Pedagogy

The Yiddish Radio Project: Lessons from the Intermediate Yiddish Language Classroom

Sunny Yudkoff

INTRODUCTION

At the Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in December 2016, In geveb organized a roundtable discussion entitled, “Teaching Yiddish in the Digital Age.” This essay is the third in a series of reflections by Yiddish educators and scholars inspired by that conversation. You can read the full series here.

One of the most common questions I’m asked as a language instructor at the university level is, “Do you incorporate technology into the classroom?” The short answer is yes. But the challenge I face is how to find meaningful ways to integrate contemporary digital material into lesson plans without overlooking a variety of pre-digital resources. Before the age of the smartphone, Yiddish speakers watched Yiddish films at the movie theater and they tuned in to the Yiddish radio for news and entertainment. Focusing solely on contemporary digital resources runs the risk of ignoring these and other technologies that historically have conveyed the energy of Yiddish daily life.

Yiddish radio programs, in particular, are effective tools for communicating the vitality and diversity of Yiddish culture in America. From the 1930s to 1950s, Yiddish radio stations flourished, broadcasting across the country from New York to Los Angeles. Yiddish radio plays and talk shows entertained and informed Yiddish listeners of all backgrounds. Radio hosts interviewed first and second generation Yiddish speakers who expressed themselves using all manner of accents, dialects, and regionalisms. And Yiddish hosts offered listeners everything from philosophical advice to news updates in mame-loshn.

For students eager to hear authentic—and oftentimes, impromptu—Yiddish speech, the Yiddish radio is a rich and generous resource. It offers language learners a glimpse into a time and space when the fact that Yiddish was “on the air” was something completely ordinary. At the same time, the content of these programs is far from mundane. The sheer range of topics addressed defies categorization, pushing students to discuss topics that are often quite far from the more typical subjects of the language classroom. Want to hear a radio host wax poetic about the “thousand flavors” of matzah? Check. Want to hear a curious interviewer ask local homemakers about a stepmother’s love for her stepchildren? Check. Want to hear a radio poet recite epic sound poems in Yiddish? Check.

All these anecdotes and more were made available over a decade ago by the Yiddish Radio Project produced by Henry Sapoznik, now of The Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Yiddish Radio Project brought the sounds and words of such Yiddish radio legends as Nahum Stuchkoff, C. Israel Lutsky, and Victor Packer to an eager public. Much of the material remains accessible today and there are plans in the works to make the files even more widely available in the near future.

As a language instructor, I often draw on the resources of the Yiddish Radio Project. I did so most recently as part of the conversation curriculum in an Intermediate Yiddish language course offered in the fall of 2015 at the University of Chicago. In addition to meeting three times a week for instruction in Yiddish grammar and authentic texts, students met for an additional fifty minutes each week to practice their oral expression skills. For each conversation section (shmues-kurs), students were asked to listen to various radio recordings and to answer questions about what they had heard. The questions then formed the basis of our shmues-kursn. These questions related to such topics as: the speaker’s accent (rarely standard Yiddish!); Jewish American food history (Who would have guessed the prominence of Carnation Milk?); and the hosts’ oratory style (How do they elicit answers from their interviewees? What tone do they assume with different topics?

At the end of the semester, students were asked to write and record a radio program of their own. The assignment had three main parts:

  1. Students were asked to record a three-minute radio program about one of the texts we had read that term outside of the shmues-kurs. Two such texts included Dovid Bergelson’s, “In the Pension of Three Sisters” (“In di pension fun di dray shvester”) and an excerpt from Bella Chagall’s memoir, Burning Candles (Brenendike likht).
  2. In the recording, students were asked to draw on and imitate the style, tone, or cadences of Yiddish radio announcers.
  3. Students were also asked to demonstrate control over four grammar topics we had covered that term, including: the conditional tense, the passive tense, use of “before/after” terms, and use of the gerundiv.

After submitting their recordings, I provided students with feedback on their reviews. To do so, I created a rubric that accounted for students’ control of grammatical topics, the fluidity of their speech, their pronunciation, and the content of the recordings.

Note: I did not specifically ask students to submit their written radio transcripts, as students had a separate final essay assignment. In classes that do not have a separate final writing assignment, I would recommend that students submit two copies of their radio transcript: the first—a rough draft that has been self-corrected using a colored pen, and the second—a clean version of the corrected rough draft that has been re-written.

As a final project, the radio program assignment gave students a chance to flex their oratory skills. It also allowed them the opportunity to be playful with language and register. Finally, it cemented some of the literary and grammar lessons we had practiced that semester.

The results were fantastic!

Included below are two final projects. The first, created by Corbin Allardice, offers a radio-ready review of Bella Chagall’s Burning Candles in his program, Di yidishe bikher-kritik. The second, recorded by Maxwell Wiltzer, presents an attention-grabbing discussion of Bergelson’s “In the Pension of the Three Sisters” in his program, Yidish far kidesh. Both recordings engage the listeners through wordplay, tone, and content. Thank you to Corbin and Maxwell for permission to reproduce these recordings here!

Summary of Rewards and Challenges of the Yiddish Radio Assignment:

Rewards

  • Students are able to be playful and creative with language and register.
  • Students are able to be playful and creative with tone and cadence.
  • Students demonstrate the ability to convey individual opinions about authentic Yiddish texts.
  • Students demonstrate the ability to write a review of an authentic Yiddish text while demonstrating paragraph-level control of language.

Challenges

  • Not all students may be comfortable recording their own voices or sharing these recordings with classmates. In this case, instructors may indicate that sharing these recordings with the entire class will be optional.
  • Students may not have immediate access to a personal recording device (such as a phone). The instructor should ensure that recording devices are available at the university library for student use.
  • The Yiddish Radio Project was built on an older digital platform. Students, especially those working on PCs, may have to troubleshoot the files until they are able to play the Yiddish radio recordings.
  • The Yiddish radio announcers are mostly men. When choosing between radio clips, instructors should be keen to include a variety of women’s voices, be they interviewees or actors in the Yiddish radio plays. It’s also critical to help students navigate the various gendered stereotypes performed by the male and female radio personalities.

The recordings made available by the Yiddish Radio Project transport students to a lively era of Yiddish popular culture. However, these radio broadcasts are only one moment in a larger history of Yiddish on the air. Yiddish instructors today need only look for the rise of the Yiddish podcast to understand how the genre has continued to develop. Below you’ll find a number of resources for complementing historical recordings with contemporary programming. Whether from the 1950s or the 2010s, involving Yiddish radio programs in the language classroom pushes students to develop their listening skills, to recognize different accents, and to immerse themselves in the oral cultures of global Yiddish.

Radio resources:

MLA STYLE
Yudkoff, Sunny. “The Yiddish Radio Project: Lessons from the Intermediate Yiddish Language Classroom.” In geveb, April 2017: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/the-yiddish-radio-project-lessons-from-the-intermediate-yiddish-language-classroomsu.
CHICAGO STYLE
Yudkoff, Sunny. “The Yiddish Radio Project: Lessons from the Intermediate Yiddish Language Classroom.” In geveb (April 2017): Accessed Sep 20, 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sunny Yudkoff

Sunny Yudkoff is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.