Pedagogy

לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Teaching with Sholem Aleichem

Jessica Kirzane

INTRODUCTION

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 want to share your opinion on the topic presented below, please do so! We may publish an addendum with new responses.

Sholem Aleichem is likely the most widely-taught and well-known Yiddish writer in the world. Instructors of history, language and literature draw on his works for ethnographic and linguistic content, to teach about the development of Yiddish fiction, and to demonstrate the way modern Yiddish literature developed in a context of rapid change.

Lately, it seems, resources about teaching with Sholem Aleichem abound. From the syllabi and interactive maps and timelines on SholemAleichem.org, a collaborative digital project we profiled, to a resource kit on Tevye from the Teach Great Jewish Books site of the Yiddish Book Center, to lessons from Tam: A Taste of Jewish Culture by KlezCalifornia targeted at teens, there seems to be a growing number of publicly available creative ideas for the Yiddish Studies classroom at all levels.

So we asked our readers (we begged them!) to tell us about their own classroom practices. To what end do they teach with Sholem Aleichem, and how? We are grateful to everyone who participated in the survey.

In What Context?

We received responses from instructors who teach Sholem Aleichem in a variety of different courses, mostly in English translation, for undergraduate and graduate students. Some courses mentioned include: U. S. Jews and Popular Culture in the 20th Century; Introduction to East European Jewish Literature; Yiddish in New York; Poetry, Art, and Radical Politics; Spirit Possession in Yiddish Literature; Humor in Jewish Literatures, Identities, and Cultures; Modern Jewish Literature; Modern Jewish History; Yiddish Literature and Culture in Europe; Yiddish Literature and Culture in America; Jewish Children’s Literature.

About the Author

Instructors teaching with literature by Sholem Aleichem usually incorporate some biographical information into their instruction. Saul Noam Zaritt (Harvard University) begins with In geveb’s listicle about the best dressed Yiddish writers to introduce the contrast between Sholem Aleichem’s persona and the actual Russified Sholem Rabinovich. Many teachers, including Zaritt, assign or draw from the YIVO Encyclopedia article on Sholem Aleichem by Dan Miron. Elik Elhanan (City College of New York) explains that he sometimes asks a student to present about the author based on the YIVO article, while other instructors describe using slide presentations and videos to illustrate lectures based on the information from the YIVO encyclopedia entry. Instructors also mentioned filling out their biographical information with canonical secondary texts by Meir Wiener, Ruth Wisse, and Dan Miron. In addition to these suggestions, in my own teaching I have introduced segments from Sholem Aleichem’s autobiography From the Fair, even though it is not always a reliable source.

Instructors differed greatly as to the importance of teaching about Sholem Aleichem’s literary persona. Zaritt explains that “learning the function of the Sholem Aleichem “persona” (as presented by Dan Miron in A Traveler Disguised) is key to any class I might lead on Sholem Aleichem” and other instructors agree that the Sholem Aleichem persona is central to their conversation and teaching. Others, however, “try to avoid” discussing the persona or find it less important in the case of Sholem Aleichem as it is when they cover Mendele Moykher Sforim.

About the Stories

The majority of our respondents reported teaching Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman). As Polly Zavadivker (University of Delaware) explains, “Hayntike kinder” (“Today’s Children”) from the Tevye cycle is particularly helpful for students without previous knowledge of Yiddish literature and culture because it “provides a brief glimpse into the world of the Yiddish classics and sets a reference point for understanding the changes to Jewish life and culture in Eastern Europe that follow in the 20th century.” Rachel B. Gross (San Francisco State University) explains that she uses “Khave” (“Chava”) together with Fiddler on the Roof to “show the development of the Tevye stories in U.S. popular culture, from Sholem Aleichem’s writing to films and musicals” and that she accompanies her teaching with Seth Wolitz’s article “The Americanization of Tevye or Boarding the Jewish Mayflower.” Zaritt echoes Gross’s emphasis on the trajectory of Tevye in popular culture, explaining, “I teach Tevye regularly, because of Fiddler on the Roof and because it is a great way to follow the afterlife of a text while maintaining critical reading practices regarding narration, the politics of Jewishness, and the politics of genre.” But not all instructors find the connection between Tevye and American popular culture to be helpful or fruitful for their aims. As Philip Hollander (University of Wisconsin-Madison) explains, “Teaching Tevye always involves a lot of unteaching of Fiddler on the Roof and I find this to be unnecessarily distracting.”

Hollander explains that he used to teach with Menakhem Mendl (The Letters of Menachem Mendl and Sheyna Sheyndl) to illustrate “the breakdown of the shtetl and the development of a more topsy-turvy East European Jewish life” but ultimately switched texts because “students found the stock market sections of Menakhem Mendl confusing and the cycle highly repetitive.” More recently he teaches stories from the Ayznban geshikhtes (Railroad Stories), focusing on “Der mensh fun buenos yyres” (“The Man from Buenos Aires”) and “A nisref” (“Burnt Out”). He uses these to illustrate the “weakening of Jewish bonds and a sense of trepidation about the future.” He also teaches the monologues “Dos tepl” (“The Pot”) and “Yoysef” (“Joseph”) in a course on Yiddish Literature and Culture in Europe and Motl pesi dem khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son) in a course on Yiddish Literature and Culture in America. He finds Motl particularly helpful to illustrate both the push factors that motivated Jewish migration and “the renewed significance of Jewish heritage in America for those attempting to succeed there.” In his discussions of the Railroad Stories and the monologues, Hollander finds Victor Ehrlich’s discussion of monologue to be useful. 1 1 See Victor Ehrlich, “A Note on the Monologue as a Literary Form: Sholem Aleichem’s Monologn—A Test Case,” in For Max Weinreich on His Seventieth Birthday, The Hague : Mouton, 1964, 44–50.

Instructors also mentioned teaching with “Der farkishefter shnayder” (“The Haunted Tailor”) and “Iber a hitl” (“On Account of a Hat”), the latter of which Zaritt claims is “one of the best short stories, in translation, that one can teach.”

Strategies for Teaching

Most of the instructors described their teaching as a reading and discussion approach—some with entire novels and some with more focused, close readings. Polly Zavadivker explains, “I ask my students to write free responses to the readings they prepared at the beginning of class, which they then use to inform their ideas for class discussion.” Philip Hollander explains, “When teaching Tevye I placed traditional texts, such as the 18 Benedictions, alongside Tevye’s version to teach how he manipulated traditional texts. I find in-class analysis of select passages, especially from Sholem Aleichem’s shorter texts, highly productive at teaching students how to read Sholem Aleichem’s work and draw out the information necessary to figure out the basic narrative situation, the point of view of narrators and characters, and the overarching ideas advanced by the implied author.”

I have taught Sholem Aleichem in high school as well as university classrooms and to adult learners in synagogues. Because of the needs of these different levels and settings, I have developed strategies and worksheets that are perhaps less typical of the university setting. I share some of them here.

Challenges of Teaching Sholem Aleichem

When asked about the specific challenges of teaching Sholem Aleichem, instructors almost all cited the issue of translating the culture as well as the language of the text. As Margot Valles (Michigan State University) explains, “The students I teach find the material extremely foreign and a huge amount of prep work is necessary to prepare students to work with it.” Zavadivker expands on this: “It can be a challenge to convey the richness and depth of the cultural world that informs the context of Sholem Aleichem’s writing. If his stories are read just for content, the characters appear to be caricatures.” Zaritt concurs, “One of the challenges is overcoming cultural and historical gaps, that goes without saying.”

Specifically, the teacher must wrestle with expectations that students bring to the text, whether because of what they think they know about Sholem Aleichem in particular and Yiddish in general or the conventions of texts that they are more familiar with. Among these is the problem of what Elhanan describes as “the travesty called Fiddler.” Elhanan complains that “the whole discourse about the folksy humorist is a bone in my throat.” Such common misconceptions “make it very hard to say anything meaningful about the author to students who were already contaminated.” Zaritt likewise finds difficulty with students’ expectations that Sholem Aleichem be funny, especially because “his humor is difficult for some students to identify—either because the humor is historically contingent or because Sholem Aleichem, for all his bluster, wasn’t always that interested in comedy as much as mimicry, the politics of impossibility (which is not the same as tragedy), the appearance of legibility, an approximation of the middlebrow (while constantly undermining such a position), and more.”

Hollander identifies a broader issue of students’ expectations of texts in general. Students are used to and prefer straightforward texts, he claims, whereas “Sholem Aleichem’s art of indirection requires that one create the narrative situation rather than having it supplied by the author.” Students must be taught not only the pertinent details of historical content, but also reading practices involving patience and nuance. Hollander writes, “In ‘Dos tepl’ (‘The Pot’), one needs to construct the basic narrative situation. What has really brought the monologist to the rabbi can only be understood when one recognizes all that she has done and suffered to serve her husband and son so they could live devout religious lives of learning. Most students are not able to arrive at this narrative situation without aid. Similarly, the monologues and even the grand story cycles appear superficially disordered and lacking in style. One must work hard to demonstrate the artistry of the work and the desire of confused undergraduates to dismiss it with little consideration.” Zaritt agrees that it can be hard to teach students to appreciate Sholem Aleichem’s writing because of its unfamiliar style, and he points in particular to the challenge of genre. “Students are accustomed to the gem short story or the expansive realist novel or some kind of modernist experimentation. Sholem Aleichem does none of these things. At his best, Sholem Aleichem is a master of variation, of the serialized text, serialized without closure. To teach students to read toward the open ending is challenging.”

Zavadivker and Zaritt also point out the challenges of “language play” and multilingualism within Sholem Aleichem’s oeuvre. Zaritt explains, “Sholem Aleichem is a multilingual writer, in the more figurative sense, such that to teach a Sholem Aleichem story one is also teaching a vast array of language politics between Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, Ukrainian, German, and probably much else besides.”

How We Learned, How We Teach

Most instructors who teach Sholem Aleichem follow their own teachers’ interpretations and models for teaching. Zavadivker cites summer courses at Tel Aviv University as an inspiration for her own instruction, while Elhanan and Hollander cite Dan Miron as a major influence. Much of my own teaching about Sholem Aleichem draws on courses I took with David Roskies and Jeremy Dauber. This speaks to the importance of instructors for framing the way we think about any subject, and also the continuity between one generation of scholars and the next in our approaches to Sholem Aleichem and his work. But to what extent do we cultivate the same atmosphere, and not only teach the same stories, or work within the same theoretical approaches, as our teachers? Zaritt explains that he tries to give his students his own experience of learning about, and with, Sholem Aleichem: “I first met Sholem Aleichem in graduate school, and I was privileged to spend the most time with Sholem Aleichem in one-on-one tutorials. So I try to replicate that experience, if possible—turning Sholem Aleichem into an intimate event of discovery.”

Here at In geveb, we are eager to learn from those who are teaching Yiddish texts and subject matter, as well as to create new resources for teachers to use, and to build a durable digital archive of pedagogical materials for teachers to work with. How do you teach materials from or relating to Yiddish? We hope you’ll share a lesson plan, syllabus, or activity you’ve designed! And, you can participate in our next poll, which we will be announcing in the coming weeks.

MLA STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Teaching with Sholem Aleichem.” In geveb, April 2018: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/teaching-with-sholem-aleichem.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: Teaching with Sholem Aleichem.” In geveb (April 2018): Accessed Oct 15, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is a Lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief for In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.