms of resources or community? What would you envision or hope for around teaching these topics in Yiddish language classes?

SF: I hope that our current discussion would be a first step in accomplishing this. There’s no reason in the twenty-first century why we shouldn’t have more contact with each other, and I hope for more of that.

As for other kinds of projects, given the privileged position of not being in a war where I live, I want to be conscious of avoiding collaborations that end up benefiting my students more than potential collaborators who are in danger, or who are undergoing this catastrophe. So it’s a question I’m hesitant to answer by myself.

One area that I think about, is how to learn more about Yiddish in Ukraine today. What is being produced? I get the sense that there’s not as much of a global reach for that cultural production as there might be, and I’d like to learn about it and be able to give my students access to it.

TY: When you are speaking of modern Yiddish in Ukraine, Hasidic life is an important topic. All you have to do is go to the airport in Odesa and you will meet some Hasidic families. But we could also look at the academic study of Yiddish in Ukraine. We have beautiful centers in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, or where Oksana is at the Catholic University in Lviv. We could connect students to these centers or talk about them and their activities. There are also Yiddish classes in Kharkiv, even though Kharkiv was never part of the Pale of Settlement. It became one of the Yiddish cultural centers after the First World War.

JK: When it comes to resources that already exist, I do also want to draw attention to the latest issue of Afn shvel, which has some really beautiful and helpful contemporary Yiddish writing about Ukraine and about the war. That would be an excellent resource for teaching, and it could be built out with discussion questions and other exercises for classroom implementation. My feeling — at least for my purposes — is that I’d love to see more materials about these topics adapted for classroom use so that teachers could easily bring activities to class or assign them for homework.

OS: I appreciate all of these ideas. Every year there are more and more people who want to study Yiddish in Ukraine and who are interested in Yiddish and Jewish culture. I have former students who are trying to do something new. For example, they are beginning to translate women’s poetry from Yiddish to Ukrainian — only first steps, but it’s important. Some are doing performances in Yiddish and are looking for plays to work with. They are in Kyiv, and there are also new things happening in Odessa and Kharkiv. I want to mention in particular the work of my predecessor here in Lviv, Asya Fruman.

I think it’s a very good idea to introduce these young and very active people to students in Yiddish classes elsewhere. For example, you could invite them via Zoom to speak with students and talk about their work and why they are interested in Yiddish, their field of research, and so forth. I think this is a very useful idea and something we could try to develop.

JK: Let’s get a little bit more theoretical, perhaps. This is a question that Sara posed when she organized this roundtable: Given the role that Imperialism plays in our conception of language, what does it mean to access Ukraine through its Jewish cultures? And how do we think about one colonized people through the co-territorial experience of another? What are the boundaries of these identities?

SF: Ukrainians were a colonized people of the Russian Empire, and their identity and language, and the possibility of a modern Ukrainian state, were historically not recognized. And this Russian Imperial context has echoes in, and has ramifications for, the present. In a lot of what we read about Jewish history and Jewish culture in the region, Jews are also in this colonized space of the Russian Empire, and their language is part of a linguistic polysystem. Roughly, Russian was the imperial language; Yiddish was the Jewish vernacular; loshn koydesh, Hebrew and Aramaic, was the liturgical language of Jews; and they came in contact with the languages of their immediate neighbors. So to what extent has Yiddish been seen as one of the colonized languages and Jews as one of the colonized peoples, as opposed to being an outsider group having some privileges Ukrainians do not? And how does that play out in contemporary Jewish life and in relief efforts?

Many Jews in the United States have the sense that East European Jewish history was all bad and violent, and that Ukrainians oppressed Jews with violence. They don’t learn very much about Jews and their neighbors existing together in the same space. So there are ambivalent feelings among Jews about having sympathy for non-Jewish Ukranians. This has an impact on some Jewish relief efforts that focus on helping, specifically, Jewish refugees from and within Ukraine, especially Holocaust survivors who are there and who are in danger. There are Jewish relief organizations that specifically serve Jews, and there’s a global Jewish community that sends support. Perhaps this is a direct result of the way Jewish-Ukrainian history is remembered in contemporary Jewish communities.

So I suppose my question is — what are the problems with Yiddish as the entry point into learning about Ukraine and the war today — what kinds of biases or expectations does that set up and what might it prevent us from seeing, or how might that impact our ability to be sympathetic to all of those impacted by the war?

JK: I see what you’re saying. There’s something about this very privileged position of being in the United States, of being part of an American Jewish community, and learning about Ukraine via Yiddish material, particularly historical material. We maybe have an impulse to lay a claim on the war as part of Yiddish studies, as ours, because Yiddish speakers have a history in Ukraine. But that might have a tendency to overshadow the experiences of people who are currently actually living through this catastrophe, and might impact who we help and how to the detriment of those in need.

TY: From my personal experience, I can say that I now look differently on my identity, on my roots. I’m ashamed of my Russian roots, and I’m ashamed of my Russian language. In the case of my own family I recognize that it was the result of colonization. I recall Vladimir Jabotinsky, who spoke Russian in his family with his mother, because his parents decided to speak Russian to him. He dreamt of becoming a Russian writer and journalist. And then everything changed after the pogroms, first in Kishinev in 1903, and then in Odesa in 1905. The violence changed Jabotinsky’s identity. He shifted from literary activity to political and living military activity. Now, in recent days, I understand him better, especially with regard to the problems of language choice, and what it means to associate a language with your enemy, with the pogromists, with the people who come to destroy your nation, your culture, your people. So you have to set the language aside, even if it’s your language, and it’s part of your identity. For me the Russian language is now very, very fraught.

This is what I mean when I say that Yiddish Studies and Yiddish historical texts can help us understand what Ukrainians now are experiencing, in a way, it’s not exactly the same, but everything is connected. One thing I would recommend is a wonderful lecture series from Yale University by Timothy Snyder, available on Youtube, The Making of Modern Ukraine. This could be a way to introduce the topic to students.

SF: You made me think about something that also inspired this question. Jewish sources often reflect a real prejudice against Slavic peoples that have been colonized — against Ukrainians. There are often derogatory terms and associations and literary characters that are not at all sympathetic to Ukrainians as a colonized people. What do we do with that in the context of this situation? For many people it may be a reflection of what Ukrainian identity means to them politically and culturally. How do we handle this anti-Ukrainianness that you might see in Yiddish culture?

JK: In geveb published a short conversation last spring between Amelia Glaser and Jeffrey Veidlinger about thinking about the war and Ukraine from the perspective of American Jewish studies, and among the things that they mentioned was that American Jews, many of whom are several generations removed from East European origins (for those who have such origins) not only have a lachrymose conception of their history but also a kind of guttural anger and fear, and association of Ukrainians or Poles, as being pogromists, anti-Jewish and violent. There is now a lot of confusion. American Jews aren’t sure how they are supposed to feel about this situation. Who is the ‘bad guy’?, to put it simplistically. If you are turning to older Yiddish texts, say a Sholem Aleichem story in which there’s a non-Jewish wagon driver coming down the road spouting curses, and you are encountering negative stereotypes, even classist stereotypes, and caricatures, that creates a real question. What do you do with all of that? What does it mean to read it now? With American Yiddish students? With Ukrainian Yiddish students?

OS: Earlier I spoke about the way I try to show my students that not only was the Ukrainian language suppressed for centuries, but we can make parallels with Yiddish. Because it’s clear that if you wanted to have a career or be famous or make literature it was better to write in Russian or Polish or the language of the state than Ukrainian or Yiddish, languages of the home. This is a big surprise for my students, who don’t think of Ukrainian and Yiddish as having been in the same boat, so to speak. I give an example from my own family: on my mother’s side, my grandfather spoke Yiddish from his home, and my grandmother spoke Ukrainian from her home, but they both decided to speak Russian and to raise their children in Russian. They were ashamed of speaking Ukrainian or Yiddish in a big city like Odesa, where it was better to speak Russian.

TY: I would definitely want to include information about participation of Ukrainians in the anti-Semitic pogroms on the territory of Ukraine. It’s something that has to be reckoned with. Ukrainian students need to learn more about it.

And I would also want to include information that doesn’t touch directly upon violence, especially about ways in which Yiddish and Ukrainian speakers had opportunities for creative flourishing in Ukraine — such as examining Ukrainian and Yiddish Modernism. American Jewish students know about the pogroms, maybe that’s why their ancestors left the territory, so they need to hear also about other things. But my experience is that most of my American Jewish students are already about three generations removed from their families’ leaving Eastern Europe, and they don’t always have these bad connotations. They just want to discover more about their roots. I didn’t experience students speaking negatively about Poland or Ukraine. But it is important not only to talk about negative things, but also not to focus on the violence that happened, when Ukrainians were on the side of Russian pogromists and destroyed houses and killed people.

OS: I strongly support Tetyana’s opinion, and I think it’s important to present this whole spectrum as much as possible. For Ukrainians it’s very different than for Jews who left Ukraine fifty or a hundred years ago. I think that there is a big difference in how Ukrainians looked at their history even twenty years ago, and how they do now. It’s a slow process but it’s improving, and historians talk about admitting crimes that Ukrainians and Poles committed against Jews. I think, for Ukrainian students, it’s important to study this part of history. And for students from outside of Ukraine, it’s also important to discuss these crimes, but also to show that there were years and centuries of being neighbors and living together. It’s important to show both things.

JK: I’m going to turn our conversations a little bit, especially because we’re getting toward the end. Sara asked a question in her description for this roundtable that I thought was an important place to wrap up. She asked: What role can our networks play helping people to survive the war? Are there networks that we have as Yiddishists and Yiddish language instructors that we can leverage? How specifically, as Yiddish teachers can we help Yiddish learners, not only in their learning, but also in their life circumstances, because of how we are situated?

TY: We always need to think about our audience, about our students, and their needs. What works in one context might not make sense in another. In reading sources like the diaries of Primo Levi, writing about his experience in the concentration camp, I learned about the importance of routine in survival. For some students who are worried about survival, Yiddish class offers the opportunity for routine — to meet at the same time and do predictable exercises together. So in that case you maybe don’t want to change the schedule and talk about different topics. It’s important to keep a routine for them. That may be less critical for students in less dire circumstances.

SF: Can we help people survive the war? I wish we could find amazing answers that could save lots of people’s lives and we could live happily ever after. Of course we don’t have that much power. What inspired this question, though, was that I was very moved to see how, when a member of ourglobal Yiddishist community needed to escape to western Ukraine, there were people all over the world writing to each other, trying to figure out if they could help with the logistics. Together with family, that person successfully did get to the west of Ukraine. I don’t know to what extent Yiddishist networks contributed to their reaching safety, but regardless of whether these networks were effective in that particular instance, the fact that so many people outside Ukraine were following this story, and trying to connect this person to resources or asking others if there was anything they could do is significant.

There was also a benefit concert that one of my students participated in, Tsvelf far Ukraine, in which klezmer and Yiddish musicians all over the world joined for a twelve-hour Zoom concert to fundraise for several different humanitarian NGOS, and they raised a significant sum of money, not just for Jewish refugees but for all impacted by the current war.

Not that anything that we do — help these people, give money to this organization — will be enough to end the war, but these are some concrete examples of things that Yiddishists have been doing, and I wonder what more we could do, or what others are doing that we haven’t heard about, because one of the strengths of Yiddish communities is that they know no borders.

JK: I was also inspired by this sense of potential, that we have a global and well-networked, maybe even better networked because of the pandemic, Yiddish community of people who care about one another, and that can be powerful, though I’m not always sure what one can do with that potential.

I’ll mention one other much smaller project, since In geveb was involved in it, the benefit volume of children’s poetry Toward Hopeful Skies published by Naydus Press this summer to raise money for HIAS’s efforts in Ukraine.

TY: I can just say that for Ukrainians, inside and outside of Ukraine, gestures of support matter a lot. I think it’s important in any situation to stay human and show empathy. I received so many messages from people around the globe, and that made me feel less alone. Just the simple question “How are you?” You don’t have to ask a lot. You probably shouldn’t ask people to reveal details like their location, just ask “How are you and your relatives?”

OS: I would only add that fundraising efforts are important, but in my opinion, what’s even more important, is what we are doing now: spreading information. For us, maybe the situation seems obvious, but for many people it’s still unclear. For example, I had a very long and interesting and useful conversation with a woman from Montreal on Instagram. She had heard that there was a war in Ukraine, with Russia, but when she started to read my stories, she was surprised. She wanted to know why I was writing about war and terrorism. Is it really terrorism in Ukraine? From her question I understood that there’s a need to share information, basic information, in different languages.

Yakovleva, Tanya, Sara Feldman, Oksana Sikorska, and Jessica Kirzane. “A Conversation at ASEEES: Teaching Yiddish during the War in Ukraine.” In geveb, January 2023:
Yakovleva, Tanya, Sara Feldman, Oksana Sikorska, and Jessica Kirzane. “A Conversation at ASEEES: Teaching Yiddish during the War in Ukraine.” In geveb (January 2023): Accessed Jun 24, 2024.


Tanya Yakovleva

Tetyana (Tanya) Yakovleva is a Yiddish teacher and scholar based in Morbegno, Italy.

Sara Feldman

Sara Feldman is Preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University.

Oksana Sikorska

Oksana Sikorska is a teacher of the Yiddish language in Lviv at Ukrainian Catholic University.

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.