Pedagogy

Undzer Mishpokhe: A Queer Yiddish Curriculum Supplement

Alona Bach, Rebecca Araten, Ethan Nosanow Levin and Carolyn Beard

“Mayn yidisher pronom iz ____.”

This was the first full sentence we learned in Dr. Sara Feldman’s Elementary Yiddish I at Harvard in the fall of 2020. Like the alef-beys, this sentence became a foundation on which the rest of our Yiddish language acquisition would begin to develop. To learn Yiddish, we needed the language to speak about ourselves and our peers, to describe that zi dances every Monday evening, that er writes for the school paper, or that zey will be playing a gig in Boston this weekend.

But during our second semester of Yiddish, when it came time to discuss our relationships with our families, we realized that there were critical gaps in what we could communicate. How could we speak about our niblings, when the only words we were offered were “plimenik” for nephew and “plimenitse” for niece? How could we talk about our nonbinary romantic partners, or discuss models of parenthood outside of the tate-mame formulation? How could we escape a binary understanding of gender in our Yiddish learning, when that binary was restricting our ability to talk about our relationships and ourselves?

We knew that the language we were looking for existed. Queer Yiddishists have been and continue to be at the forefront of this vocabulary and circulating it within Yiddish-speaking circles. Recently, a growing range of Queer Yiddish resources have become available: Lili Rosen’s recent translation of You Be You (Zikh Aleyn Zayn Getray) discusses queerness in language that is accessible to Hasidic audiences; Reb Noyekh is currently developing a textbook for conversational Yiddish focused on “Gay Yiddish” language and culture. Michal Novak’s teaching guide for Vaybertaytsh’s episode on “Kvirkeyt” (“Queer In Yiddish”) asks students to think critically about the social aspects of talking about queerness in Yiddish, and Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky and Sasha Berenstein produced a thoughtful vocabulary list on “Yiddish for Gender Justice” for Yiddish New York 2020.

Unfortunately, most Yiddish pedagogy does not yet reflect burgeoning Queer Yiddish vocabulary.

In order to address this gap, our class sought to create the materials that we wish we had been able to use when learning how to describe relationships in Yiddish. Under the supervision of Dr. Sara Feldman, we created the “Undzer Mishpokhe” (“Our Family”) curriculum supplement to share a resource for teaching gender-neutral family vocabulary with a broader audience of teachers, students, and Yiddishists.

Using vocabulary from Sasha Berenstein’s “List of Yiddish Transgender/Nonbinary Terms,” we designed this unit to be used in conjunction with or as a supplement to the Yiddish Book Center’s new In eynem textbook, or other elementary Yiddish curricula. 1 1 This independent project is not affiliated with the Yiddish Book Center. The unit features a lively cast of characters, starting with the anarchist Vladek and branching out to introduce the rest of the mishpokhe: Netzach, the rabbinical student; Goldie, the artist who supports faerself by working as a temp in an office; and Eliezer, the grandparent who lives in Crown Heights; among others.

We invite students to first learn the vocabulary by applying it to our original cast of characters, and then apply that same vocabulary to pieces of Yiddish culture that mention family—such as the Barry Sisters’ rendition of “Dem Ganef’s Yikhes,” which discusses a thief’s family pedigree, or Yankev Gordin’s family drama, Der yudisher kenig lir (The Jewish King Lear). By the end of the series of exercises, students will be familiar with gender-neutral vocabulary, will have begun to understand the importance of mishpokhe in Yiddish culture, and will have applied this gender-neutral vocabulary to describe their own families.

We are aware of how quickly language develops and new vocabularies emerge, and we are excited about the ways “Undzer Mishpokhe” can evolve to reflect changing needs of Yiddish speakers. 2 2 Nesi Altaras has recently written about the history of language for queerness in Ladino and its relevancy to contemporary language development: “If we want to have a language that is expansive, that can describe anything and be used to discuss any subject, we need to look to its past and understand it thoroughly. In revivifying (not reviving) Ladino, we get to choose what to keep and what to change [...]. To make those crucial choices, we first need to know what our options are.” https://www.zamancollective.com/all-posts/sephardic-glossary-queerness
We present our unit as an editable document, such that instructors and learners can tweak it to best fit their own needs. We are eager to hear how people interact with these materials and how they imagine the future of this inclusive vocabulary.

After beta-testing a draft of the unit within the Harvard Yiddish community, we discovered that the materials, while still in flux, nevertheless took crucial steps to address the gap that we had felt ourselves a year earlier: students were drawn to the mishpokhe that reflected the diversity of the ones they saw around them. This was the mishpokhe they wanted to see in the future — and the vocabulary they needed to describe their world now.

***

For a fully-formatted PDF of the current “Undzer Mishpokhe” curriculum, click here.

For a downloadable template to edit the “Undzer Mishpokhe” curriculum, click here.

To share feedback on the curriculum, click here.

MLA STYLE
Bach, Alona, Rebecca Araten, Ethan Nosanow Levin, and Carolyn Beard. “Undzer Mishpokhe: A Queer Yiddish Curriculum Supplement.” In geveb, April 2022: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/queer-family-tree.
CHICAGO STYLE
Bach, Alona, Rebecca Araten, Ethan Nosanow Levin, and Carolyn Beard. “Undzer Mishpokhe: A Queer Yiddish Curriculum Supplement.” In geveb (April 2022): Accessed May 26, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Alona Bach

Alona Bach is a PhD student in MIT's Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society, where she studies the interwar intersections of electricity and Yiddish.

Rebecca Araten

Rebecca Araten studies History & Literature and Women, Gender, & Sexuality at Harvard College.

Ethan Nosanow Levin

Ethan Nosanow Levin is an MTS Candidate at Harvard Divinity School where he studies Yiddish and modern Jewish thought.

Carolyn Beard

Carolyn Beard is a Master of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies comparative Jewish and Christian thought in modernity.