Feb 07, 2023
“Are the recipes really just…paragraphs?” one of my beginner Yiddish students asks as they flip through Dos familyen kokh-bukh, which is carefully laid out on foam padding.
“They’re really just paragraphs,” I answer. “Most Yiddish cookbooks don’t think you need extraneous things like numbered steps—or exact measurements!”
Both students look back down at the page—it’s a recipe for preparing lamb. A moment later, another question: “Are the recipes written in the imperative?”
“Well, does it look like the imperative?” After all, it’s often best to answer with a question, too.
“I don’t recognize any of these verbs, so I can’t tell.”
I point to the first word of the recipe. “What if you imagine that word without the hey after the ayin?”
“Nem…take…That is imperative!”
This is the most English my students and I have spoken with each other in a long time. In class, I’ve conducted as much of my instruction as possible in Yiddish, and my students have begun to get the hang of asking their questions at least partially in Yiddish as well. But this is the final class of the semester—my very first semester of teaching Yiddish, and their first semester learning it—and instead of meeting in our usual classroom, we are seated at a long table in the library’s Special Collections department. Beside us stands a packed book cart; a mere sampling of Johns Hopkins University’s collection of texts in and about Yiddish, which, along with the cookbook, includes a 17th-century grammar and an 18th-century edition of the Tsenerene. The books on the cart have been chosen by the Yiddish Language Program Director, Dr. Beatrice “Brukhe” Lang, who has also been acting as the primary guide on this tour of Yiddish literature. This is a “field trip” originally designed for another class (Brukhe Lang’s first year Yiddish culture seminar taught in English), and I am only now discovering just how much of a difference a single semester of Yiddish can make in the experience.
I was extraordinarily lucky to have enthusiastic and engaged students for my first semester of teaching Yiddish, and when they looked at the aforementioned Tsenerene, they eagerly asked about everything from the history of the typescript to the translation/gloss’s relationship with the biblical Hebrew text. But for me, it is even more delightful to watch them flip through the cookbook—because they quickly realize how much of it they can understand! They spend a good ten minutes just thumbing through the table of contents (“Zupen on fleysh…so the meat must be in another section—aha! Here it is!”), recalling words from earlier lessons (“Eyer…we just learned that…” “Yo, dinstik hobn mir geredt vegn hiner un eyer…” “Chickens! Eyer…eggs!”), and chuckling at some of the section headings (“Kokhen far a kranken? Cooking for a tired person?! No, no, wait, a sick person!”). So enthralled are they that Brukhe has to clear her throat and suggest they swap out the cookbook for an issue of Grininke beymelekh before we run out of time.
At the beginning of the semester, I was nervous that my students wouldn’t enjoy the class, but I was also terrified that I wouldn’t enjoy it. The terror was quelled within the first month; teaching beginner Yiddish isn’t easy, but it is kind of a blast. Unfortunately, this gave me even more time to worry that my students weren’t having as good a time as I was. Do they enjoy singing songs about potatoes to learn the days of the week? Is it helpful, or just vaguely annoying when I bring in a stack of variously sized and colored notebooks to teach colors and diminutive forms? Whenever friends or colleagues ask about the class, I always find myself talking about how difficult it can be to learn a new language, how much of a mental toll it can take to regress, voluntarily, to the communicative abilities of a small child. We ask a tremendous amount of our students, especially when, as I was instructed to do (or at least attempt), we employ a communicative approach to language pedagogy. And yes, the reward for that hard work is understanding and communication, but I have a hunch that sometimes, that reward is not enough. I think sometimes the reward has to be seeing yourself understanding and communicating, almost an out-of-body experience, which is more difficult to pull off in the routine of the classroom.
Under Brukhe’s mentorship, I have employed several strategies to chase that feeling this semester. At the suggestion of a fellow first-time Yiddish instructor, Alona Bach, we set up a feder-fraynd/briv-khaver system between our students, with which we elected to take a deliberately hands-off approach. Our students could ask for help with specific questions of grammar and vocabulary, but we wouldn’t mark up their letters with a red pen before sending them. We wanted them to see just how much they could say and understand without perfect grammar, without a more comprehensive vocabulary. It has been a genuine pleasure to track the creative solutions they devise to convey complicated concepts with the tools they do possess, and it is astonishing to see the words and concepts they pick up even when they have yet to be explicitly addressed in class (one of my students has developed a working understanding of the dative case entirely from scattered comments I have made during other lessons, and both students have been employing possessive pronouns with remarkable consistency and accuracy since the middle of the semester, despite never learning about them overtly). For their final homework assignment of the semester, I asked them each to illustrate their favorite stanza from Kadya Molodowsky’s story in verse, “Der taykh,” which we read in class. I provided them with some, but not all, of the new vocabulary, to show that even a general understanding can go a long way. These strategies culminated in this final class, when we set them loose on the books armed only with a few guiding questions and their own knowledge, just to see what would happen.
The students take their final exam the week after our final class. Ostensibly, the test will demonstrate that they have learned to understand and communicate in Yiddish. But with this visit to Special Collections, Brukhe and the incredible library staff at Johns Hopkins have given my students an opportunity to approach that secondary experience of seeing themselves put these skills to use. If the class makes any impression at all, I hope this memory is their lasting one—it will certainly be mine.