Exploring Yiddishland Outside the Classroom: Reports from the Field

Edited by Sandra Chiritescu


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 Connection

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 [1].

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.

“Exploring Yiddishland Outside the Classroom: Reports from the Field.” In geveb, March 2021:
“Exploring Yiddishland Outside the Classroom: Reports from the Field.” In geveb (March 2021): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.


Sandra Chiritescu

Sandra Chiritescu is a PhD Candidate in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University.