Apr 07, 2017
At the Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in December 2016, In geveb organized a roundtable discussion entitled, “Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age.” This essay is the second in a series of reflections by Yiddish educators and scholars inspired by that conversation. You can read the full series here.
The Workmen’s Circle has offered Yiddish language instruction for nearly a century, expanding and shaping generations of students’ knowledge of Yiddish secular culture in its political, literary, and artistic dimensions. Lately, our Yiddish teaching capacity has increased dramatically due to our dedicated efforts to offer online courses for Yiddish learners.
These efforts began during the 2013-2014 academic year with a small experimental program of three courses for teaching basic Yiddish literacy, modeled on in-person courses we were already conducting for teaching individuals to read the Yiddish alphabet in a few sessions.
We immediately saw that online instruction opportunities offered some distinct advantages in comparison with a more traditional classroom:
Replay Value: Sessions are recorded, so students can review the material, catch up if they feel they are lagging behind, and they can keep the classes forever and revisit them if they need a refresher. This means that an individual Yiddish class is no longer limited to the hour in which it takes place, but has the same long-term, tangible presence as a textbook. The class itself becomes reference material, and students can continue learning long after the class is over.
Access: Students can participate from wherever they are. This expands the possibilities for access to learning to those who are disabled, elderly, or otherwise unable to leave their homes and come to a physical classroom. It makes it possible for those who are unwell to attend from home, and for those who have to miss a class to watch it after it has taken place and to learn from it even when they are not directly participating. Students can also join the class mid-semester, as they can watch old classes to catch up.
New Students, Global Yiddish Community: We found, very quickly, that offering online courses allows us to attract students from around the world, and through the diversity of students to help foster a global community of Yiddish learners and Yiddish speakers. Students who previously only had access to Yiddish language learning in summer courses could now keep learning throughout the year, and students who lived too far away to attend any in-person course not only had access to Yiddish language education opportunities, but suddenly were not so isolated from others who were participating in the world of Yiddish. We could also offer live interactive instruction from gifted instructors from around the globe. The long distance Workmen’s Circle faculty this fall included Yuri Vedenyapin (from Harvard University), Sheva Zucker (from North Carolina), a distinguished educator and textbook author who teachers in our online program Intermediate I, II and III levels, Avrom Lichtenbaum, Executive Director of IWO, Buenos Aires, and Yitskhok Niborski, a world recognized Yiddish scholar based in Paris. This means that a given class has students and teachers from multiple countries working together, discussing, sharing, reading, and analyzing Yiddish texts while sitting thousands of miles away from each other.
In this clip from his Advanced Yiddish course for the Workmen’s Circle, Itshok Niborski discusses Sholem Aleichem’s The Enchanted Tailor.
Following the success of our early efforts, we have continued to expand our online offerings and in Fall 2016 we offered ten online courses at all levels of language instruction in a live and interactive format for over 120 students from eleven countries and twenty-three states. 1 1 The students and instructors were drawn from Brazil, Israel, Belgium, Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, Germany, France, Argentina, Canada and the United States. The North American students came from 23 States and 3 provinces. The students came from a variety of ages and cultural backgrounds. These classes have doubled our student body and allowed us to create a program without walls and borders, and to position ourselves as facilitators of an interconnected world of Yiddish learners.
The current platform for the courses is Adobe Connect, which provides the ability for students to interact easily in real time and to use many audiovisual aids. It is a versatile platform. Among its capabilities, it allows teachers to instruct by showing audio and video materials, using a virtual whiteboard, and breaking the class into groups. We are building a library of recorded classes to which students can refer. The Workmen’s Circle Yiddish online program library has hundreds of hours of class recordings supplemented with substantive class materials: curricula, texts, audio and video materials.
A New Teaching Style
As a seasoned Yiddish instructor, I initially found it difficult to adjust to the new format. In an in-person class, I believe very strongly in using my body as an instrument of instruction. I run and jump, I am constantly moving to illustrate my ideas through body language. This allows me to teach entirely in Yiddish, even at the beginning level, by using my body as well as my speech as a tool of communication.
As an instructor of an online course, I suddenly found myself bound to a desk. I now feel that my headset has become a part of my body as a teacher, and I have had to get used to this new way of experiencing and interacting not only with students, but with the very practice of language instruction itself.
Rather than channeling my energy into energetic performance, I find that I have to convey my enthusiasm through tone of voice, facial expression, and through efforts to create a friendly atmosphere with smiles, jokes, and casual conversation in Yiddish. I also have channeled my energy toward teaching unusual topics and exciting new material, replacing my performative teaching style with a multimedia approach, using video, online Yiddish resources such as the Forverts, and interviews with guests. I believe that the variety of media makes the class exciting for students, many of whom are digital natives or are individuals who are well versed and comfortable in digital technologies. This compensates for the lack of physical performance in my new approach to teaching.
Curating and Presenting Multimedia Resources
In designing online Yiddish courses, I believe in a casual, communicative approach. Rather than learning the language from a technical, grammatical standpoint, my students want to learn, and I want to teach them, to speak meaningfully in Yiddish and express their opinions about their growing knowledge of Yiddish culture.
Teaching courses online allows me to bring the vast and expanding digital resources of the Yiddish world into my classroom in a seamless and natural way. My role is to curate and present these resources, and to teach students how to make use of them, enjoy them, and improve their Yiddish language skills through them.
For example, I recently taught a course on “Reading the Forverts with Pleasure.” Students in the course read and discussed articles printed in the online Yiddish Forverts. I invited journalists from the Forverts to visit the class (virtually) and talk to students about their connection with Yiddish on a personal and professional level. Students felt that they were part of a varied, highly professional, knowledgeable world of Yiddish reporting and cultural activism, and that they were participating at a personal level with the cultural artifact that they were also reading.
In a course on “Yiddish Around the World,” I invite guest speakers who are devoted to Yiddish in various fields (so far almost fifty guests have participated). This demonstrates to students that Yiddish is not as small or insular as maybe it would have felt in a traditional classroom. Before the guests come, students read and prepare articles from the Forverts or other sources about the figures they are going to meet. If possible, they also learn a song related to the person’s work, mastering relevant vocabulary in advance of the speaker’s visit. I pair each speaker with a cultural activist from the past whose work was related in some way to the guest’s work, and students learn about the major achievements of this historical figure through a powerpoint presentation, and audio/video exercises which expand their knowledge about the person. This helps students to form an understanding of contemporary Yiddish culture as not anomalous or new, but as continuous with a tradition of scholarship, art, music, and journalism in Yiddish. When the guests join the class, they talk about their activities, achievements, and personal connection to Yiddish, and students have an opportunity to ask questions and take part in a discussion. Language learning, in this way, is incorporated into active participation in the cultural production of today’s Yiddish world. Students come to see the Yiddish world of today as vibrant and varied, and full of fascinating and passionate figures. This surely inspires students to continue their study.
In this clip from Kolya Borodulin’s course “Mit Yidish Iber Der Velt” for the Workmen’s Circle, Agi Legutko (Lecturer in Yiddish and Director of the Yiddish Language Program at Columbia University) discusses learning that she comes from a Jewish family.
The greatest challenge to using digital platforms is that I cannot control the technology that students are using to access my classes. If their computer breaks, they cannot study—and this is entirely out of my control. Some of my students, especially those in Russia and the Ukraine, do not have strong wifi or cable internet with a decent bandwidth, and this limits their capacity to take part in the class and also slows the momentum of the class as we have to deal with technical issues. I also have students who are less comfortable with the technology and it is a barrier to their initial interest in enrolling and to their participation once they are enrolled. I am not a technology specialist but I spend a lot of time troubleshooting technology problems. Coordinating this Program at the Workmen’s Circle I feel blessed because I have a matone fun himl—several tech-savvy volunteers, without whom this project would be impossible to execute, especially Jeanne Stellman and Marty Davis.
Rewards Outweigh the Challenges
I feel a real sense of awe that so many students from different places can be sitting in the same class, reading and speaking Yiddish together and learning from one another. I am particularly enthusiastic about the ability of the program to reach students of all ages. It’s rewarding and inspiring to see a class of students from up to four generations learning and sharing their love for mameloshn. To me the enormous reward of fostering this interconnected and diverse world of Yiddish language learning and love of Yiddish far exceeds concerns about technical difficulties.
Our next, essential step is to include teacher training and integration of powerful online Yiddish instruction with university Jewish studies programs, and groups of Jewish learners in Jewish Community Centers around the globe, as well as continuing to grow individual student enrollment.
Online classes can be key to nurturing a worldwide community of Yiddishists, as well as to giving opportunities to people around the world to study and speak Yiddish together. As one student, Yulia Sakhnevych, Curator of the Judaica Collection in the Book Chamber of Ukraine, describes, “Understanding Yiddish literature and historical documents is important, but for me it is also important to remain in constant live conversation, learning with a group of people who ‘live Yiddish’ and love Yiddish.” This opportunity for participation in continuous global conversation through online technology is reshaping the way Yiddish speakers can learn the language and maintain their language skills, and also how we think about and live within communities of speakers and learners of Yiddish the world over.
In this clip from Kolya Borodulin’s course “Mit Yidish Iber Der Velt” for the Workmen’s Circle, Satoko Kamoshida (Cooperative Research Fellow, University of Tokyo) discusses teaching her first Yiddish class in Tokyo.