Diary of a Yiddish Teacher During Conferences

Tanya Yakovleva

Can I continue to speak the language of the country that seeks to destroy my culture? How is it possible for me to continue to participate in academic conferences while my city is being bombed and shelled? How can I support Ukraine, aside from taking up arms and joining the defense units or ZSU (Armed Forces of Ukraine)? These and many other questions have been plaguing me since February 24, 2022, when Russian troops crossed the state border of Ukraine and began to bomb, among other cities, Kharkiv, my hometown, where my family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues lived. Many of them still live there, but you can no longer call it living.

For answers to these questions, or for companionship in the asking of them, I turn to historical sources. Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940), 1 1 See my article, “‘I Am the Child of My Time’: Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky” in In Their Surroundings: Localizing Modern Jewish Literatures in Eastern Europe. EFRAT GAL-ED, NATASHA GORDINSKY, SABINE KOLLER, YFAAT WEISS (EDS.), Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2023: pp. 173-182. Open access: whose political and military activities contributed to the creation of the Jewish state, was also looking for an answer to my first question. Jabotinsky’s Zionist political orientation began to develop after the anti-Jewish pogrom in Chisinau in 1903 and was firmly established after the devastating pogrom in his beloved Odesa in 1905. Before that, he had written feuilletons in Russian and successfully translated into this language, for example, Edgar Allan Poe from English and Chaim Nachman Bialik from Hebrew. After the pogroms, the Russian language became for him the language of pogromists, rapists, and robbers. Could he continue to write in it? I now understand, on a personal level, what led Jabotinsky to become a radical and active defender of Hebrew. Language is one of the most important characteristics of national identity, especially in times of oppression. But despite his promotion of Hebrew, Jabotinsky continued to write in Russian. His Russian-language novel “The Five” was published a few years before his death. In it, he confesses his love to the city of his youth, Odesa. Through reading this novel I also fell in love with Odesa, its cultural history and Jewish past. I began to learn Yiddish and ultimately I started to teach the language. The first Reading Circle I conducted with Yiddishland California (YAAANA at that time) focused on the novel “The Secrets of Odesa” by Shimen Bekerman about the trafficking of young women to the United States and Turkey at the end of the nineteenth century. Later, I included this piece in the syllabus of my class for YIVO “Odesa Myth” in fall 2022. So, it was Jabotinsky’s Russian writing, about which he must have felt conflicted as an activist for Hebrew, that brought me closer to the world of Yiddish. Language and its politics are complex, and my own feelings about my languages, especially Russian, have only become more fraught in the past several years.

Since the war began, teaching Yiddish has helped me keep my daily routine and not go crazy reading the daily news from Ukraine. In addition to teaching, I have also participated in several talks and conferences since the beginning of the full-scale war. The first event I participated in was on March 28, 2022. It was an online panel “Elegy for Odesa,” organized by Yeshiva University. The talks I heard at this event, about Yefim Ladyzhensky (1911–1982), Isaac Babel (1894–1940) and Boris Khersonsky (1950) resonated for me with the present days of war. Ladyzhensky’s art highlights the city landscape and the spaces that are currently under attack: the cafes, the monument to Duc de Richelieu and Potemkin Steps. Babel’s text “Red Cavalry” about the Polish–Soviet War reminds us of the general violence of wars. And Khersonsk’s poetry raises the question of multilingualism of the city then and now: Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish. These panels helped me connect these works and the speakers who discussed them in profound ways to the present moment.

On April 10th I was invited to talk about Ukraine to the 47th Yiddish Open Mic Café. I decided to present a literary portrait of my city Kharkiv as it is presented in the text “Ksenia Lopatinska” by Khane Levin, an unpublished novel written in Yiddish in 1952. I quoted from the beginning of the text which describes Freedom Square with the first skyscraper of the Soviet Union, Derzhprom. The square was the venue for the “Rock the Cosmos Tour” by Queen + Paul Rodgers on 12 September 2008 at which 350,000 audience members gathered. The same square was hit by Russian missiles on 1 March 2022, during the battle of Kharkiv. It was meaningful to me to share something of the history of my city in front of this international audience of Yiddishists. In the excerpt, the square is described as beautiful, full of vibrant street life, which is how I would like my city to be seen - and not just as a site of war.

From June 27 to June 29, 2022, the annual conference of the Dubnov Institute was held in Leipzig under the title “What is on Trial here is the Yiddish Language: The Making and Unmaking of Soviet Yiddish Literature”. This was the first conference I had attended in person since the pandemic of 2020. It was also my first meeting with a group of non-refugees since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022. My paper focused on the novel “In the Future City of Ede­nia” (“In der tsukunft-shtot edenia”, 1918) by Kalmen Zingman and its role in the formation of modern Yiddish literature and culture. Zingman published his novel under the pseudonym Ben-Ya´akov when he lived in Kharkiv. Kharkiv at that time – like the whole territory of modern-day Ukraine – was a place of tensions after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the end of the First World War in 1918. This period was characterized by chaos, civil wars, and anti-Jewish pogroms. At the same time, the crumbling of the empires had a great effect on the Ukrainian nationalist movement. In January 1918, the Ukrainian national parliament, Tsentralna Rada, declared national autonomy for Russians, Jews, and Poles. Ukraine became a promising place for the realization of national political and cultural programs.This period was also characterized by the second wave of Eastern European modernism closely associated with futurism, constructivism, expressionism, and surrealism. It is no coincidence that all these political and cultural movements influenced Zingman´s novel about a prosperous Jewish society on European soil – in the city of future Edenia, presumably Kharkiv. I had conducted a Reading Circle on this novel a year before and I was amazed at how prophetic the author was about the future architecture and development of the city.

As I traveled from Italy to Germany for the conference, I skimmed the glossy magazine covers in the airports of Milan and Berlin, and bitterly realized that in Europe the topic of war was no longer relevant. All publications were in a summer and holiday mood. Not a word about Ukraine. It’s hard not to explode and not to shout: “People, hold on, we are still dying, Ukrainian cities continue to be destroyed by Russian bombs, Ukrainian children and women are raped and killed by Russian soldiers, Ukrainian men are tortured!” It is also still difficult for me to answer the question: “How are you?” I would like to answer that in Kharkiv, the Russians fired at a bus stop and killed three people, including a 13-year-old boy; that Russian cruise missiles blew up a shopping center in Kremenchuk and killed more than 20 people; that my niece was born prematurely under the explosions in Vinnytsia. Instead, I answer that everything is quite normal, because my mother and sister are okay, they were evacuated from the center of Kharkiv in the first week of the war. We have been carrying war in our hearts for over a year now. Signs of support for Ukraine using the colors of its flag in clothing and designs are a little comforting.

Therefore, the blue-yellow cover of Leyb Kvitko’s collection Gerangl (Struggle), published in Kharkiv in 1929, chosen as a cover image for the conference of the Dubnov Institute, pleased my eye. It depicts the construction of Derzhprom on one of the largest squares in Europe — Freedom Square. The conference papers about the figures of the Jewish anti-fascist committee and the reprisals against them remind me of the comments Russian journalists have made about Ukrainian teachers in the territories occupied by Russia. The number of not only Ukrainian soldiers, but also civilians such as women and children who have been injured in the war, and the direct hits on schools, cultural centers, and universities indicate that now, 70 years after the destruction of Yiddish, modern Ukrainian culture is being put on trial in ways that echo the treatment of Yiddish a century ago.

In October, I participated in the ASEEES 54th Annual Virtual Convention. I took part in a roundtable, “Teaching Yiddish during the War in Ukraine” with Sara Feldman, Oksana Sikorska, and Jessica Kirzane where we discussed the particular challenges of teaching Yiddish language during the war. As I explained in the panel, for me Yiddish class was a refuge and 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. The massacres in Bucha and Izium reminded me of the history of the pogroms of 1905, in Odesa, and 1903 in Chisinau. So, as I mentioned during the roundtable, I started to include these details into my Yiddish lessons.

What more can I do for my country, now so badly in need of support, except for teaching the minority languages and Slavic-Jewish literature of Ukraine? I have also started teaching Ukrainian language and civilization for the University of Padova in Italy. But most importantly, I started speaking to my mother and my daughter in Ukrainian. In Russian, we mainly curse.

Yakovleva, Tanya. “Diary of a Yiddish Teacher During Conferences.” In geveb, June 2023:
Yakovleva, Tanya. “Diary of a Yiddish Teacher During Conferences.” In geveb (June 2023): Accessed Apr 13, 2024.


Tanya Yakovleva

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