Pedagogy

My Way into Yiddish: Reflections of an Adult Learner

Laurie Fisher

INTRODUCTION

In the ped­a­gogy sec­tion of In geveb not only do we pro­vide reflec­tions by, and resources from, instruc­tors in Yid­dish Stud­ies at all lev­els, we also cen­ter the voic­es and expe­ri­ences of stu­dents of Yid­dish. We have pub­lished sur­vey results as well as exam­ples of sur­vey results sur­vey results that demon­strate what stu­dents are capa­ble of and sur­vey results as sur­vey results in oth­er class­room set­tings. We have also pub­lished per­son­al reflec­tions and sur­vey results about learn­ing Yid­dish in a pan­dem­ic, as a learn­er liv­ing far away from Yid­dish learn­ing resources, and as a learn­er with a chron­ic ill­ness. The fol­low­ing piece reflects on one learn­er’s expe­ri­ence of study­ing Yid­dish as a learn­er lat­er in life. 

If you would like to share your per­spec­tive as a stu­dent or learn­er of Yid­dish or Yid­dish Stud­ies, send us a pitch at [email protected]​ingeveb.​org.

I am not a Yiddish teacher or a professor of Yiddish; rather I am a Jewish Studies professor who happens to be a student of Yiddish. My experience with Yiddish has been as a learner later in life. I teach Biblical Hebrew, Jewish history, and Education at Gratz College and the classes I teach have little to do with Yiddish as a living language; rather, Yiddish may come up incidentally as an artifact of a time that my students and I are studying. However, since I began studying Yiddish, I sprinkle as many Yiddish words into conversation with my students as I can. It is my own small way of keeping Yiddish as a language and culture alive. In short, Yiddish has influenced my personal life, my teaching, and my already vast appreciation for Jewish history and culture. This piece is a reflection on my experiences as a learner, how those experiences have affected me as a teacher, and why learning Yiddish has become so important to me.

My Yiddish Education

In the fall of 2020 I decided to start learning Yiddish and I kept learning through five semesters at the college level in addition to taking classes at YIVO. Yiddish had long been on my back burner as something I would like to learn. In fall 2020 I had recently finished a doctorate in Education and was looking for a new intellectual challenge. The pandemic was raging, and Yiddish was available online at Gratz College where I teach. I was so very fortunate to connect with Dr. Nina Warnke, an excellent pedagogue who would become my guide in all things Yiddish over the next five semesters. I took four semesters of regular Yiddish and one semester of a reading course in which we learned to do research in Yiddish, how to use an archive, and took our own shot at translating a short Yiddish piece.

My Language Background

As a groundwork for my Yiddish studies, I had German, which I learned in both High School and College, and both Biblical and Modern Hebrew. I thought that, having studied these languages, I would have a good base from which to build my Yiddish. I was not wrong; however, there were some caveats. It became a running joke in my Yiddish classes “Would she or wouldn’t she pronounce loshn koydesh words correctly?” My habits were too strong. Every time I saw a word from loshn koydesh, my instinct was to say it with a Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation. It was a struggle making my mouth form the words with an Ashkenazic Yiddish pronunciation. On the other hand, I did not struggle with knowing the meanings of loshn koydesh words the way some new learners do. I had a ready-made vocabulary. The same was true with German but, yet again, I had to fight some of my training, as when similar words are pronounced differently across these related languages. But as with Hebrew, I had a good grounding in vocabulary and was not starting from scratch. Even when words had vowel shifts from German, they were still similar enough that I could derive meaning. With this linguistic background, I perceived that I began Yiddish with a distinctive advantage. Of course, none of that helped me derive meaning from words of Slavic and Romance origin. They just had to be completely memorized.

Intrinsic Motivation and Realistic Goals

I have approached Yiddish as a life-long learner. I like to call it Yiddish lishma, if you will, to use a loshn koydesh term. I have no motive for learning Yiddish other than to forge a connection with a Jewish language other than Hebrew, a language related to my history as an Ashkenazi Jew. These reasons are probably similar to those of other adult learners of Yiddish. Nevertheless, those who are familiar with adult educational theory know that when adults approach learning something by choice, the success rate is usually quite high. In short, they are intrinsically motivated learners. It is this intrinsic motivation that drew me to take up Yiddish as a subject and discipline at the age of 52 years young. Yes, learning languages is difficult when one has left their younger self behind, but I wanted the challenge. I was willing to accept that I would not necessarily become a fluent Yiddish speaker. That was not really one of my goals. Rather, my goal is to learn more about my cultural heritage, and I felt reading and understanding Yiddish should be part of my toolbox.

The possibility of accessing new ideas or ways of knowing is at the heart of all learning, especially adult learning. I knew that being able to read in Yiddish would give me access to a body of literature that was only known to me—and not very well, at that—in translation. I have no aspirations or illusions that I’ll become a great translator. That takes a lifetime of work and an intimate knowledge that I am unlikely to gain. But I wanted to experience the process of reading Yiddish for myself and making my own interpretive choices about the English meaning of the text with the Yiddish knowledge that I have. And I wanted to learn to read and appreciate Yiddish af Yiddish without an intermediary. One of my favorite aspects of teaching Biblical Hebrew is when my students first come to reading a Biblical text in the original and can appreciate the amazing language that is Biblical Hebrew—recognizing the choices that the author made to express their ideas and discovering all the literary devices that make both the prose and poetry flow so magically. In my experience it just sounds better in the original. That’s why I suspected that as much as I loved the short story “If Not Higher,” by I. L. Peretz, I would adore it even more if I could read it in Yiddish.

How learning Yiddish has influenced me as a Biblical Hebrew teacher

I have been learning Yiddish mainly through using the communicative approach. This approach for learning a living language does not separate out grammar and vocabulary from the rich culture in which it is embedded. Instead of drilling stale and stand alone grammar exercises and memorizing vocabulary devoid of a particular context, students learn grammar and vocabulary organically as they are learning to speak, read, and write. This method is very different from the way I had been taught German those many years ago and also from the way that Biblical Hebrew is typically taught. I have told my students before, “If you are a grammar nerd, you will love Biblical Hebrew.” The thinking traditionally goes that you must learn a lot of vocabulary and grammar before you even think about approaching an original text. Needless to say, this can become quite tedious and boring over time and furthermore does a disservice to the student. I discovered and am still imbibing from the process of learning Yiddish embedded in the culture of literature, song, and theatre that there is a better way. Does it look a little different from learning an ancient language? Definitely! But there is much from the communicative approach that can be translated (pun intended) into teaching Biblical Hebrew. Learning Yiddish with this method has given me the courage and the chutzpah to borrow from this approach to enrich my Biblical Hebrew classes. It is hard work and I am mostly in the development stage of changing the way that I teach, but learning Yiddish’s influence has been profound for me as a pedagogue.

One beautiful thing about learning Yiddish using the communicative approach is that you learn about a culture in which the language is intrinsic. This cultural component is essential to learning the language fully, and that’s an important takeaway for my own teaching.

My Yiddish future

Thus far, learning Yiddish has brought many delights. Translating was the most fun for me and the most challenging aspect of Yiddish I have yet encountered. I chose to translate a d’var by the late Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik who gave many of his “sermons” in his native Yiddish. This process was both humbling and thrilling at the same time. Humbling because it brought home to me how little I really knew, and thrilling because here I was reading and, for the most part, understanding a text in its original.

I have also been introduced to women of Yiddish literature, who are some of the most incredible writers in any language. Like so much of my generation’s education, my brief forays into Yiddish literature had only been until that point dictated by false patriarchal norms. I knew Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and Mendele, but had not yet been introduced to Kadia Molodovsky, Rokhl Korn, Malka Heifetz Tussman, Celia Dropkin, Blume Lempel, and Puah Rakovsky, among others. Reading them in the original without translation, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. So many delights to sample, so much pathos to share and endure.

I look forward to many pleasurable years of study, reading, and challenging myself to that hardest of activities—speaking Yiddish. As is often the case, I believe, I understand much more than I can speak myself. I adore that thrill of listening to a Yiddish podcast, watching a Yiddish video, hearing a Yiddish song, or listening to my teacher address the class and knowing that I understand what was just said. It is okay with me if I never become a fluent speaker; after all, that was not one of my goals. But now when I see Yiddish printed on a page, I see an open invitation to exploration.

MLA STYLE
Fisher, Laurie. “My Way into Yiddish: Reflections of an Adult Learner.” In geveb, January 2023: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/my-way-into-yiddish-reflections-of-an-adult-learner.
CHICAGO STYLE
Fisher, Laurie. “My Way into Yiddish: Reflections of an Adult Learner.” In geveb (January 2023): Accessed Feb 04, 2023.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laurie Fisher

Dr. Laurie Fisher is an adjunct professor at Gratz College in Philadelphia where she teaches Biblical Hebrew and Jewish History.