May 22, 2017
In an effort to pool the wisdom and questions acquired from our contributors’ work in the classroom, In geveb regularly polls Yiddish instructors on topics related to Yiddish pedagogy. The responses to these polls offer a cross-section of the opinions, approaches, and experiences of instructors from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, from children’s programs to university classes to continuing education courses, from new teachers to those with a lifetime of experience. If you teach Yiddish, teach with Yiddish, or teach about Yiddish, add your voice to the discussion in our next poll, on texts, resources and strategies for the intermediate Yiddish language classroom (forthcoming). And if you wish to share your opinion on the topic presented below, please do so! We may publish an addendum with new responses.
Our “Loyt Di Lerers” forum has previously focused on formal classroom learning. But we know that many of our readers, and many people who engage with Yiddish, participate in informal programs and venues in which they read in Yiddish, discuss Yiddish texts, and learn about, with, and in Yiddish from one another. For many of our readers, Yiddish clubs and reading groups are at the heart of modern secular Yiddish cultural engagement. 1 1 In our reader survey conducted last summer, more than ⅓ of respondents said they participated in a Yiddish club or reading group. We wanted to learn more about Yiddish clubs and reading groups, to catch a glimpse of the work many of our readers are doing to maintain and improve their language skills, and to build community around Yiddish language and culture. In geveb is grateful to the participants and facilitators of Yiddish clubs and reading groups who responded to our survey and shared their experiences with us.
די פּערל פֿון פֿרידיקע דורות,
פֿון אַלטע ספֿרים;
מיר קלײַבן די פּרות
ווען מיר באַגעגענען זיך
וועבן מיר די געדאַנקען,
מיר זײַנען די שליסלען
Past generations’ truths
From old books;
We gather these fruits
When we meet
We weave their thoughts with ourselves,
We are the keys
To locked bookshelves. 2 2 Shifra Weiss, “Leyen Krayzn” in Tsum morgntikn morgn: geklibene lider (Venice, California: Shifre Vays bukh-komitet, 1953), 59. Translated by Jessica Kirzane.
Who Participates in Yiddish Clubs and Reading Groups?
The Yiddish clubs and reading groups represented by those who participated in our survey have a wide range of participants, from college students to retirees. The groups ranged in size from 4 to 15 participants, some with a fixed, regular base of participants and some with irregular participants who drop in and out of the group. They take place across the world: from Melbourne to Montreal to Maryland, from Sao Paolo to New York to London, and they meet in museums, synagogues, and cultural centers once a month or once a week. Several of the groups were established decades ago, others are more recent, including a group that was established last year.
What are the Goals of Yiddish Clubs and Reading Groups?
For many who responded to the poll, Yiddish clubs and reading groups are about a collaborative practice of language learning and interpretation of literary or journalistic texts. As one respondent describes, reading groups allow participants to “read Yiddish literature together and help each other understand it.” Another respondent explains that her group is about language maintenance as well as allowing participants “to discuss topics of interest to the Yiddish world.” The club is not only about language, but about a broader interest in Yiddish culture through language. As Bobby Sandler, a participant in a reading group organized by the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, explains, the goal of his group is not only to read Yiddish literature, but to “learn how the works relate to Yiddish culture and Jewish history.” The group helps each other to contextualize the reading that they are doing and the aim is “to share our knowledge and enthusiasm.”
One respondent is a member of a four-person punk band that meets and reads Yiddish texts together in order to find sources they will adapt into songs. She explains that the group draws upon “yiddish revolutionary/protest/folk songs, poems, chants, etc.,” that they gather from “the internet, the YIVO archives, and publications like In geveb.”
One respondent to the poll describes a Yiddish club with members that largely do not speak or read Yiddish. She explains that the purpose of her club is to “enhance appreciation for Yiddish as a language and as a gateway to the culture.” While many of the participants are drawn to the club because of nostalgia, she explains, “we try to go beyond the nostalgia and cuteness factor and explore history, songs and poetry.”
What do Yiddish Clubs and Reading Groups Read?
Yiddish clubs and reading groups focus on literature drawn from a wide variety of literary sources. Some read novels or other book-length works over an extended period of time. For example, Sima Beeri runs a reading group for advanced Yiddish students, for which she chooses one novel a year, bringing in supplementary material about the author in addition to the novel itself. Other groups focus on poems and short stories that the reading group can cover in one or two sessions. In some of the groups, facilitators choose texts, in others participants vote from a set of options suggested by the facilitator.
One respondent describes her reading group as devoted to “classic” or “great” authors, which she finds frustratingly “limiting.” She acknowledges that the group is run by older members with political aversions to Soviet Yiddish texts and with a proscribed view of what the most important texts for study might be. As a consequence, the group has not read any writing by women authors (this seems to be a common trend: only one of the participants in our survey discussed reading texts by women authors). Another respondent praised the breadth of his reading group and their willingness to tackle texts at a reading level that they find linguistically challenging. Respondents mentioned in particular: the klasikers (Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz), as well as Chaim Grade, Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. J. Singer, Sholem Asch, Yankev Glatstein, Der Nister, Dovid Bergelson, Nahum Stuchkoff, Itzik Manger, Aaron Zeitlin, Shimen Dzhigan, Lamed Shapiro, Isaac Meir Weissenberg, Blume Lempel, Abraham Sutzkever, Rosa Palatnik and Y. Y. Trunk.
Some Yiddish clubs and reading groups photocopy directly from books or print out from digitized versions of books available through the Yiddish Book Center. Bobby Sandler explains that the texts are distributed to his group in Yiddish and in English translation, so students can read both versions at home in preparation for the group meeting. Benji Gothajner, who leads a reading group at the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre in Melbourne, Australia, notes that his group relies on vocabulary-assisted texts as comprehension aids. These are photocopies of the text that include handwritten English glosses above difficult words or phrases. He explains, “This has allowed us all to read well above our normal difficulty level.” He adds, “Any group that would like to use our materials is welcome to them. The work has already been done and I would be delighted if others were interested.” 3 3 If you would like to use Gothajner’s materials, contact us and we will put you in touch with him!
Yiddish clubs and reading groups that draw more heavily on journalism discuss articles from the Forverts covering a wide array of topics. One reading group also mentioned reading articles from Unzer Tsayt.
How Do they Read?
With few exceptions, our respondents told us that Yiddish reading groups and clubs are conducted largely in Yiddish. Participants not only read out loud in Yiddish, but conversation about the texts also happens in Yiddish. Exceptions to this are the group that meets at the São Paulo Jewish Museum and Archive, in São Paulo, Brazil, which reads texts in Yiddish and discusses them in Portuguese, and a group in Montreal, which discusses texts in a combination of Yiddish and English.
Yiddish reading groups tend to be casual spaces without the teacher-centered aspect of classroom learning. As one participant describes, participants take turns reading a page or so of text out loud, unless they don’t want to. Giving readers the ability to opt out or to read a single paragraph or less allows those who might be beginners to feel that they can also take part. In the open and welcoming environment of language learners, this respondent explains, “it doesn’t matter to us how long it takes people to read.” The discussion happens alongside the reading: “we discuss as we go along, stopping to clarify if necessary.” Reading groups discuss questions of comprehension as well as interpretive questions. Reading groups tend to be participant-led. In several cases, members of the group prepare the texts at home in advance of group meetings to facilitate reading and conversation.
Sima Beeri runs her group on a different model. Rather than reading the entire work out loud during the reading circle, participants read and prepare the text at home (a few chapters of a novel). She explains that during the session, “We engage in a lively discussion.” Participants also read aloud selections she makes in advance, and Beeri prepares points of interest to share with the group both about the content and the language of the reading to help direct the discussion.
What Challenges Do They Face?
Many of the participants in the survey discussed the problem of aging membership and aging leadership. When asked what resources would be helpful to his reading group, Jacob (Yankel) Dessauer who runs a reading circle at the Kadimah Jewish Culture Centre in Melbourne responded, “Members aged between twenty and forty.” Others described dedicated facilitators who led and taught reading circles until they were no longer physically able and had to pass the baton of leadership. Many of these founding facilitators are deeply missed.
Other respondents described a desire for texts that accommodate people who are less comfortable or familiar with the language: texts with glossaries or translations of difficult words and transliterated texts.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Yiddish clubs and reading groups rely on peer teaching models that draw from the knowledge and enthusiasm of their members. They are exercises in community building in a digital era when individuals may feel increasingly isolated from one another, and they are comprised of dedicated learners at a moment of growing anti-intellectual populism.
Several of the participants in this poll mentioned that they occasionally draw from texts published on In geveb in their discussions. In the pedagogy section, our aim is to be a resource not only for formal classrooms but for all the spaces in which Yiddish is learned and studied. If you are involved in a Yiddish club reading group and you have ideas of how In geveb can support your work, please write to us.