לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Which Textbook to Use?

Madeleine Cohen


In an effort to pool the wisdom and questions acquired from our work in the classroom, In geveb regularly polls Yiddish language instructors on topics related to Yiddish pedagogy. The responses to these polls offer a cross section of the opinions, approaches, and experiences of Yiddish language instructors, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, from children’s programs to university classes to continuing education courses, from new teachers to those with a lifetime of experience. If you are a teacher of Yiddish language, add your voice to the discussion in our next poll. And if you want to share your opinion on the topic presented below, please do so! We’ll publish an addendum with new responses.

What textbook is best for introductory Yiddish classes?

The choice of what textbook to use—if any—is often the first decision an instructor makes when planning for a new class. For our inaugural poll of Yiddish language instructors, we asked teachers which textbooks they prefer to use and why.

This question is, of course, colored by Yiddish’s status as “Less Commonly Taught Language.” 1 1 The designation of “Less Commonly Taught Language” can be used to apply to the teaching of all languages aside from French, German, and Spanish in the United States. Whereas “major” languages have a glut of possible textbooks, curricula, and accompanying course materials, “minor” languages like Yiddish have fewer options. The number of textbooks named here is quite small, while the comments of almost every teacher who participated touch on how they deal with the perceived deficiencies of the available textbooks by supplementing with self-made (or other) materials.

Responses to this question often mentioned the kind of classroom the teacher is working in, and how this affects the choice of textbook. Whether one is teaching a university class that meets for five hours per week with students who are essentially students by profession or an adult education course that meets for one hour a week with students who haven’t been in a classroom for 20 years or more greatly affects the learning conditions and goals of the classroom, and as a result the choice of textbook.

Two dominant themes emerged from the responses to the poll: 1) not which textbook one uses, but how to use a textbook in a continuing education classroom versus a university classroom, and 2) College Yiddish: for or against?

In this post we’ll focus on the first question, and turn to the College Yiddish debate next time.

Textbooks in university classrooms versus continuing education classrooms

My own teaching experience includes both the university classroom (first-semester Yiddish at University of California, Berkeley) and evening courses for organizations like Workmen’s Circle. I started teaching Berkeley’s course, which meets for one hour a day, five days a week, with a mixture of enthusiastic undergraduates, graduate students skilled at language learning, and auditors from the community. Transitioning from that environment—where students heard and spoke Yiddish every day, did homework every night, had weekly quizzes, and cared about getting an A at the end of the semester—to the structural limitations of evening courses certainly involved significant changes in my pedagogy.

Perhaps the major change regarding textbooks was that not all of my adult students wanted to learn the Yiddish alphabet. While the Berkeley students approached learning Yiddish like any other language (learning to read, speak, write, and listen), many of the adult students seemed to not quite think of Yiddish as a real language that one could learn. (I got questions including: It has a grammar? It has standardized spelling? Can’t we just learn some funny words?) Some of them also doubted their own abilities to learn a new alphabet. While I certainly took it upon myself to challenge them and push their learning goals, I also had to accept that the learning possibilities of this classroom were different from the university classroom. We met only once a week, and the generally older students might have had a harder time learning new language skills than younger students. 2 2 The exact effects of student age on second language acquisition are a large topic in writing on language pedagogy. See for example Patsy Lightbown and Nina Margaret Spada, “Age and Second Language Learning,” in How Languages are Learned (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). While at Berkeley I required my students to learn the alphabet and start reading (however slowly) by the first or second week of the course, such a requirement was simply not suited to the continuing education classroom.

This meant that most textbooks—including College Yiddish, which we used as a core text in the Berkeley classes—were unusable for the evening course, as they either assume knowledge of the alef-beys, or teach the alef-beys in the introductory lessons (and then eliminate transliteration). My solution was at first to adapt supplementary materials I had made for the Berkeley courses, adding transliteration to everything. These included grammar handouts and conversation activities with vocabulary, songs, etc. Needless to say, this was time-consuming.It also meant that even students who knew the alef-beys or wanted to learn it could fall back on the transliteration, hindering their progress reading the original.

In 2011, a better option turned up when Lily Kahn’s Colloquial Yiddish textbook was published. Colloquial Yiddish was perfect for the adult courses in this regard, as the first five units of the book include transliteration and translations of most of the material. Those first five units combined with my own supplementary handouts and activities provided ample material for an eight- or twelve-week evening course. Of course, the hindrance of transliteration for those students who do want to learn the alef beys remains; that is the main reason I would not use this book as a core text for an intensive university class.

Other instructors who have taught adult or continuing education courses for community organizations responded about the differing learning goals and environments of those courses, and the approaches they take to make the most of the classes.

Max Edwards wrote about teaching his first Yiddish course at the Boston Workmen’s Circle while he was a graduate student at Harvard University. Max also used Colloquial Yiddish, noting the benefits of the two CDs that accompany the textbook—recordings of the dialogues in each unit. Max writes how helpful it was for students to be able to listen to and practice the dialogues at home, especially for a class that meets only once week. Unlike my own evening courses, Max’s class continued throughout an entire year, and he also writes that as the class went on, he encountered drawbacks to Colloquial Yiddish. The setting of the book is a summer Yiddish program in London (which I appreciated as a realistic contemporary setting for people to be speaking klal Yiddish together in the year 2011). But Max notes that the conversations overwhelmingly take place in an academic setting, lacking material for other language environments. While Max found the grammatical explanations to be “strong,” he also found himself having to “constantly rearrange” the order in which they appeared in the book, “cutting and pasting” rather than being able to follow the proposed order. I also found this to be true and used the grammar explanations and activities out of order.

Yosl Kurland, who teaches Yiddish in Western Massachusetts, mentioned the challenge of having students who don’t want to do homework in between the weekly sessions, or don’t necessarily attend every class, making it difficult to count on any coherent progression from week to week. On top of this, Yosl mentions a challenge likely familiar to all teachers: a wide range in students’ experience with the language: past study, exposure at home, music, or otherwise. Given these circumstances, Yosl changed tactics, focusing the course on introducing students to the language through music and poetry:

“I use a variety of teacher-made materials: mostly poems or songs, with almost every vocabulary word listed and translated next to the text. I give them both Yiddish text and transliteration so that they have the choice to practice reading or simply study the text. I mark words of Hebrew origin so they can learn the cultural/historical significance of the concepts they express. I use examples from the text to teach points of grammar, and I’ve made my own materials for that, too. My goal is to awaken their desire to take a formal Yiddish course, or to satisfy their craving for Yiddish content even if they can’t.”

In the next installment of this series, we will share teachers’ (often strong!) feelings about working with Uriel Weinreich’s seminal textbook, College Yiddish. It’s not too late to share your thoughts on this question, and we invite you to participate in our next poll: “What do you do on the first day of class?”
Cohen, Madeleine. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Which Textbook to Use?.” In geveb, August 2015:
Cohen, Madeleine. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Which Textbook to Use?.” In geveb (August 2015): Accessed May 21, 2019.


Madeleine Cohen

Madeleine Cohen received her PhD in Comparative Literature with a designated emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the Director of Translation and Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center and In geveb's Senior Editor.