Jun 21, 2021
Introduction: Yiddish in Brazil
Compared to Jewish immigration to the United States, Jewish immigration to Brazil was relatively small: “For a population of about 10 million inhabitants in 1872, Brazil received a little over four million immigrants between 1884 and 1939. Between 1872 and 1939, around 65,000 of these immigrants were Jews, most of them, Ashkenazi” 1 1 Limoncic, Flávio. “Da praça à praia: os judeus no Rio de Janeiro”. In: Kramer, Sonia e Pszczol, Eliane. Trajetórias Judaicas: história, cultura, educação. Rio de Janeiro, NUMA Ed./PUC-Rio, 2020, p.48. . As they did in New York, a good number of Ashkenazi immigrants to Brazil “made their living with small businesses, whether as peddlers, or owners of haberdasheries, furniture, fabric or women’s fashion stores” 2 2 Limoncic, Flávio. “Da praça à praia: os judeus no Rio de Janeiro”. In: Kramer, Sonia e Pszczol, Eliane. Trajetórias Judaicas: história, cultura, educação. Rio de Janeiro, NUMA Ed./PUC-Rio, 2020, p.51. . They lived in the suburbs or downtown Rio de Janeiro, where rent was lower, and created associations to support immigrants and peddlers, social clubs, libraries, book clubs, theatrical associations, cemeteries, schools, and synagogues. However, although there was a strong sense of community, there were also tensions: conflicts between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Zionists and progressives, and Yiddishists and Hebraists marked cultural and political institutions, particularly schools. 3 3 Limoncic, Flávio. “Da praça à praia: os judeus no Rio de Janeiro”. In: Kramer, Sonia e Pszczol, Eliane. Trajetórias Judaicas: história, cultura, educação. Rio de Janeiro, NUMA Ed./PUC-Rio, 2020, p.51.
By the middle of the 20th century, eight Jewish schools existed in Rio de Janeiro; four of these schools taught Yiddish. There were two libraries dedicated to Yiddish literature, in addition to philanthropic institutions, associations of women, actors, musicians, and musical groups that kept alive the tradition of the culture and in the Yiddish language. Yiddish newspapers in circulation included Dos yidische vokhnblat, Di naye velt, Brazilianer yidishe prese and Yidishe folkstsaytung and more. 4 4 Raizman, I. A Fertel Iorhundert Yiddish Presse in Brazil. A quarter of century Yiddish Press in Brazil. Safed, The Musuem of Printing Art, 1968. The Yiddish literary scene in Brazil was active as well, as exemplified in recent publications by Nachman Falbel 5 5 Falbel, Nachman. Literatura Ídiche no Brasil. São Paulo, Humanitas, 2010. , and Hadasa Cytrynowicz and Genha Migdal. 6 6 Cytrynowicz, Hadasa and Migdal, Genha. (eds.) O Conto Ídiche no Brasil. São Paulo, Humanitas, 2007. Migdal edited a beautiful edition of “O conto ídiche no Brasil” (The Yiddish Short-Story in Brazil). In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, a number of intellectuals and journalists have published books in Yiddish since the 1930s (Kischinevsky, Adolfo. Naye Heymen. Nilópolis/Niterói, Yung Brazil, 1932; Halperin, Menashe. Oysn alte brunen. Rio de Janeiro, 1934; Landa, Landa. Likhtike kayorn: lider un dertseylungen. Monte Scopus, 1959.; Apelbaum, Malka. Naye un alte heym: dertseylungen un bilder. Rio de Janeiro, M. Lander, 1955; Steinberg, Clara. Oyf brazilianischen boden/Em terra brasileira. Rio de Janeiro. Monte Scopus, 1957; Schwartz, Hersh. Heim Grin-Goldene/Lar verde-dourado. Rio de Janeiro, Brasileiro, 1960; Palatnik, Rosa. Geklibene Dertseylungen/Contos Escolhidos. Rio de Janeiro, Biblos, 1966; Kucinski, Meier. Nusach Brazil. Tel Aviv. I. L. Peretz, 1947.) Among them, Jacob Guinsburg is the main researcher, writer, editor, translator, and intellectual who wrote about Yiddish language and literature in Brazil, see Guinsburg, Jacob. O Conto Ídiche. Campinas, Ed. Perspectiva, 1966. Guinsburg, Jacob. Aventuras de uma língua errante. Campinas, Ed. Perspectiva, 1996.
As the story goes for most Yiddish centers in the 20th century, cultural production and fluency started to dwindle and the teaching of Yiddish in Brazilian schools declined from the 1940s to the 1970s, and ceased completely in 2002.
Yiddish Programming Today: Viver com Yiddish Workshops at the Eliezer Max School
Of the five Jewish schools currently operating in the city of Rio de Janeiro, none were offering Yiddish classes when our project began in 2017. The school where our workshops have been taking place grew out of a merger of two schools: one of these was the last to offer Yiddish, which it stopped doing in 2002 after a decades-long dedication to teaching Yiddish literature, theater, and music. The circumstances in which our Yiddish workshops for children were designed and implemented in 2017 were quite different from those even a few decades earlier: There were no active Yiddish teachers in Brazilian Jewish school. But fortunately, there were – and still are – Yiddishists and Yiddish speakers dedicated to the teaching of the language.
In 2013, a program called Ot azoy dos iz Yiddish ran at a a Jewish cultural center with the aim of highlighting the continued presence of Yiddish speakers in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Sonia Kramer, who speaks Yiddish fun der heym, identified through this program a continued interest in Yiddish and started a project on Yiddish education at the Pontific Catholic University of Rio De Janeiro (PUC-Rio), where she has worked for over four decades. Kramer’s project encompasses workshops about Yiddish, research projects, song workshops, workshops for children, as well as Yiddish language classes (the newest component, since 2019). The working group for this project has now been institutionalized at the university’s Institute of Higher Studies in Humanities. At first, the project focused on Yiddish history, music, and literature in translation; after a little while, the participants also showed an interest in learning the language itself. Our courses attracted musicians, writers, teachers, storytellers, childhood experts, and former Yiddish teachers.
All components of this project raised the same question for us: how to work on Yiddish with children in schools? Waiting for new Yiddish teachers to be trained was not feasible because while some twenty young adults were studying Yiddish, most of them were only at the beginner stage (and others had last studied the language some twenty to thirty years ago). On the other hand, it did not seem sensible to add Yiddish to an already extensive school curriculum, such as those found at Jewish schools.
However, a diverse group of all ages, including seasoned speakers and beginners, Jews and non-Jews, descendants of survivors, students, and various professionals were committed, engaged and mobilized by Yiddish. Several Yiddish instructors, workshop participants, and teachers-in-training at PUC-Rio decided to design a proposal to work with children in two out of the five Jewish schools of the city. In 2017, four workshops enabled by crowdfunding efforts were held at each school for children aged four and five. The following year, one of the schools became a permanent partner in the project. By 2020, the project had gradually expanded to include children up to ages seven and eight and had received support from the Congress for Jewish Culture and the Fishman Foundation.
Our Teaching Philosophy
We designed our workshops based on several key pedagogical commitments: We see education as a cultural practice, a practice of freedom based on knowledge, ethical action and aesthetic experience. As such, education must further a critical relationship with tradition.
We worked with several core concepts in creating our workshops, namely: remembrance, resistance, education, and the idea of childhood and what it means to be a child. When we present Yiddish narratives to children we are breaking away from the history that they have previously received and expanding their cultural repertoire. This includes expanding their personal, family, group, and social memory. Once they have absorbed a new narrative, memory allows past and present to cross: we recall what we were from what we are and experience today. Children are told stories from older generations who shape their socialization. These stories are elements of a cultural repertoire, transmit ethical values, and become embedded in the memory of children. The practice of recalling and sharing – in this case, Yiddish language and Yiddish culture – imparts a sense of ethical care and is a means to resist dehumanization.
In our workshops a practice of resistance means not forgetting, which implies a commitment to action — to the Yiddish language. We understand fostering access to Yiddish language and culture as an act of resistance. Therefore, one should be mindful in remembering or seeking what has (almost) been destroyed or forgotten: expressions, stories, songs, games, proverbs —in short, cultural repertoires. For us, education means rediscovering stories that have been kept hidden, creating practices of belonging by acknowledging differences, establishing a sense of community, responding to each other, teaching, and caring. One cannot be naive in imagining that Yiddish will be a renewed vernacular spoken widely in Jewish communities; however, Yiddish education can create dialogic relationships through language among people of different generations, of different times and geographies.
“Wow! We have Yiddish class today”: How our workshops became a success!
The challenge of working with Yiddish language and culture in our workshops is to acknowledge the children as subjects of history and culture, as well as producers of history and culture. We must also understand the cultural dimension of our pedagogy, as a practice of connecting knowledge, art, and life. Therefore, we aim to connect the children’s sense of their history, their memory, and their experiences in our teaching.
The core components of the Yiddish workshops with children are language, arts (including music, literature, and role-playing), and playing games as forms of a cultural experience and a proper way for children to express themselves. Intergenerational activities are also included — the children and their families (parents, grandparents) attend together — so that people of different ages interact. Activities among families where Yiddish language and culture, words, sentences, songs, plays, and stories are shared are often emotional. The role of and interaction with older people is particularly important in this setting. The workshop intends to ensure access to and experience with culture, literature, music, dances, role-playing, art, and historical production; it seeks to ensure the legacy, the heritage, the yerushe.
The joy of finding and rediscovering Yiddish, knowing and recalling it, feeling its presence: “How good to see Yiddish back at school” said a grandmother of a student at one of the workshops with children and their families. The Yiddish workshops for children are being held in a Jewish community school that offers preschool, primary, and secondary-school education. 7 7 In Brazil, K-12 is divided into Preschool, Middle School, and High School. Preschool includes nurseries for children aged zero to three years, and a two-year preschool education for children aged four and five. Primary Education takes a total of nine years and is divided into two segments, Primary Education I – Initial Years, which lasts five years and is for children aged six to ten, and Primary Education II – Final Years, which lasts four years, for adolescents aged 11 to 14 years. The Secondary Education, i.e. high school lasts three years and is for adolescents aged 15 to 17 years. The progressive school aims to provide an education of excellence based on humanism, pluralism, and Jewish values. The school has two locations in two different districts; one of the locations is for preschool education only, for children no older than five, while the other location offers preschool, primary, and secondary education.
At our Yiddish workshops, children are exposed to, participate in, and express Yiddish culture according to how they connect with the Yiddish universe. Speaking Yiddish, singing, dancing, laughing, playing, reading, listening to stories from old times and other places, savoring Yiddish culture — all these elements form the core of our workshops with children. The core goals of our workshops are to expose children to Yiddish as a living language, to share knowledge, and to preserve the language’s history and memory. These goals are connected to broader aims: strengthening Jewish identity through the Yiddish language; providing access to the extensive corpus of Yiddish cultural production, with a particular focus on music and literature; the teaching of Yiddish for children and furthering the study of Yiddish for members of the team that delivers the workshops.
“You must always come”: A Brief History of the Workshops
Since 2017, some 200 children aged four to eight years enrolled in the preschool and primary education section of the Max Eliezer School have attended our workshops at one of two locations in the city of Rio de Janeiro; in addition, their families, teachers, coordinators, and principals attended as well. These regular, once-monthly workshops were integrated into the school’s existing curriculum and were not simply an optional activity. Organizing Yiddish as an integrated part of the school’s curriculum, whether in class or in a specific project, strengthens the encounter and bond that the children, their families, and school professionals form with Yiddish. Over the last four years, we have been invited to join the school’s book fair and have presented two shows with our musical group on family weekends.
We were able to offer these workshops to a gradually increasing number of children and classes: in 2017, 50 children ages four and five; in 2018, there were 90 children ages four and five; in 2019, 110 children ages four, five, and six; and in 2020, there were 200 children ages four, five, six, seven and eight. Interestingly, most of the 50 children who attended a workshop in the first year (2017) participated again every year, with 2020 marking their fourth year of participation.
Since 2017, a total of 76 workshops with children have been held in the school’s two locations. We held two (2017), sixteen (2018), 25 (2019), and eleven (2020) 8 8 In 2020, eight workshops with children were held in the two locations of the school - prior to the COVID 19 pandemic. After the closing of the schools, four workshops were held online. In addition to the team’s setting of the workshop, three videos with Yiddish songs and poems were sent to the children and their families through a digital platform. A music show for the children and their families was also presented online, with Yiddish songs performed by musicians and dancers of the team. workshops distributed equally across age groups in one location, . At the school’s second location, we held two (2017), eight (2018), ten (2019), and two (2020) workshops, respectively. In addition to these regular workshops, we also held special, sleep-over workshops in 2017, 2018 and 2019, when children would sleep at school from Saturday to Sunday. These workshops allowed moments of discovery, joy, sharing, and sleep-well wishes - a gute nakht un gute khaloymes, being together.
At our workshops we work with a wide range of materials: Yiddish folk songs, those for children and others, are sung, narrated, played, and danced. Yiddish literature – novels, poems, and short stories – is turned into action through storytelling, roleplaying, and games. Participants experience instigating, challenging, and artistic moments. We showcase the diversified literary and musical corpus of Yiddish culture. The melodic quality of the music and the lyricism of poets are emotional and touching -- they draw in participants and invite them to an encounter. Yiddish literature makes the language tangible for participants, and the stories we tell strengthen participants’ experience of Jewish culture and identity.
We are particularly committed to teaching Yiddish folksong; in our previous work 9 9 Kramer, Sonia; Silveira, Aline. “Infância, experiência e rememoração: encontros com a música Yiddish.” Arquivo Maaravi: Revista Digital de Estudos Judaicos da UFMG. Belo Horizonte, v. 14, n. 26, maio 2020. , we have explored how Yiddish songs are often interconnected with memories, serving as a bridge to the lives, stories, customs, values, and experiences of older generations. The vast repertoire of Yiddish folksongs serve as a site for recollecting and narrating actions and effects across time.
Children recall the music and stories from one workshop to the next, they recall words in Yiddish, they talk about their relatives who speak Yiddish, they share comments and questions that show Yiddish as a memory and a narrative: “Did people speak Yiddish?”; “My grandmother speaks Yiddish”; “My father told me he knows Yiddish”; “I missed Yiddish”.
We believe that working with children goes beyond the building of knowledge; it includes building relationships, being available, surrendering, acknowledging and listening to the Other, and being open to newness and learning. — It is an exchange, through which both children and adults are engaged in sharing their stories, their everyday knowledge, their trajectories.
“Does Yiddish exist only in songs and stories?”: Our Activities
We try to engage children actively, affectionately, and responsibly through a number of activities: stretching the body, vocalizing, working on breathing, sharing inhalation with one another, feeling exhalation, finding a bodily balance in the beginning. The song with a story. Number and music notes. Singing, playing, learning. Up and down, down and up.
Our Yiddish workshops with children consist of conversation, literature (novels, poems, and short stories), songs, dances, and games. Books, songs, musical instruments, toys, clothing accessories, and props are all used at the workshops. Yiddish conversations take place in large and small groups; they create pleasurable learning moments and a connection with Yiddish language and culture. The musical and literary repertoire is studied and expanded at each workshop, in order to diversify and enhance the children’s experience with the Yiddish universe.
Yiddish songs relate to daily life. They are filled with dreams, they lull, they are soothing, they are playful, they bring recollections; they tell funny stories, satirical stories, good-humored stories, and stories of fear and hope. The Yiddish song lyrics that portray childhood address different themes: childhood memories, toys, lullabies. Lyrics, music, and harmony highlight, in each new stanza, the possibility of hesitation and, at the same time, the importance of being in a world that is ethically stimulating. Many Yiddish songs carry a sense of vulnerability, playfulness, and of starting over, working with the ears and mouths of novices, because he who believes only in a specific destination cannot, in fact, be. Zumthor
Zumthor, Paul. A letra e a voz: A “literatura” medieval. Trad. Amálio Pinheiro, Jerusa Pires Ferreira. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1993, p.19.
believes that the action of the voice of a singer or a poet who sings or recites is part of the tradition and gives it authority. Torres
Torres, Maria Cecília de Araujo Rodrigues. “Que músicas escolher para um CD? Seleção e organização de repertório para a aula de música na escola”. Música na Educação Básica. Londrina, v. 8, nº 9, 2017.
sees the increase of the musical repertoire when working with children as an ethical action of strengthening a multicultural perspective. Fostering attentive listening and different sorts of discussion and appreciation in choices of music repertoire expands the opportunities for different types of knowledge to converge, while at the same time stimulating an eclecticism, a mosaic of cultural origins and diversity.
Music selection is an important component when designing the workshops and takes into consideration the music’s connection with the story-telling component: The songs that were played and sung at our workshops so far include: Tumbalalaika, Az der rebe tantst, Ale brider, Shabes shabes, A bisele mazl, Yidl mitn fidl, Der rebe Elimeylekh, Belts, Margaritkelekh, A kind a goldene. Many of these songs are sung and danced with groups of children aged four to eight years. For each group, a different song, a different movement, a new exchange. The lyrics of the Yiddish songs are transliterated and translated into Portuguese, and handed out to teachers, aides, coordinators, principals, and families. Our team also prepared music sheets with the lyrics in Portuguese. We used a number of instruments at our workshops, including a keyboard, violin, mandolin, voice, and a variety of percussion instruments. In addition, depending on the story and song, we have also used an alto recorder, soprano recorder, and accordion.
The moment when the musical instruments are distributed among the children is an important part of our workshops. For each workshop, we select different percussion instruments — drums, rattles, guiros, triangles, spoons, claves, half-moon tambourines, coconuts, and tambourines — and we put them in baskets for the children to choose. Then, they start playing, impersonating the klezmoirim: payklers, tsimblers... drummers, percussionists... this is a moment they all expect, and they experience it with excitement, as a happy, freylekh moment.
For our literature component, our team works with translations, most of them newly published, of stories for children translated and/or adapted to Portuguese. These translations and adaptations include some words, expressions, and small excerpts in Yiddish. We select our literature from books available in Brazil and abroad, as well as from different sources created, conceived, or adapted by the team, including:
- books that tell Jewish traditional stories, such as Apertada e Barulhenta 12 12 Zemach, Margot. Apertada e Barulhenta. Brinque Book, 2000. (“Tight and Noisy”); and The Treasure/Der oytser 13 13 Shulevitz, Uri. The Treasure. New York. United States: Square Fish. 2012.
- books that celebrate holidays in a light, creative way, such as The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story /A lektzie fun kunst: A mayse oyf Shavuot 14 14 Marks, Allison; Marks, Wayne. The Art Lesson: A Shavuor Story. Illustrations: Annie Wilkinson. Minneapolis, United States: Kar-Ben Publishing. 2007. and Laila tinha uma surpresa: uma história de Shabat /Laila hot gehat a khidesh: a Shabes Mayse 15 15 Lederman, Luciana Pajecki; Menai, Tania. Laila tinha uma surpresa: Uma história de Shabat. Illustrations: Babi W. Steinberg. São Paulo: Callis Ed., 2015. (“Laila received a surprise: a Shabbat story”)
- books that address migration and other issues the families of the children have experienced, such as Mendel’s Accordion 16 16 Hyde, Heidi Smith. Mendel’s Accordion. Illustrations: Johanna Van Der Sterre. Minneapolis, United States: Kar-Ben Publishing. 2007. e Meu avô judeu 17 17 Sitchin, Henrique. Meu avô judeu. Illustrations: Ionit Zilberman, São Paulo, Panda Books, 2018. (“My Jewish Grandpa”);
- Anthologies of children’s poems by Kadya Molodowsky 18 18 Molodowsky, Kadya. “Di Dame mitn hintl”, “Olke” e “Shikhelekh”. In: Yidishe Kinder. Amherst, Massachusetts: National Yiddish Book Center, 1945. , such as Di dame mitn hintl, Olke and Shikhelekh;
- books written in Yiddish, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Yiddish/ Der zeyer hungeriker opfreser 19 19 Carle, Eric. Very Hungry Caterpillar Yiddish. New York: Wish Educational Workshop. 2015.
- books with stories created or adapted, such as Bumtsiktsik, adapted from Roxaboxen 20 20 Mclerran, Alice; Christopher, Garret. Roxaboxen. Ed. Learning Links, 1997. ; Froy Blumen, adapted from Miss Rumphius 21 21 Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius. New York. United States: Puffin Books, 1985. ; A Hat for Mrs. Goldman/A mayse vegn libshaft 22 22 Edwards, Michelle. A Hat for Mrs. Goldman. Illustrations: G. Brian Karas. New York. United States: Schwartz & Wade Books. 2016. . 23 23 We translated all the texts into Yiddish, except Der zeyer hungeriker opfreser.
All these works include words, sentences, excerpts, or a few dialogues translated into Yiddish, which we use to work with the children in accordance with their age group. It is important to associate the books’ illustrations with the props we use, so that the children can relate to and experience the stories. The costumes and props are similar to those of the illustrations in the books. We carefully select these items from the homes of team members or purchase them at stores – an apron, a doll, a little box, a little dog toy, a hat, a flower. At our workshops, costumes and props establish a kind of collaboration and partnership with the images presented in the books. With each new story the children experience a new setting, a new aesthetic, a new encounter, the brightness of a new sparkle.
Words, sentences, songs, stories, dances, and games all intertwine to form a Yiddish universe for children at our workshops. Over the past four years, we have seen the emotion of rediscovering of Yiddish by some, of discovering Yiddish by others, and we have felt a sensitivity, affection, and a will of adults and children to know, experience, and share. Therefore we are certain that this work must continue and be expanded. The children are uttering words in Yiddish, they are learning and memorizing them, singing songs and playing, listening to stories being told, intensely experiencing dances and games. Our conversations, the sentences uttered and the questions asked by the children, their family and the school staff show Yiddish as a site of a narrative and memory — of today and yesterday, respectively. The workshops are moments of discovery, encounter, rediscovery, sensitivity, affection, and bonding with Yiddish culture.
Ideas for the Future/Tsiln far der tsukunft
The Yiddish workshops with children foster a discovery of the Yiddish universe precisely because they combine Yiddish culture – language, literature, and music – with childhood, art, and creation. We are planning on gradually expanding our work year after year with workshops to include additional grades. In addition, we will be adding new songs and stories to our repertoire in order to broaden the children’s cultural experiences. At the same time, we are aiming to teach children who have already been exposed to the Hebrew language how to read and write in Yiddish.
To work creatively at the intersection of language and art means creating space for the building of knowledge, facilitating acts of creation and becoming, engaging the potential of the mound of pebbles brought along by different travelers from their paths. Through dialogic engagement in creative activities, students can expand their reflexive and critical capacity. The Yiddish language is diverse, marked by originality and plurality. It is often orally transmitted, and shaped by “the people” — less educated women, men, and children. Its popular core contains elements of the communities that produce(d) it, expressing their ideas, habits, affection, fears, and strengths.
Our workshops’ methodology is based on a cultural and humanistic perspective that aims to raise children’s awareness about the importance of Yiddish andJewish history and ancestry. We are planning on having more teachers become acquainted with our methodology, learn Yiddish, and become involved in the project. At our workshops, children share experiences and produce new culture based on how they understand and experience Yiddish culture — they are formed and transformed, expanding their creative potencies through their relation to the Yiddish universe.
You can follow the work of Viver com Yiddish on Facebook and Instagram (@viver_com_yiddish).
This video is part of the music and literature project for children through workshops at the Eliezer-Max School. Rio de Janeiro © 2020.
This video is part of the music and literature project for children through workshops at the Eliezer-Max School. Rio de Janeiro © 2020.
Song A bin
Lyrics and music by Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, Singer: Thaís Goulart, Flute and Piano: Aline Silveira, Mandolin: Bruno Rian, Coordination: Sonia Kramer, Editing: Thaís Goulart, Production: Grupe Lebn far Yiddish. Research project: Yiddish as Resistance and Identity Experience. PUC-Rio. Rio de Janeiro © 2020.
For more music from Viver com Yiddish check out the album Likhtik.