Pedagogy

לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: The Person Teaching With Yiddish

Jessica Kirzane

INTRODUCTION

In an effort to pool both the acquired wisdom and unanswered questions that arise 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, both new teachers and those with a lifetime of experience, working in children’s programs, university classes, and continuing education courses.

In this “Loyt Di Lerers” forum, we wanted to learn about the way that instructors of Yiddish language and culture present themselves and their personal opinions and histories to their students. We asked, “When and how do you bring yourself to this work? What personal commitments and circumstances do you share with your students? How do your students get to know the person teaching with Yiddish?” In geveb is grateful to those who participated in this poll and who helped to shed light on this topic.

In any classroom situation, instructors need to navigate between their private selves and their public personae. They balance between between self-disclosure as a way of inspiring, motivating, and connecting to students; and the desire to maintain boundaries for the sake of professionalism or simply their own wellbeing. Not only do instructors consider to what extent they should share about their personal lives, academic trajectories, past mistakes, and day-to-day experiences, but they must also must weigh whether and how to reveal their personal convictions about, experiences with, and feelings toward the material they teach.

Although the particular intersection of academic discipline and (assumed) personal affinity or connection is heightened in Yiddish, the question of balance is applicable for nearly all subjects and teaching situations. Instructors manage student curiosity, teach from their own passions and convictions, and struggle over whether and how to make their beliefs known to their students while navigating the mutable power dynamics of student-teacher relationships. They make choices about whether and how well their students will get to know them as a person.

How do instructors teaching with Yiddish navigate these struggles? Because of the traumas of Yiddish history and the nostalgia felt for it by the contemporary Jewish community, instructors may feel pressure to relate to Yiddish in a particular way, or to share about themselves and why they care about Yiddish when such questions might or might not arise for teachers of other languages and cultures. Do they bow to this pressure? Do they willingly accept it? Or do they resist? And what are the stakes of these questions for instructors who teach with Yiddish? Jenna Ingalls, in her essay “Reflections from a Non-Jewish Instructor of Yiddish,” explains that some students “view me as a conduit to their culture and heritage” and it can be hard for her to acknowledge her own positionality as a non-Jewish instructor. How do instructors manage their positions in relation to the material they teach, and (how) do they convey those positions to their students?

The Person Teaching Yiddish Language

It is the nature of a language classroom that teachers and students share much more about themselves than they might in other academic settings. The language classroom tends to be an intimate space. Students meet frequently, and rather than discussing a work of literature or an event from history, their goal is simply to communicate, often through casual conversations and writing about themselves and their lives in order to practice the target language using the subject they know best. Paula Teitelbaum, who teaches Yiddish in a variety of settings, including YIVO and the Workmen’s Circle, explains:

“As I teach students the expressions for sharing about their lives, starting with vi heyst ir? Vu voynt ir? Vos tut ir? and later fun vanen iz ayer mishpokhe? Vos tut ir khanike? Vos tut ir Purim? etc. [students are invited to share about themselves]. I am the first to share to provide both a model for language and to open up the conversation … I often build lessons around concrete topics using my personal information as content before I ask my students to share. Topics can range from mayn mishpokhe to mayn heym un gegnt, arbet, mayn zumer. I emphasize that they are free to share as little or as much as they want about their personal lives, but I found that in language classes, people mostly want to share. I decide what is appropriate to share on my reading of the group and on how long we have been together. For example, the first day of class is not appropriate for certain information, but judging on the class climate, three months later might be. What I share and how I share must always serve to build an appropriate relationship with my students and enhance their language learning. It should never turn into a therapy session for either one side or the other.”

Talking about oneself is a basic part of language learning and language instruction, and the language classroom is inevitably one of personal exchange. Teitelbaum explains that she does not share things about herself that are “emotionally loaded” because that “would prevent me from serving my professional role as facilitator of my students’ learning.” The classroom is a public arena and the teacher must conduct herself as a professional. Nevertheless, there is room for a certain kind of intimacy that comes with sharing about oneself, and this creates comradery and facilitates language learning.

The Person Teaching Yiddish Culture

What teachers share about their personal experiences and identities depends largely on their relationship to their students and the context in which they teach. Students who have gathered in an academic context for a semester-long learning experience have a different set of relationships to Yiddish language and culture, and different goals and expectations, than students gathered in a synagogue or community center expressing an affective relationship to the Jewish past or their own Jewish identity through learning Yiddish.

In some contexts, teaching Yiddish can be intensely personal. As Helen Paloge, a Yiddish teacher based in Montreal, describes of her first experience teaching Yiddish, in a kibbutz, “For almost everyone, Yiddish had a direct emotional impact. Each lesson was laced with gasps and sighs and tears and goosebumps as people suddenly remembered a word or expression out of their or the collective past, or a scene with their old bubbeh and zeideh, or a whiff of old world cooking, or an embrace the last time they saw their mother and father. And the same happened to me. I was surprised by all of it, at every lesson—how Yiddish was still alive for each and every one of us: young, old, immigrant, native born, Holocaust survivor, veteran kibbutznik, salt of the earth Sabra or Diaspora Jew.” For this community, learning Yiddish was an emotionally-laden exercise in self-discovery and memory, and the teacher herself was on a personal journey through teaching Yiddish.

Yosl Kurland performs Yiddish songs, writes Yiddish songs and poetry, and teaches Yiddish language and literature at Temple Israel of Greenfield, MA and at workshops around the country. He explains, “Many of my students are members of my community, so they are already part of my personal life—in shul, in political activities, Shabbos dinners, etc.” In that context, it is hard to separate personal life from the classroom. But there are limits to when and how he shares about himself: “When I am doing a middle school or high school presentation, I tend to be more reserved unless students ask questions.”

Margot Valles (Michigan State University) is more circumspect when it comes to sharing about her own relationship to Yiddish. She writes that although “my life is an open book” for those who express interest, she tries not to volunteer too much. “I hold back; I want students’ authentic engagement to be on their own terms and for their own reason.” Sam Spinner (Johns Hopkins University) also shares this caution. He explains, “I share only what seems to contribute to a specific occasion or generate an atmosphere conducive to the goals of the course.”

Mindl Cohen (Harvard University) explains that context is crucial. What she is willing to talk about in front of the class differs from what, and how, she shares in one-on-one conversations with students. “I’m willing to tell students about myself in one-on-one conversations, chatting before class or in office hours, usually only topics that somehow relate to Yiddish or being a student/grad student/teacher. If they ask about my family connection to Yiddish, how and where I learned it, etc., I’m happy to share based on the relationship I have with that student. I also share my experiences in college or grad school when I feel like these might be helpful for the student to hear or will help us relate.” But, she adds, “I would not normally initiate those conversations.”

As someone who teaches in a variety of settings, I find that the extent to which I share about myself—and what I share—varies greatly. But overall, I tend to be forthright and casual in sharing about myself. Certain personal details find their way into my teaching whether I want them to or not: when, as an adjunct, I brought my young children to the university campus so that a babysitter could watch them during my lecture, I inevitably ran into students while pushing a stroller, and my personal and professional lives could not easily be parceled out. I would never refuse to answer the question “Why did you decide to study Yiddish?” but, frankly, the answer isn’t such an interesting one, and I don’t dwell on it. I hope that by sating students’ curiosity about me from the start I might help them more quickly to realize that the material itself holds much more interest.

“I share only what seems to contribute to a specific occasion or generate an atmosphere conducive to the goals of the course.”

Sam Spinner (Johns Hopkins University)

What Do You Share?

Most of the instructors who responded explained that they do share with students about their personal commitments to, and histories with Yiddish, and about themselves, to the extent that it is useful for the teaching they are trying to do in the classroom, or in other interactions with students.

As Hannah Pollin-Galay (Tel Aviv University) explains, “It depends on the context or the assignment. If I’m advising a student and trying to convince her to do a thesis or PhD in Yiddish, I might share how Yiddish is a crucial aspect of the Jewish future, and that without it we understand very little about the Jewish past. If I’m teaching at a more introductory level, I point out the number or arenas in which Yiddish crops up. Just by virtue of Yiddish being widespread, and little understood, Yiddish is important.”

Paula Teitelbaum describes what she shares this way, “I tell them about how I came to learning the language, my approach to learning, my experiences with learning and so on. It helps to build a relationship with my students and creates a more cohesive learning community in the classroom.”

Sam Spinner provides these specific examples: “In a course on the Holocaust, I might share my father’s history with my students toward the end of the semester (once they and I are fully invested in our relationship with each other) if I get the sense it will create for the students a concretization or even a third-degree personalization of the material they’ve encountered. In general, if students reveal an ignorance of what kinds of people speak or once spoke Yiddish I might tell them about my father [a Yiddish speaker]. Otherwise I typically don’t share my own story. Yiddish literature and culture are interesting enough without needing to bring me in to it.”

Although Mindl Cohen rarely offers information about her own family history in her Yiddish language classes, she maintains one exception: “I like telling students a story about how my great grandfather and great grandmother met while organizing support for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, including a fundraiser with Morris Rosenfeld as the guest of honor. I tell that story after teaching “Mayn rue plats” and talking about a trip I took to Rosenfeld’s hometown of Boksze, Poland. I hope that by sharing this personal connection I offer students a way of bridging the gap to material that otherwise might feel very distant.” (You can see Cohen’s exercise on teaching “Mayn rue plats” here).

As for me, I do not tend to reveal much about my family’s history with Yiddish, or about what brought me to it, but I regularly do tell students what I am currently working on, or what texts or authors I love, giving reasons that have to do with personal taste rather than an abstract idea of literary worth or historical importance. Last semester I brought a draft version of something I am translating to the Jewish American Literature class I was teaching, and invited students to workshop it with me. I wanted the students to see translation, and scholarship, as something accessible, something that is written and thought through, drafted and re-drafted, and not something that simply exists in already-printed books and journals.

Why Do You Share? Why Don’t You?

There are many reasons to share about oneself in teaching, from the practical needs of providing an example for language learners to expressing enthusiasm for the topic at hand, to allowing students to understand the teacher’s perspective on the information they are receiving. As Paula Teitelbaum explains, “I believe that sharing who you are and what your relationship is to the subject matter is important to whatever you teach, be it Yiddish, English, Physics, or whatever. We teach human beings, and our success depends on our relationship with the human beings we teach, whatever the subject.”

Yet, there are as many reasons not to share. As Hannah Polin-Galay explains, “There are professors/teachers who make their subject very personal in an effective way. There are also those who take a very distanced, analytic approach and that works too. Key to either approach are A. the teacher’s interpersonal instincts and B. the substance of the course.” As for Polin-Galay herself, “I get very bored when people talk about themselves in the classroom. So, I try to hold back on talking about myself to students for that reason. It’s important for the students to know that I’m passionate about Yiddish. But, I hope that that is conveyed through my level of preparation, my thoughts and my respect for them, rather than frontal self-narration.”

Mindl Cohen outlines the reasons why she tries to hold back her personal feelings about Yiddish: “I do try not to be heavy-handed in presenting what I find so special about Yiddish, because I don’t want to alienate students who might be religious, more traditional, or more conservative than I am. I don’t want every student to feel like they have to fall in love with Yiddish, or love the same things about it that I do. And I don’t want non-Jewish students in class to feel like you have to have a personal connection to Yiddish to learn it.” Nevertheless, Cohen expressed some doubts about this strategy: “I recently realized that my first Yiddish teacher—who was not afraid of sharing his vision of Yiddish and who inspired me to pursue Yiddish studies and build my own deeply meaningful relationship with the culture and language—he was my age when he taught me at my first summer program just about a decade ago. Will I inspire students like he did me? Maybe I shouldn’t be so afraid of making the hard sell…”

“I believe that sharing who you are and what your relationship is to the subject matter is important to whatever you teach, be it Yiddish, English, Physics, or whatever. We teach human beings, and our success depends on our relationship with the human beings we teach, whatever the subject.”

​Paula Teitelbaum

Conclusion

The question of how much to share with students is difficult in any field: What is the value of personal relationship-building, as compared to professional distance? How much do students need to know about our own biases, preferences, histories, knowledge. and love of the material in order to appropriately evaluate the information we share with them? Do we need to (or can we) ignite students’ curiosity about the material by telling our own stories of connection with it or discovery of it?

As Hannah Polin-Galay puts it, “There’s no right answer.” In bringing together these voices from the field, our aim has been to provide a few different models and to think about whether and how the self and the personal can or should be a tool in an instructor’s toolbelt, in and beyond the Yiddish classroom.

If you teach Yiddish, teach with Yiddish, or teach about Yiddish, add your voice to the discussion in our ongoing poll, on teaching with Sholem Aleichem. And if you wish to share your opinion on the topic presented below, please do so!

MLA STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: The Person Teaching With Yiddish.” In geveb, January 2018: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/the-person-teaching-with-yiddish.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “לויט די לערערס | Teachers Weigh In: The Person Teaching With Yiddish.” In geveb (January 2018): Accessed Feb 19, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Pedagogy Editor for In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.