Inhabiting Multiple Homelands: Teaching in a Summer Yiddish Program

Justin Cammy

I have a confession: I have a small addiction to Yiddish summer programs. For much of my adult life, my summers have been programmed around Yiddish, first as a graduate student (Uriel Weinreich Yiddish Summer Program at YIVO, 1994; Oxford Yiddish Program, 1995; First International Research Seminar in Yiddish Culture in cooperation with YIVO, Beit Sholem Aleichem, the Hebrew University, and Tel Aviv University, 1999), and as a regular faculty lecturer at the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center, which is only a few miles from my office at Smith College in Western Massachusetts. My students have expanded my horizons even further through their participation in yet other programs, including one this past summer in Belarus and Poland with the Helix Project, a program of Yiddishkayt, and previously at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. 1 1 Read about the many Yiddish summer programs in our yearly roundup.

As readers of In geveb already know, these seasonal retreats into language and culture are more than just academic programs. For many of us they are outposts of a virtual Yiddishland, even if none of them has yet experimented with the total immersion model of the kind offered by the Middlebury Summer Language Schools, where students are required to sign a pledge that they will not only communicate in the language of study during class hours but also outside of them as well (Yiddish Farm offers a summer immersion experience for beginners with credits available through Gratz college, but it does not position itself as an academic program).

For the past seven summers I have been fortunate to serve on the faculty of the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Summer Program at Tel Aviv University. The program is a collaboration of the Naomi Foundation, the Goldreich Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Tel Aviv University, and Beit Sholem Aleichem, one of the city’s main centers for Yiddish cultural programing and language teaching. It also is the largest Yiddish summer program in the world. This past summer 126 students were assigned to eight different morning language classes ranging from elementary to an advanced research seminar for graduate students. I appreciate its democratic commitment to enrolling as many qualified applicants as are interested, an approach that differs significantly from other summer programs with greater resources. The afternoon and evening program for which I deliver a series of classes on Yiddish literary and cultural theory includes additional lectures by leading international scholars. This summer Nahma Sandrow led off the program with a talk on Yiddish theater, David Roskies presented new research on Yiddish orality in the age of digital reproduction, and an afternoon symposium was held to mark the posthumous publication of Naomi Prawer Kadar’s monograph on Yiddish secular schools. Afternoon workshops on the Yiddish song and theater repertoire, and opportunities to practice spoken Yiddish are complemented by special events in the city such as evening performances of Yiddish music in a local theater or club, and a walking tour of Yiddish Tel Aviv.

The program attracts a mix of international and Israeli registrants that provides it with a global flavor. International students are undoubtedly attracted by the opportunity to combine their Yiddish studies with summer in a Mediterranean city. This past year students from 15 countries participated in the program. They hailed from North and South America, Australia, Scandinavia, and across Europe, including from five former Communist-block countries. Several of my independent-minded Smith College students sought out opportunities beyond the program’s formal contours through repeat visits to the bohemian Yung-YiDiSH located in a corner of the city’s central bus station, or by cutting their teeth on spoken-Yiddish by recording an episode of Vaybertaytsh, a feminist Yiddish podcast founded by a fellow program participant (and In geveb editorial board member) Sosye Fox. 2 2 Vaybertaytsh recorded three episodes at the Naomi Prawar Kadar International Summer Program at Tel Aviv University in 2017. Each of the three episodes provides a different answer to the question “Why Yiddish?” The first episode, “Queer in Yiddish,” explores the connections between queer identity and learning and speaking Yiddish. The second episode, “Mamaloshn Academy?” addresses the blurry lines between the personal and the professional in Yiddish academia, and explores the role of spoken Yiddish there. The third episode, “Yiddish in the Making of Me,” addresses the role of Yiddish in students’ identities. Two participants in the episode “Mamaloshn Academy” offered behind-the-scenes reflections on making the episode in a blog post for In geveb. With four Yiddish centers in Tel Aviv alone (Beit Sholem Aleichem, Beit Leyvik, Arbeter-Ring, and Yung-YiDiSH), Yiddish graduate programs at Tel Aviv, Bar Ilan, and the Hebrew Universities, a professional Yiddish theater, one of the largest collections of Yiddish books and archival materials in the world at the Israel National Library in Jerusalem, and one of the highest numbers of Yiddish speakers in the world, Israel should be a leading destination for students interested in Yiddish studies, its postwar journeys, and its contemporary vernacular expression.

The program’s second major cohort of students are its local participants, who themselves are a diverse group. Israeli students are dominated by those pursuing the inter-university masters degree in Yiddish literature and PhD students from a variety of departments in the humanities. Their presence attests to the ongoing expansion of academic Yiddish studies in Israel. They are complemented by an older cohort of program participants who are not pursuing a degree program and who look forward to the summer program as a way to consciously interrupt their Hebrew lives. Some of them are near-native Yiddish speakers, where others come to Yiddish as part of a broader interest in ethnic heritage. This group performs an important task in ensuring that the Tel Aviv program is intergenerational; this past summer they accounted for one third of all participants in the program. Their presence is a critical opportunity for students to hear how an older generation of Israelis carries with it the varied native Yiddish accents of their parents, and how collective memory of Yiddish in Israel is inflected both by the direct experience of Holocaust survivors and their children, and by ideological efforts to relegate Yiddish to private spaces in both the Zionist Yishuv and the early years of the State. Some of the Israeli “veterans” also bring with them an affective relationship to Yiddish as representative of a disappearing yidishkayt. Their reading of the meaning of Yiddish differs significantly from some of the radical assumptions about Yiddish that draw other students into its orbit. Both, in some way, are essentializations that the classroom setting complicates, even if their proponents sometimes speak past (and over!) one another.

The diversity of spoken languages, generational perspectives, and exchange between local and international participants is one of the program’s major assets, and the one I find most energizing and challenging as a teacher. To be sure, it makes the classroom something of a multilingual tightrope. By way of an example: since the program includes students at all levels of language acquisition, it consciously strives to be inclusive to those who are at the earliest stages of their Yiddish learning. When I began teaching in Tel Aviv a number of years ago, it was decided that my lectures on Yiddish literature would be delivered in English, though I freely direct students back to the Yiddish original during class discussion. The assumption is that English is an international scholarly language that is accessible to the largest number of participants at varying levels of Yiddish learning from Israel, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In order to accommodate my own interests and keep the material fresh I change the theme of my afternoon classes on a yearly basis to accommodate the program’s repeat students. Over the years these have ranged from “Yiddish Poetic Modernism” and “Yiddish Life Writing” to this summer’s “Yiddish Literary Cities and Centers.” My readings are distributed in English translation, though students with the capacity to work through the original (or who prefer to read in Hebrew translation) are encouraged to do so. I tell my students at the first class that though I will guide discussion in English, advanced Yiddish speakers are encouraged to ask questions and make comments during class in Yiddish, and Hebrew speakers should feel free to comment in Hebrew, both of which I then translate into English for the benefit of the group before responding. In some ways, the classroom replicates the multilingual reality in which Yiddish always existed. The model is a fascinating pedagogic challenge in which the space between languages is often where the most interesting conversations (or disagreements) take place. Of course, there are always some students who desire more advanced lectures in Yiddish, given the relative infrequency of such opportunities. The interests of these advanced learners must be balanced against those of the Israeli participants who might wonder why a local university does not offer any discussion of Yiddish materials in Hebrew, and those of a multilingual international student population. In order to balance some of these competing needs the program recently inaugurated both an advanced morning class for graduate student researchers who are using Yiddish as a primary research tool and an advanced class especially for older Israeli participants. In both cases, the primary focus is on critical analysis, discussion, and written interpretation of primary Yiddish texts in Yiddish, clearing linguistic space in the afternoon for my classes on Yiddish materials that are geared for all interested students in the program, regardless of Yiddish language level. Year after year, I am pleasantly surprised by the proportion of students in the program who, after a long morning of language learning, emerge into the humid Tel Aviv heat and stick around for the supplementary afternoon program. Some of the Israeli participants quietly admit to me that they enjoy the opportunity for these discussions to hone their academic English, though most of the class is filled by an international cadre of undergraduate and graduate students who come to the summer program seeking firmer grounding in core Yiddish texts and contemporary concerns of the field. English emerges as a neutral language that bridges the Americas, Europe, and Israel.

In preparing my classes I am also conscious of the fact that whereas Yiddish studies in Israel is defined (or at least dominated) by the study of Yiddish literature, in other parts of the world Yiddish is deployed for the study of local or national histories, comparative literature and cultural studies, and anthropology, to name a few. My approach to the teaching of Yiddish literature is designed to bring students from various disciplines and language levels into conversation so that a student of history and another of comparative literature benefit from what the other notices in a shared text, and also begin to see themselves as part of a common field of Yiddish studies that is enlarged by cross-disciplinary approaches and collaboration. Having such a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds and international flavor in the same classroom is also an opportunity for students from different parts of the world to gain a sense of how Yiddish studies manifests itself differently around the world. If Yiddish Studies in America is often located institutionally within the broader matrix of Jewish Studies, this is not necessarily the case for students from other parts of the world whose universities may not employ a single faculty member with a specialization in Yiddish. The international composition of the program also intervenes in some of the parochial assumptions about interest in Yiddish among older Israelis, especially when it includes a talented younger generation of non-Jewish students interested in matters Yiddish. I often have to explain that a welcome part of normalization of Yiddish studies involves the self-confidence to recognize that it is innately interesting as an academic field. My presence in the classroom, then, is not only that of scholar and teacher but also of cultural interpreter.

I was fortunate to spend a year-long sabbatical in 2013-14 as a visiting fellow of the Goldreich Institute for Yiddish at Tel Aviv University, where I was invited to organize a monthly forum for Israeli graduate students on contemporary critical theory related to Yiddish. The success of that model prompted the decision last year to include a graduate research colloquium as part of the Yiddish summer program in order to allow students from around the world to talk with one another about their work. This has proved to be an exciting opportunity to gauge the growth of Yiddish studies in different global centers, and also performs the critical work of building a transnational community of emerging scholars. The international line-up of presentations by students from leading graduate programs in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Israel is one of the most energizing moments of the program that speaks to the program’s strength as true kibets golies, ingathering various atomized outposts of academic Yiddish—even if only temporarily—into one cultural space.

I am grateful to Professors Hana Wirth-Nesher and Avrom Novershtern, academic co-directors of the summer program, for their receptivity to conversations about ways in which we might deepen the specific local experience of studying Yiddish in Israel in years to come. If studying Yiddish in Warsaw or Vilnius or New York has the draw of being in a city that served as a major Yiddish demographic and cultural center, with opportunities there to explore sites of importance to Yiddish cultural history, the time has come to also explore Tel Aviv (and Israel more broadly) as an equally important lieu de memoire and contemporary Yiddish vernacular space. Since all culture exists within a specific context, I believe that the program is well poised to enhance appreciation for the complicated history of Yiddish in the Yishuv and the state of Israel. It already invites students on a wonderful evening walking tour of Yiddish Tel Aviv guided by Yaad Biran, but given the amount of Yiddish writing published in Israel that is connected to its land, city, and people-scapes I imagine that students visiting from abroad would benefit from a broader Yiddish litera-tour of Israel that allows these texts to come alive. Imagine reading excerpts from Yehoash’s travelogue to Ottoman Palestine in situ, Sutzkever’s poems of the Negev or selections from Gaystike erd [Spiritual Soil] overlooking the wilderness of Zin, and Rikuda Potash’s short stories set in Jerusalem in a stone alleyway. Additional opportunities that would enhance connections between students and place even further include a field trip to Haredi neighborhoods of Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim where students might be exposed to Yiddish in ultra-Orthodox communities; a visit to the Israel National Library where an archivist might present a curated selection of Yiddish archival materials and a librarian introduces students to the Historical Jewish Press digitization project that includes significant holdings in Yiddish newspaper and periodical literature; a visit to Yad Vashem or Kibbutz Lohamei ha’getaot with a focus on the centrality of Yiddish to Holocaust Studies and to the study of survivor narratives; a workshop with the actors of Yiddishspiel; a talk by a Hebrew writer or television producer to discuss the Yiddish presence in contemporary Hebrew fiction and popular culture, from David Grossman’s See Under: Love and Aharon Megged’s Foiglman to the hit television series Shtisl. As the Tel Aviv summer program expands its participants’ exposure to local manifestations of vernacular Yiddish, visits to Yiddish institutions, archives, and memory sites, and evidence of the Yiddish trace in contemporary Hebrew culture it has an important role to play in helping to craft a fresh narrative about the creative and disruptive function of Yiddish within a Zionist meta-narrative.

Teaching Yiddish literature in Tel Aviv, then, fulfills my own need to synthesize scholarly commitments to the field of Yiddish and a personal investment in contributing in some small way to the expansion of Yiddish literacies in Israel. How can we expect European or American institutions of higher education to accord Yiddish respect unless it has pride of place at Israeli institutions? Moreover, if we are to resist a lachrymose reading of Yiddish I believe that a student’s experience of it is different when it is studied within the living Jewish context that is contemporary Israel. If the place of a Yiddish writer or activist was always with a living people, then might that not also be true for a teacher and student of Yiddish? In my experience, it means something to walk out of the Yiddish classroom at Tel Aviv University into an environment that also is culturally organized around the alef-beys. I know that whatever I am able to provide to students is more than returned by what the experience provides back to me -- the opportunity to inhabit multiple Jewish languages and homelands simultaneously. That I am equally at home in the streets of Tel Aviv as I am in the YIVO archives is not deviation from Yiddish, but its realization.

Cammy, Justin. “Inhabiting Multiple Homelands: Teaching in a Summer Yiddish Program.” In geveb, November 2017:
Cammy, Justin. “Inhabiting Multiple Homelands: Teaching in a Summer Yiddish Program.” In geveb (November 2017): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.


Justin Cammy

Justin Cammy is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Comparative Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.