Pedagogy

Teaching Race Through Yiddish Literature in Israel

Hannah Pollin-Galay

Teaching race through Yiddish literature is challenging enough anywhere. In Israel, this work is especially complex, given that we live in a present-day reality of profound racial discrimination. People live with an implicit sense of the racial categories and hierarchies around them, but are afforded very few opportunities to discuss them. In my experience, the topic of race in Yiddish literature presents a triple challenge: Students in my classroom are often still processing negative stereotypes about Yiddish that they’ve absorbed throughout their lives (It’s irrelevant, funny, old, only for Haredim); While still in the midst of this reevaluation process towards Yiddish, I ask them to grapple with questions about Jews, Blacks, and Whites in America; And then, almost inevitably, discussions also arise about racial lines between Israelis, Palestinians, and other people of color, like African migrant workers, here in our home environment. Since students at Tel Aviv University come from a range of backgrounds, I almost never have the feeling that I am preaching to the choir about race, or that there is a built-in consensus among the students.

When grappling with the topic of race in Yiddish literature, I try to negotiate its perils with help from primary sources, which give everyone in the class a concretely shared starting point. This year, as part of a BA survey class called “The Other Culture: The Challenge of Yiddish Literature,” I taught Joseph Opatoshu’s story “A Lynching (Lintsheray)” in Jessica Kirzane’s English translation, alongside guided readings of certain Yiddish excerpts. Given that this is an introductory course, many students expect to encounter only the classics of Yiddish literature--like Sholem Aleichem and Glikl of Hamel. While covering most of these Yiddish literary milestones, I have decided to make room for lesser known works that have special relevance today, or which enhance our ways of thinking about literature. While “A Lynching” was the only text taught that deals explicitly with race, or American racism to be precise, the story helped introduce a new mode of discussion into the classroom space, allowing us to ask questions about race in other contexts as well. Taking advantage of the Zoom medium, I also conducted a brief interview with Kirzane about the story and her experience translating it, which I recorded and asked the students to view before class.

Han­nah Pollin-Galay inter­views Jes­si­ca Kirzane

Finally, as a point of comparison, I introduced Billie Holiday’s performance of the poem “Strange Fruit,” written by Abe Meeropol. After reading the story and hearing the song, I asked the students: How does language--Yiddish versus English--affect the message and the reception of each source? How does each source succeed in subverting racism and how is each text limited in this regard? This comparative discussion helped us to return to “A Lynching” with more perspective on its historical and cultural specificity.

Here are some student reflections on this classroom experiment.

“When I signed up for this Yiddish literature course with Dr. Hannah Pollin-Galay, I had a few goals in mind—first and foremost, surviving one more semester on Zoom. Aside from the fact that my grandmother speaks about Yiddish (and sometimes in Yiddish), my connection to the language is completely incidental. Since then, months have passed and I’ve been fortunate to learn more about this language that I love, but still don’t understand. The syllabus was full of surprising topics, like sexuality, animal-human relations, and race.

Regarding the topic of race, we read and discussed Opatoshu’s “A Lynching.” In our discussion, one of the students felt that Opatoshu’s minority consciousness, as a Jew and as an immigrant, made him more open to the hardships of other minorities in his new surroundings. Other students objected to this idea. To their minds, Opatoshu’s suggestion that Jews should protest lynching because they were Jewish reflected a kind of ethnocentrism. People shouldn’t have to lean on their Jewishness to know that lynching is wrong.

Questions about the portrayal of rape also came up in class. One student pointed out that rape is quite central to the plot, but that the female characters who were the victims of rape were almost completely absent. Another student asserted that such an erasure of women reminds us that, though an immigrant and a Jew, Opatoshu was also a man. He tried not to be blind to racial injustice, but at the same time may have ignored gender violence in the story.

Next, our examination of “Strange Fruit” led to a broader discussion about intersectionality and cross-cultural comparison as a mode of analysis. One of the students suggested that there is a danger in constantly comparing different people’s stories of oppression—especially in the case of Opatoshu. It risks oversimplifying each historical case and losing the specificity of each group’s present and past.

This led us to speaking about our own context in Israel. Someone brought up the case of Bella Freund, a Haredi woman who stopped a crowd in Jerusalem from lynching a Palestinian man who had just stabbed two Israeli teenagers. We thought about how, while lynching is a thing of the past in the United States, we have seen events that resemble lynching in Israel in recent years. In the end, we felt that Opatoshu’s story does indeed create important opportunities for connection and self-reflection.

(Hila Gornat, BA student)

When I read the story “A Lynching,” I kept asking myself: Could this work be considered “minor literature,” and what was the effect of Opatoshu’s choice to write it in Yiddish? In their article “What is a Minor Literature?” Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze write that minor literature is created within the language of the majority—in Opatoshu’s context, English. In this case, Opatoshu, writing in Yiddish, would not qualify. But elsewhere, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that a minor writer is someone who uses his position on the margins to create the “Means for another consciousness and another sensibility (17)”. That is, a writer may not work within the majority language, but could still participate in the majority discourse. In “A Lynching,” Opatoshu may be trying to achieve this goal: he tries to learn from his position, as a Jewish immigrant, to express the story of a different community, the Black community in the United States.

There are many things that one can criticize in this work, asking whether or not he truly managed to create “another consciousness and another sensibility” in relation to Black Americans. Alongside this criticism, it’s interesting to me that Opatoshu tried to take on the task of minor literature in Yiddish, to enter into and to change mainstream American debates and conversations in his own marginalized language. To my mind, his story offers an interesting lesson for today’s writers about the importance and the pitfalls of using one’s own group’s language to express the experiences of another.

(Meital Cohen, MA student)

By reading “A Lynching,” we can better examine our own present and ask what has changed. Our discussion in the course was quite a critical one because it helped us see the great hurdles that the African American community faced, even after emancipation. Some students made a connection between “A Lynching” and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. This connection can be drawn, for example, from the way literature often Orientalizes both Palestinians and African Americans.

But what I found most valuable about Opatoshu’s “A Lynching” is the empathic view of the narrator towards the First Nations. The Jew is an immigrant in the New World, and yet in the first paragraph of the story we find this sentence: “a reminder that Indians had once prayed there.” The narrator tries to construct remembrance for people who don’t have anyone to remember for them. Remembering is one of the Ten Commandments. In the harsh reality of this text, this sentence struck me as a ray of light, showing the way to a better, more just society.

(Ido Lipsky, BA Student)

MLA STYLE
Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “Teaching Race Through Yiddish Literature in Israel.” In geveb, June 2021: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/teaching-race-through-yiddish-literature-in-israel.
CHICAGO STYLE
Pollin-Galay, Hannah. “Teaching Race Through Yiddish Literature in Israel.” In geveb (June 2021): Accessed Sep 24, 2021.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Pollin-Galay

Hannah Pollin-Galay is Senior Lecturer of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University.