Mar 22, 2021
Whenever I teach a Yiddish class — or, in fact, simply get asked about Yiddish — I immediately get overwhelmed by the desire to tell my students and interlocutors about all of the exciting books, performances, concerts, songs, performers, scholars, digital archives, and more that Yiddishland has to offer. I often take it as a little challenge to match students with their “perfect Yiddish artefact”: if a student is majoring in Environment and Sustainability Studies I might send them a blog post on climate change in the maskilic Yiddish press, or if a student is expecting I might send them a link to Mordkhe Schaechter’s Trogn, hobn un friike kinder-yorn: An english-yidish verterbikhl.
In a fast-paced college language course packed with homework and other assessments, however, there is often not much time for such tangents (and while In eynem does a wonderful job of including authentic and contemporary materials, they are merely a selection, a little taste afn shpits-meser). Online classes where students quickly sign-off from Zoom after lessons offer us instructors even less opportunity for engaging in chit-chat and “by the ways” with our students. And despite my sincerest hopes that I am not merely yelling into the void with my many enthusiastic posts to the Canvas discussion board about Yiddish events and tidbits, I prefer to rely on an additional strategy to ensure some engagement with Yiddish culture outside the classroom: extra-credit reflections or, as you might call them, reports from the (virtual) “field”.
This type of assignment is flexible in its design and can bring with it several potential benefits: being able to communicate in English during a beginner language course — where communication options are otherwise rather limited — allows students to display a different side of themselves with more confidence, the ability to earn extra credit can alleviate anxieties about performance on other high-stakes assessments, and the openness of the assignment allows students to delve into a topic of particular personal interest. As an instructor you might want to consider whether you offer this assignment for completion in English or Yiddish, depending on students’ language level, and whether you want to offer this as a mandatory or optional assignment (and whether you assign it a letter grade, a complete/incomplete grade, or an extra-credit grade). Finally, you will want to consider at what point in the semester to incorporate this assignment into the timeline of your other assessments, such as quizzes, midterms and finals so as to not overwhelm a busy end-of-semester or midterm season with more work.
At the University of Chicago, Jessica Kirzane’s assignment looks as follows:
Over the course of the quarter, I will ask you to send me one report from the “Field.” This is a 3 paragraph response in English to your participation in some kind of Yiddish activity outside of class: watching an online klezmer concert, participating in a Zoom Yiddish event, watching a film, listening to a radio program, reading a book, exploring an online archive, etc. If you are unsure of what you want to explore for this project, please schedule virtual office hours where we can discuss your interests and I can help connect you with activities/events/materials that you can enjoy on your own. This assignment will be due on December 4, and you will also see a check in about the project scheduled in a module earlier in the quarter, to remind you to start thinking about the project. If you complete the assignment in advance of the deadline you are welcome to submit it earlier in the quarter.
We have collected here three examples of such reports from the “field” submitted by undergraduates at the University of Chicago and Columbia University in Fall and Winter 2020. These examples showcase how differently and deeply students might engage with Yiddish materials outside the classroom when given the opportunity, structure, and encouragement to do so.
Escaping to Memories: Kadya Molodowsky’s Kinder-lider
For my report from the field, I engaged with a new translation of Kadya Molodowsky’s kinder-lider, translated and illustrated by Yaira Singer (2020): “װוּ די װעלט האָט נאָר אַן עק.” I got a hold of this book from Olniansky Tekst the second I saw an advertisement in the Forverts. The book is gorgeous, and the second it came in the mail, I would read a couple pages every night, out loud, in rhythm, with different voices.
I was immediately taken aback by how much of the Yiddish I could understand, and the humor and wit in the poetry itself. In fact, I was so affected by reading the poetry that I became overwhelmingly nostalgic for when my mother used to read to me every night as a child. One of the happiest moments that I will always carry with me is when my mother read to me A Wrinkle in Time, and could miraculously maintain a different voice for every single character (especially Mrs. Whatsit). In the same spirit, as I read this poetry out loud in Yiddish, either to myself in my room, or to my roommates who I would hold hostage in our apartment hallway, I would do a different voice for every character, and try to maintain the rhythm as much as I could.
The book is composed of six kinder-lider: A mantl fun a runkeln gevantl; Di dame mitn hintl; Olka mit der bloyer parasolke; Martsepanes; Bay an oremen, oremen man; Oto, oto iz a barg. The first poem, A mantl fun a tunkeln gevantl, tells the story of a family who saves up enough money to buy a new coat, and begins to pass the coat from one child to the next, with each child damaging the coat more and more. After each child tears the mantl, the tailor fixes it again and again. Eventually, the mantl is passed to the youngest child, Pantle, who destroys and loses the coat. Pantle shows up to the tailor completely naked, and upon seeing the child, the tailor yells:
אַך און אָך און װינד און װיי
אַזאַ מאַנטל, אַזאַ מאַנטל
פֿאַלט אַרײַן צום תּכשיט פּאַנטל
תּחשיט, שגץ, פֿלעדערמויז,
װוּ דער מאַנטל זאָג נאָר אויס
“Goodness gracious, woe is us!
What a coat! Our stately mantle!
Gone because of bratty Pantle!”
“Monster! Scoundrel! Spoiled brat!
Where’s our coat? Now tell us that!”
The poems continue in this fashion, telling stories that I would have loved to hear as a kid. Di dame mitn hintl tells the story of a frightened train attendant convincing a woman that her little poodle has morphed into a Great Dane by yelling:
שאַ, שטילער מאַדאַם,
דרײַ נעכט און דרײַ טעג,
ביסט געװעזן אין װעג,
איז דאָס הינטל, קיין עין־הרע, געװאָקסן
און געװאָרן אַ הונט,
אַ פֿוד מיט אַ פֿונט.
“Three nights and three days on the round
And your poodle, God bless him, grew into a hound,
A Great Dane who weighs half a ton and a pound.”
Peppered throughout the poems are vocabulary and phrases we have seen before in class, such as keyn eyn-hore, or temporal adverbs like in der fri, not to mention countless verb conjugations. The poems are readily understandable for a beginner in Yiddish, hence why I enjoyed this book so much. I did not have to look up many words, but could instead sit and escape to those memories I mentioned earlier. I love to write poetry, and have lived most of my life reading poetry, so to have this experience reading Molodowsky’s humor and rhymes was a joy. I hope I can one day write kinder-lider in Yiddish. My favorite poem, by far, is Oto, oto iz a barg. In lieu of typing out the entire poem here, I thought I would read it out loud! So, attached to this report is my reading of the poem.
Eyshe Beirich, University of Chicago
Knowledge and Questioning
I chose to read two pieces: “Impoverished,” a short story by David Bergelson (translated by Golda Werman), and part of “Chemical Literature in Yiddish: A Bridge between the Shtetl and the Secular World” by Stephen M. Cohen.
The two pieces, although quite different, can be brought into dialogue. Bergelson writes in what I consider a traditionally Yiddish style, describing a nuclear family and how townspeople view them. He also classifies the characters based on their success in love as well as in their careers. Vital to this reflection is how Kalman Pozis’ knowledge is presented: the shtetl dwellers actively recognize some of it (“He knows what he’s talking about...Kalman Pozis has a lot of experience building houses”), and some of it it seems only Kalman himself remembers and reminisces about (“Kalman Pozis was considered a very clever man once, very clever. But when the wheel turned it was his wife Leah who became the smart one; she had rich relatives. Now his children think he’s a fool.”). Eye-catching is the description of how later in life, his wife became the smarter of the two—not because of her own intrinsic virtues, but because of her familial connections. This is in contrast to how Kalman’s knowledge is described—as the catalyst for his ability to negotiate effectively, or construct houses. Leah is not the subject of her own knowledge, unlike Kalman. Jewish tradition emphasizes education, as Cohen describes, but few had access in parts of Eastern Europe in the 19th century, and of those few, we understand that men were considered more worthy of education.
The description of Shmiel’s wealth, but also his “arrogant eyes,” address how important success is to Kalman, how knowledge and wealth are bound together, and how wealth can be a tool of corruption. Kalman and his daughters’ admiration of Shmiel is presented mockingly. They toil before his visit, nearly bursting with excitement as they await the meeting.
And it’s over.
The wealthy son does not even get off the train. The only thing that seems to happen is that some cookies disappear...What are these characters thinking on the way back? Are they wondering why they are so elated at the prospect of interaction with Shmiel, and that they seem to always be let down afterwards? I don’t think so. I think that is part of the capitalist critique. They are blind to the cycle of emotions that occurs when there is the prospect of visiting Shmiel (who they laud as successful and awe-inspiring).
We can read Bergelson’s short story as an anti-capitalist piece of writing. Knowledge attached to a concrete skill (say building houses) is prioritized by the shtetl dwellers, whereas knowledge that is nebulous and attached to wealth (Leah, Shmiel) is portrayed negatively. It can be confirmed that some of Bergelson’s writing included a communist agenda .
In Cohen, we learn about one form of Yiddish chemistry writings as anti-capitalist propaganda emanating from the Soviet Union. This sort of secular Yiddish writing is not something I have been exposed to before. I get a richer sense of Yiddish when I see it in a secular light. It seems that the purpose of Yiddish chemistry writings was to give a secular education to people like Zivia. People who do not realize the gift of their practical skills. Well, maybe not a woman. Who should be educated and how is polemical.
Still though, Cohen describes a complete lack of original research published in Yiddish; all of the texts would fall under the categories of textbook, or popular science. This is probably because the sciences are considered (no value judgement is made here) to be the epitome of secularization, and Yiddish was rooted in non-secularism (although it rebelled against these roots). At the heart of original research is the act of forming questions: without a question, an inquiry fizzles. Some of the texts Cohen mentions are full of questions, perhaps not cutting edge, but seemingly so for those uninitiated in chemistry: “Why does iron rust?”, “Can air be solidified?”. In Bergelson’s story, the characters are also asking questions. The questions here are lamentations, rhetorical, not meant to catalyze action. As Bergelson is cited as a prominent Yiddish writer,1 I wonder how it could have looked if prominent writers were asking curiosity-driven questions. Maybe they were! I would have to read more to know.
Carly KleinStern, University of Chicago
Yiddish and the Imbrications of Language in Chabad Chasidism
I attended the lecture “Yiddish and the imbrications of language in Chabad Chasidism” on Election Day in November. Eli Rubin, a Ph.D. researcher in Judaic Studies at UCL, presented on the importance and history of Yiddish for Chabad Chassidim. He specifically talked about the sixth and seventh Chabad Rebbes and the implications of gender and ideology in Chabad Yiddish. Eli Rubin began by stating that Yiddish is a medium for negotiation of boundaries and that it crosses boundaries through wider communication since Yiddish reaches wider audiences, especially women. It also navigates between the holy and profane (Hebrew and non-Jewish languages) and internal and external (Jewish and non-Jewish).
Eli Rubin focused on memoirs by Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, about the origins of Lubavitch and the spiritual journey of Boruch, father of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first leader of Chabad-Lubavitch. The memoirs deal with the pre-history of Chasidism and aren’t personal memoirs. The second volume focuses on a cycle of stories centered on Boruch’s wife and daughter (Rochel and Devoreh Leah, the mother and sister of Rabbi Zalman). The stories discuss how both Rochel and Devoreh Leah were Torah scholars and that Devoreh Leah knew about Chasidism before even her brother did. While Boruch is portrayed as a loner who leaves home to wander on his own, Devoreh Leah stays home to learn Torah. In one particular story, Rochel (who has studied Hebrew then Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, Rambam, and the Shulchan Aruch) is with a group of people on Shabbos who find out they’re accidentally carrying outside the eruv. Her husband and the men in the group don’t know the Halacha well, so Rochel paskens for the group. A woman paskening during this time (and even now) is revolutionary within the Orthodox framework. Eli Rubin connected these memoirs back to Chabad and Yiddish today.
He showed a video of the last Chabad Rebbe who references Rochel’s shaila, saying that women can and should increase their Torah knowledge. It is in fact our mesorah to encourage these shifts towards women’s learning. There is room for things to shift and things should shift for women. The Rebbe delivers his speech in Yiddish. Eli Rubin explained that Yiddish is used as a mediator of change and differences and explained that we can overcome differences through Yiddish. He used the example of translating “tzedakah” straight from Hebrew into English. Translating “tzedakah” as charity implies there’s no obligation—that it’s just about being good-hearted; however, tzedakah should imply justice and what you have to do. When comparing the terms “tzedakah” and “chesed,” which are closely associated in their traditional English translations, Rubin explained that they are opposites because “chesed” underscores that the giver is a good person and implies the other person doesn’t deserve to get this gift. “Tzedakah” underscores justice or rightness and implies an obligation to give to the other. “Tzedakah” shows a different concept of your relationship with others. This distinction is lost when translated to English instead of using Yiddish as a mediator to understand Jewish concepts. Rubin explained that the Rebbe is saying, “Yes, we’re in America, but we have different values.” We shouldn’t assimilate our values, and to do that, we should think first in Yiddish.
I enjoyed this talk more than the other ones I attended this term, partly because it focused on more technical and linguistic aspects of Yiddish and partly because it focused on a religious Yiddish speaking community. I often feel isolated as someone who is Orthodox and is more interested in studying Yiddish than Hebrew because I don’t quite fit in with secular Yiddishists or many of my Modern Orthodox peers who study Modern Hebrew. Learning about this dialectic within Chabad was valuable for my own identity and relationship to what I’m studying at Barnard.
Esther Leah Dillon, Barnard College
N.B. Recordings of University College London’s events on Hasidic Yiddish can be found here.