Lernen yidish far sholem: Teaching Yiddish in a Secular Jewish School

Erin Faigin


Erin Fai­gin serves as Yid­dishist in Res­i­dence and Intern at the Sholem Com­mu­ni­ty, a sup­ple­men­tal sec­u­lar Jew­ish school in Mari­na Del Ray, Cal­i­for­nia. Here, she reflects on the role of Yid­dish lan­guage instruc­tion in the cur­ricu­lum of the Sholem Com­mu­ni­ty and dis­cuss­es the teach­ing strate­gies she employs in her lan­guage class­room. She also shares an activ­i­ty for teach­ing about Purim. You can down­load PDF of the activ­i­ty here, or a .doc ver­sion by click­ing on the image to the right. 

Every Sunday, I teach Yiddish language and culture at a secular Jewish school. Secular Jewish education, a term used by a range of institutions across the country, focuses on the cultural aspects of Jewish life rather than religious dogma. While language education might seem unrelated to secular Judaism, giving students access to Yiddish and the worldview it promotes is in line with the work of secular educators across the world. The curriculum of the Sholem Community, a supplemental secular Jewish school in Marina Del Ray, California follows this line of thinking, making language central to instruction about secular Jewish culture.

The Sholem Community describes itself as a “secular and progressive Jewish educational, cultural, and social institution.” Students learn about Jewishness through historical, cultural and material lenses. While a typical Jewish education in America involves some instruction in prayerbook or modern Hebrew, at the Sholem Community students are not only exposed to Modern Hebrew, but introduced to Ladino, Judeo-Persian and Yiddish throughout their education. The cultural component of the Sholem Curriculum asks two central questions, “Why preserve culture at all?” and “What do we want to preserve—and why?” By including these languages regularly in classroom instruction, students at Sholem are active participants in preserving the linguistic diversity of secular Jewish culture. Ideally, students will learn to recognize these languages as the byproduct of multicultural societies, where Jews and non-Jews lived in close contact, exchanging words and ideas. This in turn can help to foster multicultural dialogue in our own community, a reimagining of the boundaries of secular Jewish life.

This fall, I began my current position as a Yiddishist in Residence and Intern at the Sholem Community. A large part of my job consists of shadowing teachers, substituting when needed, and providing back-up in the classroom. But the joy of my position is teaching Yiddish to the yugnt—my students age from kindergarten to middle schoolers. There are six classes, grouped by age, and I meet with each two to three times a semester. Given this small amount of interaction, my goals are limited: I want students to come away with the idea that Yiddish is a functional language that was, and continues to be, broadly spoken and used. If they remember vocabulary—all the better.

Music is the primary mode through which Yiddish has been taught at Sholem. Hershl Hartman views the objective of this approach as “getting the sound of Yiddish into students’ ears and the taste of it onto their tongues.” He continues that the use of Yiddish is “a means by which to dispel the common culture’s concept of Yiddish as a ‘funny/cursing/kitchen’ language.” 1 1 Email to author, February 8, 2017. I agree that music is an integral part of Yiddish language learning, but in my capacity as a language instructor, I also incorporate vocabulary and literature. My aim is to increase the level of students’ knowledge about Yiddish from the mere appreciation that a music-driven curriculum promotes to a more comprehensive view of Yiddish culture.

My approach is kinetic, auditory and playful, following the norms of the Sholem curriculum as well as the resources available to me as a Yiddish language instructor for the very young. The Sholem curriculum is student-centered, and students are encouraged to guide and direct lessons and discussions. Lerer are encouraged to teach in multiple modes, engaging students not only through rote memorization, but movement, listening, art, and performance. My teaching does not involve the kinds of curricular materials more commonly associated with Sunday school education—the worksheets and readers customarily found in elementary school classrooms are practically invisible at Sholem, and there are no modern secular Yiddish learning texts for elementary learners. My teaching style, which relies heavily on improvisational games, was also inspired by the In geveb article Teaching Yiddish Through Performance by Hannah Pollin-Galay, which stresses the importance of creativity and action in these informal educational settings.

Improvising scenarios, as opposed to performing from a script, enables students to use Yiddish as a functional spoken language. I introduce the students to new words and phrases, then encourage them to think creatively and imagine scenarios where Yiddish might be spoken. As the students act out the scene, they engage their whole bodies in the production of Yiddish, a method language teachers often use, called Total Physical Response (TPR). Although these methods promote natural, free-flowing foreign-language conversation, they have their drawbacks. It can be difficult for students to successfully integrate newly learned words and phrases, and using vocabulary lists can be cumbersome. In order for this approach to work, a considerable amount of time has to be spent learning these phrases. Often, I will introduce the new vocabulary to students, have them repeat it back to me, and then repeat again collectively. This process can be time consuming if introducing a significant amount of vocabulary, and can disrupt the flow of a performance space.

With the older students, I focus on thematic vocabulary structured around the Sholem curriculum and in particular, Jewish holidays. When introducing vocabulary, I try to create sets of words and phrases that either can be used outside the classroom or enhance their knowledge of Jewish tradition. In teaching Yiddish words related to Purim, I discussed the mitzvah of shalakh-mones and reading the megile. We also talked about the shape and contents of hamentashn, learning a variety of new words. When asking the class questions, I often repeat their answers. For instance, I will ask, “Ver hot lib aprikos gefilekhts?” and after students have responded, I will repeat, “Ir hot lib aprikos gefilekhts.” In this way, students hear the same sounds in different grammatical constructions. I have included the worksheet I compiled for Purim, and I have used components of it with both kindergarteners and fifth graders. With younger students, I create image based presentations of the vocabulary, having the students engage in the naming of familiar objects while renaming them with Yiddish vocabulary.

I have only been at the Sholem Community for a short time, but in these few months I have expanded and improved my knowledge of language teaching. As I continue this work, I look forward to gradually building upon these limited language learning moments, and I believe the cumulative effect could be significant. By working with Yiddish in engaging and interactive ways, students will leave the classroom with a deeper understanding of how Yiddish can be used as a functional language, and their knowledge of and about Yiddish will inform their understanding of secular Jewish identities.

Faigin, Erin. “Lernen yidish far sholem: Teaching Yiddish in a Secular Jewish School.” In geveb, March 2017:
Faigin, Erin. “Lernen yidish far sholem: Teaching Yiddish in a Secular Jewish School.” In geveb (March 2017): Accessed Sep 17, 2021.


Erin Faigin

Erin Faigin is a PhD student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.