Feb 17, 2016
Yiddish teachers are always looking for good materials. Here, Jessica Kirzane demonstrates one way to use content from In geveb to structure and enhance her lessons.
In geveb wants to know: How are you using our material in your classrooms, synagogues, and conversations?
These materials were generously shared with In geveb by Jessica Kirzane. We want you to use them in whatever way best aids your teaching. If you wish to alter or add to them, please make note of this in your materials, and please keep the original attribution. You may send questions or comments to the creator through us: [email protected]ingeveb.org.
I recently taught an adult education series at my congregation, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas, on the topic “Women Who Wrote in Yiddish.” The idea of the class was to allow curious congregants with no prior knowledge of Yiddish literature a taste of this vast topic: to get a sense of how much there might be to learn about it, and then to delve into specifics, performing some close readings, as a group, of a few key texts. The course was divided into three sessions: one on Kadya Molodovsky, one on Anna Margolin and Celia Dropkin, and one on Esther Singer Kreitman.
As an introduction to the first session, I wanted to provide some visual material that would give my students a sense of who these writers were, as people. I didn’t know what the congregants might be picturing based on the title of the course: old ladies wearing headscarves in tumbledown shtetl homes? Overbearing Yidishe mames stuffing their suburban American children with kugel? I wanted to give my students a sense of what a female Yiddish writer looked like, and what her social and cultural affiliations might be. For this, I developed the following activity:
Introducing Yiddish Writers in the Classroom Using This Listicle
I turned to an improbable source: a listicle published on In geveb some months ago, titled “Best Dressed Yiddish Women Cultural Figures.”
Before I distributed the document, I gave a brief overview of the topic: women who wrote in Yiddish. I explained that the Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, an important resource for the study of modern Yiddish literature, contains entries for approximately 300 women who wrote in Yiddish. These women were of varied backgrounds; they wrote plays, short stories, novels, memoirs, and poetry; they participated in the vicissitudes of modern Jewish history and the trends of modern literature. But for a variety of reasons, many of their works were forgotten. This in part is because the work of women who wrote in Yiddish tended to be ignored or undervalued at the time it was written. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when feminist scholars made a concerted effort to bring women who wrote in Yiddish back into the canon, that their work (which truly is equal to that of men) began to be known.
I then asked the participants to describe to me what they knew or thought they knew about the topic, and what questions they had. Most admitted to knowing very little. They were curious about whether the writers knew one another or were familiar with each other’s work. They asked if the women were married with children. They asked if the women ever wrote things that involved prayer or religion—and if they ever wrote things that weren’t about religion at all.
Then I distributed a printout of the listicle. I asked the students if the pictures helped to address their questions at all. I also asked:
- What expectations did/do you have about who these women were, what their lives were like, etc.? Which of these pictures meet those expectations, and which defy them?
- What can we learn just from photographs? (Students’ answers included: Female friendships, attention to personal details, perhaps writing requires a certain level of socioeconomic comfort, participation in wider cultural trends, the captions tell us about the geographical spread.)
- What do you think of presenting the women in this way? (Note that this followed a similar article for men). What other categories would you like to see presented in this way? Who is left out of such an article? What does such an article fail to tell us? What might it misrepresent, or perhaps over- or underrepresent?
These and other questions, sparked a conversation about how the women were well-dressed, “look like my mother,” “look like ordinary people,” “look modern” or “stylish” or “artsy,” how there seemed to be a diverse array of experiences, but also some similarities. We had fun describing, critiquing, and trying to understand the outfits and facial expressions, and I think we came away with, above all, a sense that the writers we were going to be talking about in our class were people with lives as full as our own, with experiences to share through their written words that could still speak to us today.
As it turns out, the listicle was a great way to kick off our class, and would be a great way to start any conversation about women in Yiddish culture.
Click here to download a PDF on each of the three sessions of my course on Yiddish women writers: Session One - Kadya Molodowsky; Session Two - Celia Dropkin and Anna Margolin; Session Three - Esther Singer Kreitman. The PDF includes a list of secondary resources I found useful, a list of poems or excerpts that we read in class, and discussion questions for the material we covered.