Notes on Teaching Yiddish Literature and Critical Theory

Anna Elena Torres


Anna Elena Torres discusses her first-year seminar “Gender and the Body in Yiddish Literature,” designed as a introductory survey of Yiddish literature and as an introduction to critical theory, specifically theories of embodiment.

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I designed the course “Gender and the Body in Yiddish Literature” as a seminar for first-year students at UC Berkeley. My pedagogical goals were to introduce students to the breadth of Yiddish literature, from Old Yiddish epics to contemporary poetry; to cultivate their close reading skills; and to develop their ability to apply theoretical lenses to the literary text. In addition to classic work on gender and language politics specific to Jewish Studies (such as Naomi Seidman’s A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish), students were introduced to critical theory addressing gender, race, disability, and other social aspects of embodiment.

Critical theory is commonly developed in major languages such as English and French and applied to minor-language literatures. See, for example, Seidman’s recent translation of Jonathan Boyarin’s Yiddish-language essay on this very question in postmodernism.

One of the challenges of teaching gender studies and Yiddish literature, then, is to develop emic theory born from close reading, rather than imposing the insights drawn from literature in other languages—even if many of the most prominent theorists (such as Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler) are themselves Jewish. The moments when a major-language theory fails to describe a minor-language text can be generative: What accounts for that split? What larger cultural difference might this illuminate?

Students’ research papers examined Yiddish literary texts using contemporary theoretical lenses. One student wrote a study of Chaim Grade’s short story “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” which is structured as a debate between survivors of the khurbn, alongside the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Giorgio Agamben. Another student’s final paper analyzed Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance in conversation with Jessica Valenti’s Purity Myth, a study of contemporary American discourse on female virginity. A third student examined metaphors of food and the female body, with source texts including Celia Dropkin’s poetry and the restaurant scenes from Sholem Aleichem’s Dos Naye Kasrilevke.

Here I reflect on the experience of teaching Yiddish literature and critical theory, together with some discussion questions and material drawn from my lesson plans.

Though it was an ambitious syllabus (see here for the full list of readings), this program could be adapted for different levels by spreading out texts across sessions or making the suggested readings mandatory. In the future, I would taper the readings to allow for more synthesis at the end (and to give students a break when writing their papers during finals week). If you are also a teacher of Yiddish literature and/or gender studies, I would be interested to hear your experiences with this subject and material.

Teaching the Dybbuk

The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds (Der dibek: Tsvishn tsvey veltn) was written by the Bundist revolutionary Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, under the pen name S. An-sky. This play was likely inspired by the reported event of a woman’s possession by the spirit (dybbuk) of her beloved—a tale which An-sky collected on an ethnographic expedition in the Russian Pale of Settlement. The plot is set in motion when two male friends betroth their unborn children; after one father breaks his vow and arranges his daughter’s marriage to a wealthier man, she becomes possessed by the spirit of her original betrothed.

Students watched the phenomenally successful 1937 film version directed by Michał Waszyński, an openly gay Jew who reinvented himself after the Second World War as a Catholic prince and worked in Hollywood with Orson Welles. Students explored the play’s themes of women’s agency, homosociality, religious community norms, and how the soul (independently from the body) may be gendered. In tracing the theme of spirit possession throughout Jewish history, students critically reflect on the transmission and subversive reinvention of folklore within modernism.

In conversation with the Dybbuk, I assigned Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Epistemology of the Closet”—a foundational text of Queer Studies. Sedgwick draws on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to posit that “the closet” is a social means of regulating knowledge about sexual difference. Students performed Sedgwick-informed readings of how “the closet” might structure the play: perhaps the fathers’ desire for one another is deferred by betrothing their unborn children to each other, so that the children might live out a marriage the men themselves were unable to enter. Students analyzed Waszyński’s film, which dramatizes the desiring gaze between men, in light of Sedgwick’s thesis that sexual orientation emerged in the nineteenth century as an identity category. They asked: if “coming out” is a negotiation with society’s presumption of knowledge, rather than an act of self-disclosure, does the bride “come out” as possessed? How did audiences read Waszyński’s visually-coded representation of the fathers’ relationship?

I found that having students perform scenes from the play inspired them to read the text more deeply, line by line. I divided the class into three groups, each assigned to study and perform a scene from adaptations of the Dybbuk: Tony Kushner’s lyrical version (1997); Ellen Galford’s London-set novel The Dyke and the Dybbuk (1994); and a Hebrew parody produced in pre-State Palestine, which satirizes both Yiddish melodrama and the Yiddish-Hebrew struggle for linguistic hegemony. 1 1Parodies of An-Sky’s “The Dybbuk.” Yoysef Tunkel, Menakhem Kipnis, Moyshe Bunem Yustman, and Avigdor Hameiri ; translated with notes by Fernando Peñalosa. Rancho Palos Verdes, California: Tsiterboym Books, 2012. After their staged readings I interviewed the student-directors as an “arts reporter,” helping them achieve more nuanced articulations of their artistic choices. One student’s performance offered a class analysis of village life through the beggars’ wedding dance scene. Another was interested in Plato’s concept of the gendered soul through the play’s representation of cross-gender possession. These interactive methods helped students more fully inhabit the world of the text, undoing the misperception of Yiddish literature as a historical relic back-shadowed by World War II.

The take-home midterm exam offered a choice of questions, some more standard and some creative prompts. One question invited students to compose their own scene for a contemporary play about a dybbuk. One student wrote a short play in which talmudist Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert is visited by the ghost of Eve Sedgwick. The two scholars’ dialogue maps the differences between talmudic sex and gender schemas and early queer theory. Writing dialogue allowed students to showcase their ideas outside the structure of standard academic prose. Because the theoretical material was already intimidating to some, writing a neo-dybbuk play encouraged less inhibited engagement with theory. Other questions on the midterm were more straightforwardly historical, about the Maiden of Ludmir and folkloric influences on An-sky.

Archetypes of Motherhood

In the unit on Motherhood, Domesticity, and Birth Narratives, we explored the archetypes of motherhood circulating in contemporary US pop culture and how models of Yiddish motherhood differ. In class discussion, several questions arose about how motherhood is racialized. Students commented, for example, that the “Tiger Mom” is excoriated in some corners, but held up for her contributions elsewhere. In discussing Glikl’s journals, which open with a rather harsh (to modern ears) parable of an unnurturing mother bird, students considered how their own ideals of parenting differ from those of Glikl’s time. Another student noted the relative absence of representations of Ashkenazi fatherhood in contrast to the ubiquity of motherhood, which is alternately idealized and satirized.

Readings for this unit included Esther Schumiatcher Hirschbein’s ambivalent pregnancy poems, in translation by Beata Kasiarz; Dvoyre Fogel’s “Circular Landscapes,” which juxtaposes images of industrialized milk with the nursing mother’s body; Zehavit Stern’s article “The Idealized Mother and Her Discontents: Performing Maternity in Yiddish Film Melodrama”; and Malka Heifetz Tussman’s poems “Widowhood” and “Cellars and Attics.” One student wrote her final paper on changing imagery of Jewish motherhood in film.

Discussion questions included:

— What do Yiddish portrayals of mothers suggest about the speaker’s relationship to the past? How is genealogy gendered?

— How is the figure of the mother constructed as a symbol of nostalgia? How do poets (including Molodovsky, Fogel, and Dropkin) examine and subvert that symbology?

— Discuss the gendering of economics in the household. (A student asked: “Is it still patriarchy if the men have no money?”)

— Relate the spatial schema of the house in Malka Heifetz Tussman’s “Cellars and Attics” to the stage set for Got fun nekhome (God of Vengeance). Use board to sketch the house. What is inside it? How are the cellar/attics of each character portrayed? What would a litany of students’ own inheritance-objects look like?

— Relate the staging to other spatial demarcations on the page, such as the tradition of printing Hebrew above Yiddish in bilingual books. (Students drew from Naomi Seidman’s chapter “Engendering Audiences” in A Marriage Made in Heaven. Seidman discusses a passage in Chaim Grade’s My Mother’s Sabbaths, which describes a produce seller reading a bilingual text: “Her small shriveled head is buried in the large, yellowing pages, which are separated into two by a black line. Above is the loshn-koydesh, below is the ivre-taytsh. This reminds Blumele of the rich produce dealer’s house. On the upper floors he lives with his family in a lavishly furnished apartment. Whenever she goes up there, she has to wait in the foyer like a beggar; and she is frightened by the incomprehensible foreign language that the wholesaler’s educated daughters and daughters-in-law speak among themselves. But downstairs, in the vegetable cellar together with the other market women, she feels at home; it’s refreshing. Here one may haggle with the wholesaler to one’s heart’s content, and if he tries to bring up last year’s debts, you can give him such a mouthful that he’ll shut up. That’s exactly, not to make a comparison, how the Menoyras hama’or looks to her, with the thick line in the middle of each page, the sacred tongue above the line and plain Yiddish below.” 2 2 Seidman, 37.

Teaching in Translation

I invited students to listen carefully to the sounds of the original and mark juxtapositions of Yiddish linguistic components, helping them cultivate what Hélène Cixous calls “an ear for the hum of etymology.” I also prepared a raw, interlinear translation for students to adapt into literary translations. This exercise enabled students to move beyond the comparison of multiple translations, to become practitioners of translation. As we discussed the politics of translation, I encourage students to utilize multicultural knowledge. One multilingual student, for example, deepened her understanding of Jewish linguistic polysystems through comparison to her own experience of intergenerational “code-switching.” These methods demonstrate appreciation for students’ diverse cultural knowledge and create a more welcoming, engaged intellectual environment.

After studying the internally-bilingual Yiddish-English poetry of Irena Klepfisz, I offered students the option of answering a midterm question in poetry, accompanied by a scholarly artist’s statement. Klepfisz’s “A Few Words in the Mother Tongue/Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn” was inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa’s usage of Spanish and English, as in her canonical poem “To live in the Borderlands means you,” which ends:

To survive the Borderlands

you must live sin fronteras

be a crossroads.

One student closely modeled her Tagalog-English poem on Klepfisz’s piece. The student’s poem introduced Tagalog vocabulary, then shifted midway through completely to Tagalog. This achieved the effect of immersing the English reader in the experience of crossing languages; for Tagalog readers, it dramatizes the experience of border-crossing. Like bringing art students to sketch in a museum, I found that this writing exercise of adopting a work’s poetic structure drew out students’ abilities to think generatively with the text. Hopefully this developed their ability to be generous, as well as critical, with authors. Many of my students are navigating similarly complex worlds of language and identity as Klepfisz and Anzaldúa. Questions of power and linguistic polysystems, then, are immediately relatable for students in multilingual communities.

Representations of Masculinity

Is it a very different thing to be a good woman vs a good man? From the Old Yiddish poem “Virtuous Joseph” to Chaim Grade’s philosophical musar novel The Yeshiva (Tsemakh atlas), we examined how virtue and piety are gendered. In “Virtuous Joseph,” Potiphar’s lusty wife brings Joseph in front of the golden-haired, velvet-draped ladies of the Egyptian court, described with the aesthetics of Medieval romance (and quite unsuited to the climate of ancient Egypt!). Potiphar’s wife hands each lady a fruit and a peeling knife, then brings Joseph before them. Soon the ladies’ hands are all bloodied: they were unable to look away from his beauty. Here, the “female gaze” is staged to foreground Joseph’s self-possession. How does this invert contemporary assumptions about the “male gaze” and the valuation of desire?

A counterpoint to these moralistic texts is Meyshe Kulbak’s mock epic poem “Childe Harold of Disna,” a kind of hero’s journey following Lyulkeman from rural Disna to jumping Berlin, as he discovers cafes, politics, and intellectual decadence. Students examined the formation of dandy identity in relation to social mobility. One student interpreted Kulbak’s poetic subversion of both German Expressionism and the European epic mode as a decolonial move:

Berliner nights in café-chantants and
Pal, isn’t this sophisticated?
Here sit the masters of the marketplaces…

With jazz outcries of the colonized ones
In darkling fires of Negro dancing beats. 3 3 From verse 15. Translation by Robert Adler Peckerar.

Discussion questions on Yiddish masculinity in Kulbak and Grade:

— How does garb signal identity? (For Kulbak, note the green neckties worn by Berlin dandies; for Grade, great attention is paid to tallis and tefillin)

— Tsemakh Atlas, tortured protagonist of The Yeshiva, considers this maxim: “Uprooting desires is harder than doing good deeds.” Do you agree with this view?

— Compare previous texts’ projection or construction of audience as female with the imagery of European readers as male romantics.

— How does place form gender identity? Contrast rural and metropolitan masculinities, as in Kulbak: “To be a European, all he lacks is pajamas, a bulldog, and VD.” (Translation by Robert Adler Peckerar)

— How does Kulbak contrast “Jewish masculinity” with the dandies of Berlin?

— Compare the yeshive and the cafe as homosocial intellectual spaces.

Teaching Race in Yiddish Poetry

The seminar on representations of “Others” in Yiddish poetry included some of the most complex material: Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s “Salute” and Yankev Glatshteyn’s “Zing Ladino.” Several years after first reading it, Halpern’s grotesque, uncompromising anti-lynching poem still shocks and undoes me. As historical backdrop to Halpern’s poem, students read articles by Merle Bachman and Marc Caplan about the genre of Yiddish anti-lynching poetry. We also discussed the resonances between Yiddish representation of Black bodies one hundred years ago and the controversy over conceptualist Kenneth Goldsmith’s staged reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report as a protest poem. 4 4 See, for example, this description of Goldsmith’s performance. Students responded that the readings for this week were the most important to them from the entire syllabus.

Discussion questions included:

— What are the limitations and possibilities of solidarity poetry across languages?
— Is it ethical to write about the pain of others? Is it ethical not to?

We read a bit from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which describes other people’s pain as an invisible geography. 5 5 “When one hears about another person’s physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person’s body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth. Or alternatively, it may seem as distant as the interstellar events referred to by scientists who speak to us mysteriously of not yet detectable intergalactic screams or of ‘very distant Seyfert galaxies, a class of objects within which violent events of unknown nature occur from time to time. Vaguely alarming yet unreal, laden with consequence yet evaporating before the mind because not available to sensory confirmation, unseeable classes of objects such as subterranean plates, Seyfert galaxies, and the pains occurring in other people’s bodies flicker before the mind, then disappear.” Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, 1.

We learned of the shootings in San Bernardino during seminar break. This news, which affected some of the students’ families, colored the rest of our discussion of the poems and solidarity art.

I played a recording of Paul Robeson singing the partisan resistance hymn “Zog nit keynmol” in Moscow in 1949, framed as another moment of possibility and artistic solidarity in, and with, Yiddish. We listened all the way to the end of the recording, to the minutes of applause and outpouring shouts from the audience responding to familiar banned words in Robeson’s bass-baritone: mir zaynen do, we are here, but also Robeson’s cadence resting on mit naganes in di hent, with pistols in our hands.

I ended class with Yankev Glatshteyn’s “Zing Ladino,” which plays exhilaratingly with the linguistic components of Spanish, Arabic, Aramaic, forced into collision with the Yiddish words: zing ladino, blonder zenger, / undzer tsoyberzhargonino… / gelroyt un falashino, / palestino daberino, / undzer, undzer universladino, / blonder aladino zing.

The students all stood in a circle and spoke it together, a chorus of California accents declaiming the linguistic-utopian Yiddish avant-garde. Afterwards one student asked, “Um, did we just rap?”

Torres, Anna Elena. “Notes on Teaching Yiddish Literature and Critical Theory.” In geveb, June 2016:
Torres, Anna Elena. “Notes on Teaching Yiddish Literature and Critical Theory.” In geveb (June 2016): Accessed May 25, 2017.


Anna Elena Torres

Dr. Anna Elena Torres holds a PhD from UC Berkeley. She is the Provost's Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.