Jan 21, 2022
My work as a Yiddish instructor began during the pandemic, when Germany, as well as many other countries, was locked down. The first time I ever taught Yiddish was at the end of 2020 at the intensive online program organized by Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America. What started with one short-term course became my primary job, and now I teach Yiddish courses for Beginners and Intermediate students, shmues classes, and workshops on Yiddish grammar for YAAANA on a regular basis. All of them are online.
There has already been so much said about teaching Yiddish online, especially at In geveb. In short, online teaching is great: It is accessible and it unites students from different continents. People from towns without in-person Yiddish activities can easily join the vibrant international Yiddishland community. It can also be challenging because of technical reasons. You never know when your or one of your students’ internet connections might fall.
For me, teaching online is exciting. I was just so happy to be teaching Yiddish that the format did not matter.
However, I’ve always dreamed of teaching Yiddish in person in Berlin, in an old-school way. I was missing the opportunity to communicate with my students in person, and for the students to meet each other. So, when the exhausting never-ending lockdown in Berlin finally came to an end, I started to work on realizing my dream.
Opportunities to Learn Yiddish in Berlin
Unfortunately, there is no centralized Yiddish institution in Berlin, such as the Medem Center in Paris, or Center for Yiddish Culture in Warsaw. Yiddish classes are offered at the Jüdische Volkshochschule (Jewish People’s University) 1 1 The Jüdische Volkshochschule is an institution run by the official Jewish community of Berlin and offers a range of public adult education programs. in Berlin, and until I began teaching this was the only place offering Yiddish courses in Berlin. The instructor, Dr. Lia Martyn, is the instructor of Yiddish language and literature, at the University of Potsdam. Since the beginning of the pandemic the courses at the Jüdische Volkshochschule have only taken place online and are oriented toward native speakers of German. There are many international students and immigrants of all kinds in Berlin who prefer to use English, so these classes do not meet the needs of much of the potential audience for Yiddish in Berlin
Beyond Yiddish classes, the independent group Yiddish.Berlin, of which I am proud to be a co-founder, offers Yiddish poetry readings and events several times a year in memoriam to Yiddish writers. We also organize a Yiddish reading circle and a translation lab with weekly meetings. Shtetl Berlin, a community of singers and musicians, who organize a festival with the same name and regular jam sessions, is the core of the Berlin Yiddish music scene.
These are more or less all the regular events that Berlin can offer to Yiddish lovers. The niche of regular Yiddish classes taught in English was vacant. I was not sure if the idea would work and whether I would find enough students. But I decided to give it a try.
Launching the Course
Launching the course was a complete DIY process. I am not a member of any academic or other official institution so I had to go it alone. I found a classroom at the Berlin Janusz Korczak Haus, a Jewish organization that hosts summer camps for teenagers and communal activities for youth. The location in the heart of Berlin, near Alexanderplatz, and affordable rent made this place an ideal option.
I had absolutely no advertising budget. My advertising efforts were therefore limited to posts on Yiddish.Berlin’s social media and its newsletter, my personal website, and several friendly reposts.
I was launching two tracks at the same time: one for absolute beginners and another for intermediate students. Dividing students into two levels was an imprecise process. Beginners with knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, German speakers, and students who have already taken one or two weeks of Yiddish in a summer program are all different kinds of beginners. The term “Intermediate” is even more vague as it can include people who have learned Yiddish for six months or for six years with breaks, people who have attended several summer programs or people who learned Yiddish by themselves from a book. But I could not offer a more precise division than these two levels.
Honestly, I was unsure if the course would even happen at all until just before the start date. I was obsessively checking the responses to the registration form. For a long time, there were none, and this obviously frustrated me. But with each new person enrolled, a spark of hope flared up. In the end, I got the bare minimum amount of students for both groups. It was less than I planned initially. It was just enough to pay for the classroom and earn a tiny profit. But for a first attempt, without institutional support, I considered it not too bad.
Who Learns Yiddish in Berlin
It quickly became apparent that this course in Berlin differed significantly from my online courses.
First of all, the demographic profile of the groups was different. My students from YAAANA are mainly retired people (age 65+), while in Berlin I teach primarily much younger people. Half of them are twenty-somethings, and another half are in their thirties and forties. The classes are international, and I had only one German student. The others come from the Netherlands, Israel, USA, and Italy. By sheer coincidence, everyone in the intermediate class happens to know Italian, and the students explain Yiddish grammar or help each other with translation via this language.
For most of the students, Yiddish is not a second and not even a third language. One of them knows ten languages, another one—six. For the rest, Yiddish is at least a fourth language. It is very impressive, although it is not a great surprise in Berlin. The standard situation for foreigners who move here is that they speak their mother tongue (Russian, Hebrew, Spanish etc.), English as the language of international communication, and at least some German.
For a teacher, this situation is a blessing. It is easier to work with people who have broad experience in learning languages and who often even teach other languages. They are familiar with grammar terminology and it does not surprise them that different languages work in various ways.
But when it comes to their prior knowledge of German, the blessing can turn into a curse…
Yiddish after German: Pros and Cons
Although among Yiddish learners in my Berlin classes there are almost no native speakers of German, they all know the language to some degree. Some of them even learn German simultaneously with Yiddish. And in most cases, they know German better than Yiddish. The co-existence of these two closely related languages in one’s head requires additional vigilance. I myself studied German when my Yiddish was at an upper-intermediate level and found it impossible to resist the impulse to say “es gibt” instead of “es iz”, or “mann kann” instead of “me ken.”
The obvious advantage of prior knowledge of German in learning Yiddish is that students already know basic grammar and vocabulary. They know about three grammatical genders, accusative and dative cases, declination of definite articles and adjectives, etc. These things do not require long explanations, and we can quickly move past them. German also helps enormously with translation, as many words sound similar.
But the similarity and closeness of the two languages causes confusion as well. For example, it is very common that students presume grammatical gender to be the same for German and Yiddish words. It is indeed true in many cases, but not always. Compare: Yiddish di heym - and German das Heim (“home”), or di teme - das Thema (“theme”).
Out of habit, students often put the participle in the past tense at the end of a sentence: ikh hob a briv geshribn instead of ikh hob geshribn a briv. What is a rule in German sounds daytshmerish in Yiddish.
German can help with translation, but it can also mislead: compare Yiddish darfn (“to need”) and German dürfen (“to be able, to be allowed”).
Pronunciation is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge. German speakers tend to add unnecessary endings to verbs (lerne instead of lern), say und and not un, and insert additional syllables (leben instead of lebn). Or, on the contrary, they explicitly change German into what sounds “more Yiddish,” for example replacing all [a] with [o]. Thus such words as gehot, vorem, long (instead of gehat, varem, lang) are born.
Soon after I began teaching Yiddish in Berlin, I realized that I could not blindly use the same lesson plans as I had for my online groups. Students with and without prior knowledge of German need different approaches. While German-speaking students can learn some topics much faster, they need additional explanation of pronunciation and syntax. It is important to clearly convey the idea that Yiddish is not German with a funny accent, and that although German can be of great help when learning Yiddish, one cannot rely on it too much.
My first Yiddish course in Berlin will be over by the time this piece is published. But the students want to continue and grow in learning Yiddish, so another course is coming soon. I have to figure out organizational details and hopefully will have more students this year. Maybe also regular shmues sessions will start in Berlin soon.
There are plenty of people in Berlin who want to learn Yiddish and who wish to see more Yiddish activities here. I hope one day there will be a proper Yiddish center in the German capital, with a variety of courses and cultural activities (and with funding and official support). In the meantime, Yiddish learning in Berlin persists by small steps and big enthusiasm.