Reflections from a Non-Jewish Instructor of Yiddish

Jenna Ingalls

Once, at a university cocktail party, I was introduced as the “first gentile instructor of Yiddish at UC Berkeley.” Which I believe might be true; Hello, my name is Jenna Ingalls and, as far as I know, I have the dubious honor of being the first gentile instructor of Yiddish at UC Berkeley. I also teach German, and through my experiences teaching both languages, I have learned much about identity and culture and what it can mean to teach a language and culture of which you are not a representative in any traditional sense.

When I teach German, there is often a moment with a college-aged language learner when they assume that I am German. Yet through my continued insistence on the fact that I come from Fresno, California (which is one of the first things we learn to say; Fresno always makes for a good laugh line), and my stories about when I was learning German–meant to buoy an anxious language learner–they eventually realize I am American, Californian, and in no way German. While I occasionally have heritage speakers, the vast majority of my students are not German and through this shared foreign identity, my students relax; they become more comfortable making mistakes and laughing about weird facts of German life. Like “inviting” someone out means you pick up the tab, or my personal favorite, the fact that apartments don’t come with the kitchen included and you, the renter, have to bring the stove, sink, countertops, and all when you move in. Together we can look at the language and culture critically and find our place as outsiders within a new, exciting, and different culture.

When I teach Yiddish, the circumstances are vastly different. The fact that I am from Fresno and have stories about when I learned Yiddish does not signal to my students that I am not Jewish—how would it? They are also from some dusty suburb (or from Los Angeles), and are also learning Yiddish, but they are by and large Jewish. And I am not. Teaching Yiddish as a non-Jewish instructor comes with many surprises and unexpected challenges.

The first is when to tell my students. Initially I thought, “I don’t need to say anything. They’ll get it or they won’t, and it doesn’t matter, they’ll still learn Yiddish!” But the motivations of my Yiddish students are vastly different than my German students. Over the years, students have given me the following justifications for learning German:

  1. I think German is cool;
  2. I have German family;
  3. I want to get a job in Germany;
  4. I want to go to graduate school and so much theory/early scholarship is in German;
  5. I went to Germany one time and everyone was so nice!; and/or
  6. I like the German national soccer team.

Yiddish motivations are a little more amorphous, but among my undergraduate students (a population very different from the graduate students learning Yiddish 1 1 Graduate students may have similar motivations to their younger counterparts, but in my experience, they tend to be looking for reading knowledge in order to fill in a gap in their research project. ), the reasons fall into three camps:

  1. My family speaks/spoke Yiddish;
  2. I’m politically left and want to connect to my Jewish identity, so Hebrew doesn’t do it for me, but Yiddish does;
  3. I have no reason/idea why I’m learning Yiddish.

When I was learning Yiddish, I certainly fell into camp three, with some graduate-student-in-the-making research language justification, but in my language teaching experience, students like me are a rarity. By and large my students give the first two reasons, and central to both of these motivations is a desire to connect with their Jewish heritage. As their Yiddish instructor, they view me as a conduit to that culture and heritage, and managing my “coming-out” can be very tricky. My students want to identify with me, and I don’t know when to tell them I’m not Jewish. They talk to me about never identifying with Jewish culture, but finding Yiddish more and more interesting and relatable. They talk to me about disliking Birthright, and I tell them about Yiddish summer programs. They tell me about how proud their parents are that they are learning Yiddish and show me the CDs of klezmer music family members have sent them. And all the while, I feel like some sort of impostor. I know they assume I am Jewish, but when they are opening their souls to me, sharing their (re-)connection to their Jewish heritage, it seems churlish to say, “By the way, I’m not Jewish.”

The second challenge involves teaching Jewish culture, which is a vital, integral aspect of Yiddish. When I teach German culture, I am not a representative of German culture, and I am able to take the stance of an outsider. In terms of Yiddish culture, I am also an outsider. And my students are outsiders, but not to the degree that I am. Driven by their personal motivations, they are looking to deepen or reclaim a connection to their own heritage. I become an instructor of their past and history, yet I am an outsider. Is there a certain colonialism that I need to avoid here? Am I, a member of the majority culture, instructing members of a minority culture in their own heritage?

I remember when I was learning Yiddish, and like in any language class, the instructor would activate prior knowledge to prepare students for the day’s concept. One day, we were discussing Passover. My classmates shared their family’s traditions, and when my turn came, my instructor, Yael Chaver, a deeply kind and supportive person who knew I am not Jewish, reframed the question: “Jenna, what does your family do for Easter?” The kindness of this question and its inclusion still astonishes me, but in subsequent years, I have come to see that it also broke the “inside.” By this I mean that within Yiddish culture, an integral part of communication is the understanding that we Yiddish speakers are on the inside, we are part of a protected minority within a larger majority. And by speaking Yiddish, we signal that we are Jewish and on the inside, and that communication on this inside is safe and protected. So we say things we wouldn’t on the outside, in the majority culture. There is a security and safety in this inside. And by signaling that I am not Jewish, but somehow on the inside of this culture, the barrier between inside and outside is broken, or perhaps ruptured, and I cannot help but think that this is a good thing. This rupture has the power to open Yiddish language and culture to the outside. Don’t we all want more people to learn, read, and speak Yiddish? Perhaps through my missing membership card, I can signal that Yiddish is open, open to all, Jewish or not. And perhaps more students will sign up to learn Yiddish next fall.

Ingalls, Jenna. “Reflections from a Non-Jewish Instructor of Yiddish.” In geveb, December 2015:
Ingalls, Jenna. “Reflections from a Non-Jewish Instructor of Yiddish.” In geveb (December 2015): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.


Jenna Ingalls

Jenna Ingalls is a doctoral candidate in German Literature at University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches German and Yiddish language courses.