Pedagogy

Teaching Morris Rosenfeld’s “Mayn rue plats”

Madeleine Cohen

INTRODUCTION

In geveb is publishing a series of song-based pedagogy exercises for use in Yiddish language classes. These worksheets were generously shared with In geveb by Madeleine Cohen. We want you to use them in whatever way best aids your teaching. If you wish to alter or add to them, please make note of this in your new worksheets, and please keep the original attribution. You may send questions or comments to the creator through us: [email protected] Download a PDF here.

While I teach klal-shprakh from textbooks, I also strive to introduce students to native, non-standard Yiddish from the very beginning of their language learning. There are several reasons for this: first, because native spoken Yiddish is difficult for students to encounter on their own, I think our Yiddish classrooms have a greater burden than other language classrooms to offer students ways to encounter the natural language. Second, these “real” examples of Yiddish are often fascinating to students and connect them to their reasons for wanting to learn the language while they struggle with the challenges of learning a new language. And finally, I believe students should be learning about the many varieties of Yiddish from the start, rather than learning only klal-sprakh and later (if they make it that far in their studies!) being surprised by encounters with non-standard Yiddish. This is not a situation that is unique to Yiddish; other languages with standardized versions that differ from the vernacular or regional dialects face the same question in their pedagogy. For example, a new curriculum for Arabic is (controversially!) breaking with the tradition of teaching students Fusha (Classical Arabic) first, and then moving to the spoken national and regional dialects (Egyptian, Lebanese, etc). 1 1 The newest edition of Al-kitaab, the popular Arabic language textbook developed at UT Austin, offers a full integration of colloquial and formal Arabic for first-year students. Language programs that do not want to adopt this new approach have decided to continue using the previous edition, instead. My thanks to Levi Thompson for this information.

Below is an activity I use often quite early in a course to introduce students to literary daytshmerish Yiddish and orthography, while also taking the opportunity to strengthen important grammar skills and to introduce the students to the important Yiddish literary movement, the sweatshop poets.

Morris Rosenfeld’s famous poem and song, “Mayn rue plats,” has worked wonderfully for this activity. The melody is beautiful, the words a moving and important example of the connection between the rise of Yiddish literature in the Unites States and the experience of working-class Jewish immigrants and their socialist politics. There are many wonderful recordings available, including bilingual versions, and the melody is simple enough for students to learn easily.

In addition to the activities described below, Rosenfeld’s poem can be used to review present tense conjugation, negation, imperative, and pronouns. The activities that follow focus on using the poem to think about word order in Yiddish and to introduce the variety of orthographies that students will encounter when reading Yiddish outside of the classroom. The activity is appropriate for students of any age (though it works best for college-aged and older students who likely have more knowledge of the history of Jewish immigration to the US, and potentially some knowledge of German), and for students in a beginning level course, as long as they are reading the alef-beys (Hebrew alphabet) and have learned regular present-tense conjugation. I have often taught it while teaching how to negate present-tense sentences.

Teaching the poem: I like to begin by having the students listen to a recording of the song while reading along. I will then go through the song, having students take turns reading lines or verses, stopping to go over new vocabulary, and having students attempt to understand or translate. I often give a brief biography of Rosenfeld (in Yiddish or English, depending on the level of the class, whether we use English at all, etc) and the role of the Sweatshop Poets in the development of Yiddish culture in the U.S..

Recordings: Here are some recordings that I like to use that are available on YouTube: This lovely a capella recording by Aquabella displays the lyrics in transliterated Yiddish, and in an English translation which you can display if you want (or hide from the students if you want them to read the original!). Here’s another wonderful a capella version by Vocolot.

I’m also very fond of these two bilingual versions. The first by Daniel Kahn, with his poetic translation into English. And the second by June Tabor, which has more English than Yiddish, but is perhaps my favorite version nonetheless.

June Tabor singing a bilingual version of “Mayn rue plats”

Orthography: After reading through the poem, I ask students if they notice anything strange about the way the poem is written. They will notice (or if they don’t you can point out) the spelling of the following words: ruhe, plats, vu, di, mirten, dorten, shats, lebens, velken, to give examples just from the first stanza. If any students speak German, often they can notice or help you explain the closeness of some of these orthographic features to German spelling (silent hey, final alef, extra ayins, extra tes in front of tsadik). Explaining why this Germanized orthography was in fashion offers an easy transition to a discussion of daytshmerish.

Daytshmerish: After examining the orthography, students may also be able to notice (or you can point out) the influence of German vocabulary and syntax in the poem, especially in the final stanza: shats, liebstu, vahre, triebe. These vocabulary choices can be used to tell students about the preference for Germanized Yiddish in some literary and journalistic modes of Yiddish literature. If you use Weinreich’s Modern Yiddish-English, English-Yiddish Dictionary, it is a good chance to have students look up the meaning of the black circle and black dagger in his dictionary, as a correction of daytshmerish in the written language.

Activity: Use the worksheet to have students rewrite the words in standardized/klal-sprakh orthography.

Word Order: One of the challenges of understanding this poem is the word order. Reading the poem is a good opportunity to review the flexibility of Yiddish word order, and how word order can be used for poetic emphasis. With more advanced students, you can also use the poem to review the compound sentence structure of the poem.

Activity: Use the worksheet to have students rewrite lines/sentences from the poem into a different word order. When reviewing, ask them whether their new word order is neutral/normal (SVO), or whether it emphasizes a new element of the sentence.

Finally, end the class by learning the song! This is often one of my students’ favorite songs to sing.

MLA STYLE
Cohen, Madeleine. “Teaching Morris Rosenfeld’s “Mayn rue plats”.” In geveb, November 2015: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/teaching-morris-rosenfelds-mayn-rue-plats.
CHICAGO STYLE
Cohen, Madeleine. “Teaching Morris Rosenfeld’s “Mayn rue plats”.” In geveb (November 2015): Accessed Mar 20, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeleine Cohen

Madeleine Cohen received her PhD in Comparative Literature with a designated emphasis in Jewish Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the Director of Translation and Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center and In geveb's Senior Editor.