Pedagogy

How Do You Say “Parents” in Yiddish?

Vardit Lightstone

INTRODUCTION

How do we ensure that our classrooms are inviting, inclusive spaces for all of our students? For starters, we can make sure that our students have the words they need to talk about their lives, and that we don’t inadvertently silence students from sharing their experiences. Vardit Lightstone discusses her experiences in creating a vocabulary sheet that includes words for a variety of sexual orientations and identities, and shares that sheet with In geveb readers. The author and editors encourage readers to submit your own additions to this ongoing project. What terms do you use in your classrooms, or with acquaintances? How do you go about writing inclusive curricula?

In geveb publishes pedagogical materials along with reflections from teachers. This worksheet was generously shared with In geveb by Vardit Lightstone. We want you to use it in whatever way best aids your teaching. If you wish to alter or add to it, please make note of this in your new worksheet, and please keep the original attribution. You may send questions or comments to the creator through us: [email protected] Download it here.

UPDATE: We have also published a “readers respond,” which reacts to this piece. Read it here.

This is the question one of my students asked halfway through the first semester of Elementary Yiddish. “Tate-mame,” I replied.

“Is there any other way?”

“Well, ‘eltern’, although to my ears it sounds a bit formal.”

That was the end of the conversation. A couple of weeks later, when I asked my students to submit a creative writing assignment, a minimum of four (connected) sentences using any of the vocabulary from class, did I find out that she had two mothers. From the same assignment I learned that she was not my only student with a non-normative family structure.

This realization shocked me because it brought me face-to-face with the fact that I was teaching a heteronormative Yiddish class. By a heteronormative class, I mean that the material I presented assumed the heterosexuality, and gender and lifestyle normativity, of my students, and that assumption was reflected in the vocabulary I provided. Even the texts I used presumed a heteronormative Yiddish-speaking community. Heteronormativity is at odds with the reality of Toronto where I was teaching. The city, which has a visible LGBTQ presence, 1 1 LGBTQ is an acronym that stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer. The acronym is used to refer to a group of people whose sexual identities are tied to similar social and political concerns. I use LGBTQ here because it is the acronym I have seen most often. Some individuals and groups prefer other acronyms, such as LGBTQI – Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex. has been the site of Gay and Queer festivals since the ‘70s, and Pride Day was made official by the City Council in 1991. 2 2 A timeline of LGBTQ public activity in Toronto can be found here. There is also a specifically Jewish LGBT community in Toronto. Heteronormativity did not fit with the culture of the university where I was teaching either; the University of Toronto has “positive space” stickers on almost every single door. Heteronormativity is also at odds with my experience of Yiddish. Almost half of my Yiddishist friends identify as LGBTQ. 3 3 Many LGBTQ-identifying people seem to be attracted to Yiddish. Although I have never formally researched LGBTQ communities or “Queer Yiddishkeit”, my sense is that Yiddish is attractive to many LGBTQ identifying Jews (of an Ashkenazi background) because it is a way of expressing their Jewish identity which by-passes the more conservative, especially religious, elements of Jewish culture. In general, I have noticed that minority languages tend to attract people with non-normative / unusual identities (I also studied Scots Gaelic and Irish). I connect the attraction between non-normative identities and minority languages to the fact that minority languages offer a way to differentiate oneself linguistically / symbolically, reflecting one’s non-normative identity through a non-normative language, if you will. Also, speakers of minority languages are a self-selecting group: it takes a particular type of person to learn a language which only a handful of people in their daily life (if that) use. See Jeffrey Shandler’s article on Queer Yiddishkeyt and Kathleen Peratis’s article in the Forward. But regardless of community context, LGBTQ inclusivity is the right thing to do.

I decided I had to do something to change my one-sided heteronormative teaching material for two reasons:

The first is because, as a teacher I wanted my students to be able to see themselves in Yiddish. It is hard to love something that you feel alienated from, and my goal as a teacher was to make my students appreciate Yiddish as much as I do. I wanted them to enjoy the language and to continue using it once they left my classroom. I also wanted them to understand that Yiddish is a living language with vocabulary that evolves to meet contemporary needs.

The second reason, the one which really galvanized me to action, is that I had not given my students the ability to communicate about their LGBTQ identities and families in Yiddish. For most of my students, their first impressions of Yiddish culture was through me, I didn’t want it to be an impression of LGBTQ invisibility. I did not want my classes to have a “hidden curriculum” that suggested to students that their own experiences and lives didn’t matter.

As a corrective, I decided that I would like to give my students LGBTQ vocabulary, and, if possible, a poem, short story, or song that we could read in class. I was a little bit stuck, though, because I myself did not have LGBTQ Yiddish resources.

So I turned to one of my Yiddishist friends, Jessica Parker, and asked for help with locating resources and figuring out what vocabulary members of the LGBTQ community would be interested in. Finally, I posted a request for resources on the Yiddish Book Center’s Alumni Facebook page. My request received a lot of interest from other members of the group who were also interested in having these resources. Only one person, Jordan Kutzik, a journalist at the Yiddish Forverts, provided the actual vocabulary I was looking for. The words were pretty fresh in his mind because the Forverts had just run some articles about the transgender community. Kutzik was also able to provide helpful information about how to use specific terms: some words need quotation marks, such as the adjective “gey” which otherwise can be confused with the verb ‘go’; some are only understood in North America, such as “freylekh” (gay), etc. 4 4 Of course, always bear in mind the community you’re coming from. Some terms can be viewed as “insider-only” terms, and not appropriate when used by people outside LGBTQ communities.

With this information I presented a vocabulary sheet to my class. Together we went through the words and how to use them. My class, which included people from various backgrounds including immigrants, and all ages, first-years to retirees, listened attentively as I went through the vocabulary. I was surprised that my students had no questions or comments as I reviewed the list – neither questions asking for further information, nor negative comments along the lines of, “This isn’t real Yiddish. My grandparents wouldn’t have used these words!” So, after going through the vocabulary, I simply divided my students into pairs and instructed them to have a conversation based on the vocabulary and conversation prompts I had provided them up to that point. That way, if a student wanted to have an LGBTQ-themed conversation they could.

Most of my students did not seem to incorporate the vocabulary, preferring to stay with the basic conversation: “Vos makhstu?” “Fun vanen kumstu?” But a few students did try to incorporate the new vocabulary. One student told me how excited she was and jokingly said that this made her feel like dating again (she has a partner). At the end of the semester this vocabulary showed up again in some students’ writing assignments. One student commented that this vocabulary really underscored the fact that Yiddish is a living, evolving language. My students seemed to accept LGBTQ topics as a seamless part of Yiddish culture and conversation.

Navigating the religious aspect of Yiddish in relation to LGBTQ topics did not become an issue in my classroom. This issue probably was not raised because from the very first class in which I introduced the history of Yiddish, I stressed the fact that the language has a rich secular history despite being grounded in religious texts and culture. If this question had come up, I would have pointed out that whether or not LGBTQ identities were or are accepted by Yiddish speakers and/or Jewish leaders, LGBTQ-identifying Yiddish speakers exist, and have existed. Perhaps, outside of the classroom, I would have spoken to students who were particularly struggling with this issue to material that deals with LGBTQ Jewish identity and acceptance. When teaching Yiddish, though, I find it helpful to differentiate religious / halakhic discussions from linguistic and literary discussions.

Jessica Parker suggested that the best way to be LGBTQ-inclusive is to incorporate LGBTQ material smoothly into my class, not to separate it from other family-oriented vocabulary or literary material. Unfortunately, the teaching resources aren’t there. I still have not found any LGBTQ themed Yiddish literature that I can teach. If I did, I would gladly switch out “A mol iz geven a mayse” or “Tumbalalayke”, two of the most popular songs for Yiddish beginners, in order to provide some balance.

I am sure that there is a need for this material, not only from my classroom experience, but also because of the response I received from other Yiddish Book Center alumni. They wanted this information, but almost no one had it. I assume that this is vocabulary/information that people learn as they need it and as they advance in study. Unfortunately, this means there are at least some people who may want to express their LGBTQ identity in Yiddish but cannot for the first year or so, as well as advanced Yiddish speakers who never learn it. As a Yiddish speaker this never bothered me (after all, I can just revert to English if I need to), but as a Yiddish teacher responsible for my students’ access to the language, it does.

Here is a version of the LGBTQ vocabulary sheet I created for my class; everyone who’s interested is welcome to use it!

I would also be happy to receive additions or corrections, and any recommendations of Yiddish LGBTQ literature that I might be able to teach.

MLA STYLE
Lightstone, Vardit. “How Do You Say "Parents" in Yiddish?.” In geveb, May 2016: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/how-do-you-say-parents-in-yiddish.
CHICAGO STYLE
Lightstone, Vardit. “How Do You Say "Parents" in Yiddish?.” In geveb (May 2016): Accessed Nov 13, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vardit Lightstone

Vardit Lightstone is a PhD student in Germanic Languages and Literatures and Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.