Pedagogy

Structure, Connection, and Real Joy: Studying Yiddish with Chronic Illness

Natasha Lipman

At the end of 2020, I took my first alef-beys class. With the usual stressed panic that engulfs many after their first language lesson, I clicked close on the Zoom window, picked up my phone, called my friend (and linguist) Colin Gorrie and started crying. “My brain doesn’t work properly; how am I going to learn a language?!”

I live with a number of chronic illnesses, symptoms of which include fatigue, brain fog, and chronic pain. This makes focusing and retaining new information… a challenge, to say the least. It means that I have much fewer usable hours in the day, and I have to schedule in recovery time for every activity that I do. How on earth was I supposed to study a language? To remember huge lists of vocab? To sit down and study grammar tables? I thought I’d never make it past “vos makhstu?”.

After just over a year of Yiddish study later, I can proudly say that I was wrong.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m fluent in Yiddish, or that I could make one of those clickbait viral videos proclaiming how quickly I learned the language: “TINY JEWISH GIRL FROM NORTH LONDON LEARNS YIDDISH IN 2 WEEKS. YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT HAPPENED NEXT *NOT CLICKBAIT*!!!!”

But, after a year of steady progress, I can go to lectures and understand what’s going on, engage in several-hour conversations and be understood, and read the Yidisher Tam-Tam without being totally lost. Whether I can correctly use the dative is another story.

As terrible as the pandemic has been, in many ways I am so grateful that it has brought yiddishkayt online and made it more accessible. Attending regular, in-person, out-of-the-house classes is simply not feasible for me. Over the last decade, I’ve quit more courses than I count (a Masters degree, coding, Arabic, French, to name a few) because, inevitably, I’d overdo it and become too ill to continue.

Much has been written about the proliferation of Yiddish since the onheyb of the pandemic - and the explosion of interest, the huge range of courses, and all the TikTok content that has been created in response. Not that there wasn’t a wealth of brilliant toykhn online before the pandemic, but I, and many of my friends, didn’t even know it existed. This pandemic-driven online shift has served to make Yiddish a more accessible language than it has ever been in my lifetime — and actually made it possible for me to learn, something I’ve wanted to do for most of my adult life. And I’m far from the only one who has benefited. Yiddish has become more accessible to people who would otherwise not have had access to classes, groups, music, and more — be that for health reasons, time constraints, or simple lack of proximity to the major Yiddish centers.

But even with all the wonderful material now available, energy constraints are still energy constraints.

Learning a language, really learning a language, takes time and effort. And there are a million reasons that can make finding the time and the energy to invest in Yiddish difficult. My friend Colin told me once that doing anything with chronic illness is like living life on hard mode: we have to do more with much less. So over the last year, we worked together to figure out how to do just that with Yiddish.

Here are the biggest lessons we’ve learned:

Know why you’re learning Yiddish

Yiddish is not the first language that I’ve tried to learn, but aside from the time I spent a year in an immersion experience in France and then stopped speaking or engaging with the language when I moved home, every attempt after that failed. Quickly. Arabic might be cool. Why not Swedish? Oh, I’m dating a German, I probably should try and learn that…

The problem was that I didn’t have much intrinsic motivation. I’d never actually wanted to learn German, Swedish, or Arabic. I just liked the idea of learning the language.

Yiddish, on the other hand, is different. Yiddish is something I feel in my soul. From the early classes, it made me feel like I understood my family better, and it started opening up a world, a culture, a history that I had felt somewhat disconnected from. Like many others who have been drawn to Yiddish, my desire to learn is entirely impractical. My grandma spoke Yiddish (with a rather brilliant cockney accent) and over the years I’d ask her to teach me, only to be met with “גײ קאַקן אױפֿן ים”

This has been the first time a language has stuck – and the more I learn, the more I love it. This motivation, this almost need to learn Yiddish has been what has sustained me through trying to learn a language with chronic illness.

There’s also a more immediate personal motivation. I’m learning Yiddish with Colin and my fiancé Sebastian. As our level has improved, we’ve become more and more able to weave the language into the very fabric of our lives. This has created a virtuous cycle: the better my Yiddish gets, the more I live my life in Yiddish. And the more I live my life in Yiddish, the more motivated I am to get better.

Learn how to learn languages

So, I had my motivation down. The next question was: how should I actually learn Yiddish?

My biggest concerns were:

a) My memory and the time I could actually commit to learning the language

b) I am an aggressive grammarphobe and really struggle with learning a language in a traditional classroom setting

Once again, this is where Colin came in. He was teaching a class called Meta-Skills for Language Learning, and let’s just say it blew my mind. He taught me that the way we learn languages in school – by reviewing grammar tables, doing vocabulary drills, and nervously waiting to be called on to tell the class where we’re going on holiday – doesn’t work for the vast majority of people.

Turns out, there’s a better way.

It all hinges on the fact that languages are something very different from most things we learn in school – a language is not a collection of facts but an intricate system of rules so elaborate that we don’t even know we know them. (Seriously, why do we say big brown dog instead of brown big dog?)

Luckily for us, our minds are good at building up these system 1 on our behalf if we only give them the one ingredient they need the most: exposure to the language. By decoding the messages sent by friends, teachers, authors, and anyone else trying to communicate with us, the language those messages are sent in gets learned along the way. This meant that repetitive practice, dull grammar, and anxiety-provoking forced speech – all the stuff I hated about learning languages in school – could go out the window. As long as I was getting constant exposure, I could let my mind do all the heavy lifting for me.

This has formed the basis of how I’ve approached learning Yiddish – and over the months, I started to feel my brain literally start to “file” things as it built up a mental representation of the language. It was weird. It felt like a miracle, that I could know things I didn’t even know I knew. I hadn’t sat down to “study” any of them. I didn’t have the energy to do about 90% of my homework, but somehow I’d picked things up just from listening during class or conversation group.

As a beginner in Yiddish it can be quite difficult to find input at an appropriate level. I spent a fair amount of time early on watching the videos on Yiddish Pop and 15 minute Yiddish on YouTube (shoutout to Motl Didner!)

By learning how to learn a language, I was able to think more strategically about how I went about incorporating Yiddish into my daily life. If energy is limited, the time spent doing an activity has to be as effective as possible. Which brings us to….

Getting the most Yiddish bang for my buck

Learning how to learn a language in a way that works for us as individuals can be a process in and of itself. I spent the first few months of 2021 trying every tool I could find that I thought might help me “hack” my time. I spent hours making pretty flashcard decks I never looked at again, I tried Yiddish on a couple of language learning apps, I played the games, but nothing seemed to stick. It felt like I was working on my Yiddish, and in a way I was. I was spending time, but it wasn’t productive or effective for how I learn.

Ultimately, the sheer (and grinding) time commitment that would have been required to make the same level of progress using these tools simply wasn’t worth it. It’s kind of like when you make a revision calendar for your exams at school. You can spend as long as you want making something look pretty and organized, but in the end it only serves as a distraction if you’re not getting in high quality studying.

Additionally, a small thing I had to think about was also how much time I could spend on a screen versus looking at books. And then, whether the books are too heavy for me to hold open, or the text is too small to comfortably read. All things that feel inconsequential but can add up over time when it comes to my energy spend.

This “bang for my buck” idea also played out in terms of what I call outsourcing my responsibility for learning.

Whilst my inherent motivation to learn Yiddish is a very real and very helpful thing, I also know myself, and when I’m busy or fatigued, I tend to get overwhelmed and quit things. Or, even if I don’t, things tend to stay where they are until I feel able to get back to them.

This is where outsourcing motivation, or outsourcing support, can come in handy. I try to find people to outsource my commitment to. When I say “outsourcing motivation”, I mean involving other people in a way that means all I have to do is show up.

Because I was struggling to effectively spend the time I needed outside of class to make the progress I wanted, I took one more class, privately, with my tutor (often in my pajamas). This meant that I wasn’t solely responsible for making myself study. I had a tutor I didn’t want to let down to hold me to my commitment. Another benefit of having a tutor is that the level could be adjusted based on what I could do that week, and we often went over the same thing several times when my brain wasn’t functioning so well. That committed time was probably three times more effective than if I was struggling through something alone.

Keeping the language alive

As was my fear, there were days or weeks on end where I could barely do any Yiddish – which is where finding tiny ways to keep the language alive in my life became so important. The aim was always to do something in Yiddish, even if it was for 2 minutes.

I would watch Yiddish TikToks, or bop around to Tumbalalaika in bed. I learned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in Yiddish because it reminded me of my grandma. I would read a sentence or two of a book. I would text my friend English words in Yiddish letters. I read Yiddish books in translation. I listened to one audio from Colloquial Yiddish, or watched the same beginner series on YouTube over and over again. We have a group chat with our teacher that’s in Yiddish, and we would send voice notes, look at the videos or Yiddish memes he sent us, and talk a little bit in our broken Yiddish about our days.

When I went on sick leave from work, my whole weekly schedule was built around Yiddish. Even if all I did in a day was one of the things I mentioned above, I was making a small dedication to myself that Yiddish was important to me. I kept it alive in my mind, and that it was there for me when I had more energy to come back to it.

Now that my Yiddish level is past the beginner stage, this process of incorporating the language into my life is easier. I can talk with Sebastian and Colin in Yiddish as part of our everyday conversations, I can choose to read some articles (slowly and with a dictionary) but generally understand what’s going on. I can start to engage with content that feels more personally interesting and engaging (I recently discovered the videos on Fishl’s Yiddish Group, which I love to watch in bursts throughout the week), and that in and of itself can be extremely motivating.

Getting over myself

As someone with somewhat (read: very) perfectionistic tendencies, I find it very hard to do things I’m not already “good” at. This meant that when it comes to a language where I was a total beginner (and learning with two people who spoke German and much more experience with language learning than I did), I found it very easy to beat myself up.

I think some of this also comes down to an expectation of what “progress” looks like. Early on when I started learning Yiddish, I spent a lot of time watching polyglot YouTube, and there were so many videos of people talking about how quickly they were learning a language and how much time they were spending on language learning, that I think in a way it encouraged my unrealistic expectations of progress.

But (please forgive the cliché), learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not something that can be rushed, and it’s not something that can be predetermined. All of us have our own unique skills and challenges that will impact how we learn a language. Life gets in the way, whether we have health problems or not.

I’m not learning Yiddish purely to pass a test. I’m learning it because I love it. And I’m learning it because it’s something I want to keep in my life in the long-term. This means I don’t have to rush it. I don’t have to have these expectations of myself to become fluent quickly (whatever that means, anyway). Taking that pressure off and just enjoying the process has made this whole experience so much more pleasant. And hey, if I look back on where I was a year ago (basically zero Yiddish), my progress has been far beyond what I could have imagined then.


That’s a little bit of an insight into how I went about incorporating learning Yiddish into my life with chronic illnesses.

As things start opening up here in London, I do find myself getting a bit envious about some of the in-person events that are being planned that I know I won’t be able to attend due to fatigue.

But, this year, I will be attempting my first in-person Yiddish event (the UK’s upcoming Yiddish sof-vokh)! I know I won’t be able to attend all the workshops and events that will be happening there, but I can go because I’ll have a bedroom to disappear to if I need to rest or just have a quiet shmues in the hall with someone. I’m excited beyond words, and a little nervous, to meet other people and to use Yiddish in the world outside of my flat.

I can honestly say that it has been the best thing that I’ve done in I don’t even know how long. It has given me structure, connection, and real joy. I’m so grateful for that, and I’m excited for what Yiddish will bring in 2022. I want to say a special thank you to our wonderful teacher, Gustavo Emos, for bringing Yiddish to life for us. His passion about the language, his patience, and his ability to craft a lesson based on the individual interests of his students is admirable. I also want to thank Reb Noyekh for his coffee hours, which helped introduce us to a wider community of Yiddish learners from our early days.

MLA STYLE
Lipman, Natasha. “Structure, Connection, and Real Joy: Studying Yiddish with Chronic Illness.” In geveb, February 2022: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/studying-yiddish-with-chronic-illness.
CHICAGO STYLE
Lipman, Natasha. “Structure, Connection, and Real Joy: Studying Yiddish with Chronic Illness.” In geveb (February 2022): Accessed Feb 04, 2023.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natasha Lipman

Natasha Lipman is a former BBC Journalist based in London and the host of the Rest Room Podcast about living with chronic illnesses.