Pedagogy

Thc Comet at the End of the World: An Online, Immersive, Conversational Lesson Plan about “Current Events” Using Digitized Yiddish Press Materials

Ri J. Turner

INTRODUCTION

In late spring 2020, when we were all still reel­ing from the ini­tial shock of lock­down and many of us were tak­ing our first baby steps on the Zoom plat­form, the Paris Yid­dish Cen­ter orga­nized a series of online sem­i­nars, hop­ing to bring Yid­dish teach­ers and stu­dents from around the world togeth­er for at least a short respite from iso­la­tion and anxiety. 

The flag­ship track was called Yo Mit Ale­men” (a play­ful inver­sion of the Yid­dish expres­sion nisht mit ale­men,” mean­ing unwell”), a series of four-ses­sion advanced lit­er­a­ture work­shops sched­uled over the course of two weeks, which ulti­mate­ly ran for sev­en series, cul­mi­nat­ing in April 2021 with a series taught by Yit­skhok Nibors­ki on Aaron Zeitlin’s play Meta­tren. In addi­tion to this track for advanced stu­dents, the Cen­ter also orga­nized a sequence for inter­me­di­ate stu­dents, the first of which was enti­tled Aroys, Arop, un Aroyf and took place on May 9 – 10, 2020. Over the course of a week­end, stu­dents had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about Yid­dish thieves’ argot with Leyz­er Burko, for­eign lan­guage bor­row­ings in Yid­dish with Eliez­er Nibors­ki, Yid­dish songs with Sharon Bar-Koch­va, and astron­o­my reportage in the his­tor­i­cal Yid­dish press with yours truly.

The sem­i­nar was a spe­cial moment, its emo­tion­al charge undoubt­ed­ly height­ened by the extrem­i­ty of the glob­al sit­u­a­tion. For many of us (includ­ing me), it was our first large-group Zoom expe­ri­ence. That it made an impres­sion on par­tic­i­pants is evi­dent, for exam­ple, from Faith Hillis’s account of it a month lat­er. For a long time, I’ve been want­i­ng to share the mate­ri­als I used for my ses­sion with In geveb read­ers, both because they con­tin­ue to be top­i­cal (and the Yid­dish press is nev­er bor­ing), and because they can serve as an exam­ple of how to iden­ti­fy dig­i­tized his­tor­i­cal Yid­dish mate­ri­als around a par­tic­u­lar theme, repack­age them in a for­mat that is acces­si­ble to inter­me­di­ate stu­dents, and use them in an online teach­ing con­text to gen­er­ate a con­ver­sa­tion that is both his­tor­i­cal­ly root­ed and con­tem­porar­i­ly relevant.


The Point of Origin

One of my early pandemic pastimes was sitting on the floor of my lockdown room and translating humoresques by Der Tunkeler. In April, I was working on his parodic autobiographical essay, “Der Tunkeler: His Life, His Work, and His Impact on Berber and Ostyak Literature” when I came across the following passage:

It is possible to state without exaggeration that Der Tunkeler is third only to Voltaire and Beaumarchais in bearing witness to great revolutions.

Voltaire and Beaumarchais made Paris laugh one day before the city was turned upside down. Der Tunkeler made the world laugh one day before it was supposed to turn upside down according to the predictions of the American astronomer.

Is it Der Tunkeler’s fault that in the end, the world stayed right-side up?

Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, and I set out to answer the question, “Which American astronomer, and what did he predict?”

This search took me down a rabbit hole of cosmological and apocalyptic discourse in the Yiddish (and eventually French and English) press of the early 1900s. I came up with so much fascinating material that I knew I had to do something with it all, so when I was invited to teach a session for Aroys, Arop un Aroyf, I already had a topic tsu der hant.

Collecting and Preparing Material

Obviously, in April 2020, I wasn’t about to consult any physical libraries or archives. In fact, though, that wasn’t new for me — I was living abroad in one country while finishing a degree in another, and I was very used to the remote research lifestyle, a lifestyle made possible by the incredible, and growing, digital infrastructure for Yiddish Studies. When I teach intermediate students, one of my greatest pleasures is introducing them to all the new online resources for reading Yiddish — resources that would have been unimaginable even fifteen years ago and that, as we have all experienced, are total game-changers — including high-quality electronically searchable Yiddish dictionaries and thesauri such as verterbukh.org and Stutshkov’s Oytser, bibliographic projects such as Der indeks tsu der yidisher peryodik, searchable-corpus projects like Jochre, and electronic repositories like The Internet Archive, JPress, the Centralna Biblioteka Judaistyczna, and the Vilna Collections. Yes, you can sit on your couch and, in a matter of moments — why not? — pull up an article in a Cleveland Yiddish newspaper from 1910 about baseball — an experience that, for me at least, will never get old.

So when I teach intermediate students using Yiddish press materials, of course I have linguistic and content-area objectives as well, but my overarching hope is to give the students a glimpse of that reyts — the newspaper databases beckoning them to type in just one more search term, tumble a little further down the rabbit hole — that will cause them to hop onto the websites later on on their own and poke around for articles on topics that suit their interests. Why? Because I know from personal experience that there is nothing that boosts your language skills quite like paging through century-old headlines with the eagerness that we usually reserve for our favorite social media apps — and because there is an incredible wealth of fascinating press material available now that needs attention from budding researchers and armchair translators.

In this case, I began by using English-language resources (let’s be honest: Wikipedia) to find out about astronomy-related apocalyptic scares in the first couple decades of the twentieth century, in order to decide on the search terms that I’d later apply to the Yiddish press. The most likely culprits seemed to be Halley’s Comet (1910) and Comet Pons-Winnecke (1909 and 1921). Luckily, this made the choice of search terms simple: the Yiddish word for comet is, you guessed it, komet. (The hard part for me was getting used to pronouncing it with the stress on the second syllable, as I knew I’d need to do during the class session!)

I applied this search term to the OCR search function on JPress. The results were stunning: 192 article results in 1910 alone. (Now, two years later, the count is up to 237 results, probably thanks to newly digitized titles.) I’d have enough material, that was for sure; rather, it would be a question of narrowing it down!

After a long sojourn in the virtual corridors of JPress, I came to the conclusion that actually, the most promising fodder for my purposes were the headlines themselves. Firstly, looking at the headlines en masse would be the best way to give students the feeling of discovering abundant and intriguing material, which would be the experience likeliest to motivate them to pursue their own database searches later on. Second, headlines are by their nature short and pithy, summarizing a vast range of events and attitudes in only a few, well-selected words — a combination that is ideal for intermediate students who may still feel overwhelmed when asked to confront large blocks of text. Third, sticking with the headlines would keep us from getting too deep into the linguistic or attitudinal weeds of one single article, instead focusing on the big ideas and overarching historical developments that would generate meaningful discussion.

Advance Preparation on the Part of the Students

Because I knew that the session topic was ambitious and the students were likely to be mixed-level, I sent them the material in advance, with specific instructions for how to prepare. First, I asked them to read an article on the topic from 1910, but in their native language, whether French or English. Without being too overwhelming, this would give them an orientation both to the overall theme of our session and to the timbre of the contemporaneous discourse about it in the daily press. I also sent them a list of vocabulary to look over in advance, to make sure everyone was on the same page with key terms we’d need for our discussion, from komet to tsaytung to dershrekn and baruikn. Click here to see the full material I asked participants to read through in advance.

Opening the Session; Establishing Rapport and Norms

In setting the tone for the session, I had two advantages: first, many participants were repeat attendees of Paris Yiddish Center programming and therefore knew what to expect, and second, my session was scheduled to be the third session out of four, and therefore the students had already met each other for the most part, and were “in the swing of things” as far as the general MO of the seminar and the group’s median level of language skill. Nevertheless, I have certain goals for the beginning of any session I lead, particularly the first session with a new group:

  • make sure everyone (including me) is at least aware of who else is in the “room,” even if they don’t yet know each other’s names by heart yet;

  • invite every voice to be heard;

  • establish the expectation that 99.999% of all communication during the session will be taking place in Yiddish, no matter how halting;

  • “break the seal” right off the bat for students who may be shy about speaking Yiddish, giving them the opportunity to share something simple that will be received positively (1) so that they see that other students CAN understand them (with facilitation from the teacher if necessary), and (2) so that later on in the session, they won’t have to face the extra obstacle of speaking up for the first time in this setting when deciding to ask a question or share a comment;

  • establish the expectation that we will listen and respond to each other with attention and curiosity, and that communication among students, not only communication between student and teacher, will make up an important part of our shared “substance” during the session;

  • invite students to make (and share, if they wish) a personal connection with the material under consideration; and

  • convey that students of all levels will be supported in taking communicative risks that contribute to the overall aims of the course — and that taking communicative risks is much more useful for our purposes than getting things “right” or showing off prior knowledge.

In this case, I pursued those goals by asking students to take turns sharing their name, where they were tuning in from, and whether they had ever seen an interesting space phenomenon (solar eclipse, comet, etc.). To see all the prompts I used during the session written in transliterated Yiddish, click here. In order to facilitate the story-telling portion, I first screenshared the portion of the vocabulary list pertaining to heavenly bodies, and we read through it briefly before starting the go-around.

Background Information

In principle, students already had some inkling of the topic under consideration, thanks to the articles they’d read before the session. However, I wanted to get everyone on the same page about the historical context, and also prime the pump for reading and talking about Halley’s Comet in Yiddish by acclimating students’ ears to the vocabulary we would be using.

I have found it useful in immersive teaching, both on- and off-line, to accompany extended periods of lecture or discussion with the creation of a summarizing drawing. It helps students stay focused on what might feel to them like an avalanche of words; it ensures that they get the gist of the discussion even if they don’t understand all the details; and it generally makes them laugh. What was essential for students to understand in this case was a handful of vocabulary words and phrases (erd, komet, ek, sof fun der velt…) and the fact that people once worried that passing through the tail of Halley’s comet would bring about the apocalypse.

See my complete lecture notes in transliterated Yiddish by clicking here.

Research Skills and Exploring Authentic Yiddish Materials

Now it was time to look at the headlines. First, I showed students how I had found the articles (and the sheer volume of what was there to be found) by screensharing a search of the JPress OCR portal (see above). Then we looked together at thirteen headlines that I had compiled in advance, with their dates and sources noted (click here to view the full PDF). Students took turns reading the titles out loud, asking questions as needed if there were words they didn’t understand.

Students did have this document in advance, so they could familiarize themselves with it in advance if they wished. However, I did not explicitly ask them to do so, for two reasons. First, my experience in this sort of adult education context is that an optimistic maximum of 50% of students will come prepared, and some of those students will then be bored during the class session. Second, I believe that one of the most useful resources I have as a teacher is the element of surprise: as long as students feel like they are in suspense about what’s going to happen next in whatever “story” we are discovering together (whether literary or historical), and as long as they feel that we are pursuing the answer to a riddle together, they will stay in the sort of open, engaged mindframe that is ideal for language learning, because it combines attentiveness to the iker with a relaxed attitude toward the kinds of linguistic details that can otherwise cause meticulous students to freeze, particularly in a conversational context.

Organization and Interpretation of Material

After we read through the headlines, I pointed out to the students that they fell into three categories (each of the first three pages of the PDF containing headlines from one of the three). I asked students to name and describe each category. This enabled them both to check their comprehension and to synthesize the material they had just read, using more abstract vocabulary to express their insights about it in Yiddish. In addition, it gave the students the opportunity to discover for themselves (always much more interesting than being told by the teacher) the thematic range of the discourse about Halley’s Comet in the Yiddish press, as well as an evolution in that discourse over time. To make sure that everyone was able to follow this rather theoretical discussion, another off-the-cuff drawing was in order:

Discussion and Present-Day Stakes

Here (particularly around antoyshung and kas) we came to the question that I personally found most compelling in all this material (and, in fact, the question that Der Tunkeler originally hinted at in the passage I cited above): what are the responsibilities of experts (in this case, both scientists and journalists) in communicating with the public about life-threatening risk — and how does the public evaluate whether those experts are shouldering their responsibilities appropriately?

If that question rings a bell, it should. In many ways it is the question that has dominated the global airwaves since March 2020; in May 2020, when I taught this workshop, it was just emerging as the central discursive focus of the pandemic.

We explored this question first by looking at a fourth group of headlines: those “meta”-headlines which referenced not the comet itself or its putative threat, but rather reflected on the phenomenon of mass panic and the role that astronomers and journalists were playing in creating it.

I pointed out that also at issue was the gap between what astronomers themselves said and what the newspapers reported about what they said, which was sometimes a lot more sensational and hysteria-inducing (a discrepancy that is evident, for example, in comparing the above French and English articles’ very different accounts of astronomer Camille Flammarion’s assessment of the danger of Earth’s passage through the tail of Halley’s Comet):

Click here for a complete list of the discussion questions I prepared for my own reference, in transliterated Yiddish.

Students indeed had a lot to say about these themes.

Supplementary Materials and Next Steps

Just in case we’d run out of material, I had a few additional tricks up my sleeve (which, agev, could be useful for planning a second section on the same topic, or adapting this lesson for more advanced students).

First, an excerpt from an article by Getsl Selikovitch entitled “Shrekt nisht di velt,” in which he reproaches astronomers for creating needless public panic (in this case in reference to Comet Pons-Winnecke, not Halley’s Comet). Click here for a PDF of the excerpt in facsimile and in Yiddish transcription.

Second, materials pertaining to our colorful friend Camille Flammarion, who was so badly misquoted by the New York Times (see above). Although Flammarion wasn’t in fact worried about Halley’s Comet, he was perhaps deserving of reproach à la Selikovitch, since he had a bit of an obsession with apocalyptic celestial events, which he used to joke about in his public lectures (we get a sense of that from the French article cited above, and I found additional mentions of it in the French historical press when I was preparing for the seminar).

As it turns out, Flammarion even wrote an entire science fiction novel (already in 1893, so well before the Halley’s scare), entitled La Fin du Monde (translated into English under the title Omega: The Last Days of the World), about a comet that threatens to collide with the earth.

And… wait for it … that novel was translated into Yiddish (under the title In 10 milyon yorn arum), and serialized in the Warsaw daily newspaper Haynt in 1908. View the packet of material about Flammarion’s novel, including a facsimile and transcription of an excerpt of the Yiddish translation, by clicking here.

At the end of our session, I briefly introduced these materials via screenshare (students had already received them prior to the workshop in a file entitled “bonus”). I encouraged students to explore the topic further on their own and invited them to write to me with their discoveries and reflections. Some students did, sending me, for example, clippings about Halley’s Comet from the Hebrew press in 1910.

Conclusion

I’ve traveled many a mile and taught many a Zoom class since May 10, 2020, and I will confess that by now, I’m more than ready to see all your sunshiny faces in 3D meatspace. However, I will admit that the online format has certain advantages when it comes to teaching this sort of class. Shoutout here to Natalia Krynicka, who convinced me of the importance of some of the following features:

  • First and foremost, online teaching makes it easier to base a class around a large quantity and variety of materials without running the risk of losing students in the paper shuffle. I do still email students most materials in advance so that they can take (digital or analog) notes on them if they wish and so that they’ll have them for future reference after the class is over; however, most students tend to follow along on the material that I share on the screen, which means that they always know where we are and what we’re doing, which is definitely not the case in a physical classroom.

  • Second, every student has a front row seat: I don’t have to worry that some students can’t hear or see well because they’re too far away from the chalkboard, and students also have control of various aspects of their own experience, such as sound volume and screen magnification, which means that they can access aspects of the lesson that they might struggle with in a physical classroom.

  • Third, as more and more material moves into a digital and web-based format, teaching online means that I can directly demonstrate how to use online repositories (and students can immediately test them out on their own devices too), rather than having to go through the intermediate step of trying to squeeze sample database searches into a format that’s readable on an 8.5x11 printout. This leaves students more convinced that these materials are indeed accessible at the touch of a button, explorable from their own computers just as they are from mine.

If I had my druthers, I would still choose to teach in person any day. However, like all of us, I’ve learned a lot about the potential of online teaching, which, as it turns out, extends far beyond what I could have imagined two years ago.

Finally, I hope that this post has inspired you to build classes of your own around materials from the digitized Yiddish press. The possibilities are endless; to whet your creativity, I’ll leave you with a sampling of other press-based topics I’ve taught in the past couple of years (and for which I can thus guarantee that you will find plenty of pertinent material):

  • Children’s magazines

  • Women’s magazines

  • Political cartoons

  • Yiddish spelling reform

  • The film The Jazz Singer

  • Epidemics

  • Advice columns (including medical advice)

  • Satire

  • Personal ads

  • Material for learning English

  • The history of the Yiddish press

  • Yiddish stylistics

  • Yiddish ethnography

  • Dime novels

  • Science fiction (beyond Flammarion)

  • The Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres (before and after the war)

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer

If you develop a class or a workshop based around material from the Yiddish press, I’d be more than happy to hear about it and compare notes, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!

MLA STYLE
Turner, Ri J. “Thc Comet at the End of the World: An Online, Immersive, Conversational Lesson Plan about “Current Events” Using Digitized Yiddish Press Materials.” In geveb, June 2022: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/thc-comet-at-the-end-of-the-world.
CHICAGO STYLE
Turner, Ri J. “Thc Comet at the End of the World: An Online, Immersive, Conversational Lesson Plan about “Current Events” Using Digitized Yiddish Press Materials.” In geveb (June 2022): Accessed Jul 02, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ri J. Turner

Ri J. Turner is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.