Yiddish Film Activities for the Language Classroom: Teaching with Mamele

Rebecca Margolis

Yiddish film offers a wellspring of audiovisual material for the teaching of the language. Dozens of classic black and white Yiddish films produced in Poland and the United States in the 1930s have been digitized and subtitled by the Center for Jewish Film and are accessible to educators and students for viewing. These films feature native Yiddish speakers employing rich, idiomatic dialogue in diverse settings that evoke or represent a diverse pre-Holocaust Yiddish civilization, from urban to rural to supernatural. Viewed for cultural content, films such as Yidl mitn fidl/Yiddle with His Fiddle (1936) and Tevye (1939) offer an immersive cinematic experience of a lost world combined with themes that continue to resonate today.

Linguistically, however, these older Yiddish films present a number of challenges. The uneven sound quality makes them difficult to understand, as does the use of idiom-rich dialect rather than the “klal Yiddish” that most students are used to learning in the classroom. The subtitles are often terse and do not reflect the richness of the dialogue. While nothing can be done in terms of the sound quality, the idiomatic language and dialect can offer opportunities for language instruction and practice, as can the limitations of the subtitles.

I have tried a number of different approaches to integrating classic Yiddish films into my classes in my intensive Yiddish beginner summer program at the University of Ottawa, where a majority of my students arrive with little or no cultural or linguistic background in Yiddish. The most obvious approach is to screen an entire film preceded by an introduction to the context and themes, and followed by a discussion focussing on cultural content. However, I have found that short excerpts of these films can additionally be used to address specific aspects of Yiddish dialect, grammar and idiom, and translation.

These are some examples of the activities that I have created, in this case using a short scene from the 1938 film Mamele (dir. Joseph Green, Konrad Tom) that is available on YouTube through the Center for Jewish Film: “Mamele (1938) Restored by NCJF — Clip: ‘Mamele and the Gangster.’” Download a PDF of these activities here.

Mamele is a musical comedy featuring the wonderful Molly Picon playing “mamele,” the little mother who is left to care for her family after her own mother has passed away. The film contains the beloved Yiddish song, “Abi gezint,” which can be taught in preparation for viewing the film as a whole.

The 40-second clip shows Mamele dealing with a shady character who has designs on her older sister. I like this clip because it is light-hearted and plays with language in clever ways (e.g. there are jokes about Yiddish spelling). With relatively good sound quality, it offers the opportunity to work on the topic of Yiddish dialect in a practical way as well as other linguistic issues. It also underlines the gaps between the translated subtitles of these classic Yiddish films and the originals.

1. The dialect treasure hunt

Once the instructor presents the basic rules of Yiddish dialect, the film clip can be used as an example of what Central Yiddish/poylish pronunciation might sound like. The students are presented with a transcription of the clip in Standard Yiddish spelling and have to note the pronunciation of the highlighted words in the spoken dialect. The scene is played once, then the instructor reads the script in Standard Yiddish and then reviews the rules of poylish pronunciation. The students work in small groups to guess how some of the words will be pronounced in Polish dialect and note their guesses above the words in English transliteration. The instructor reviews the script in Standard Yiddish again and asks the students to share what they anticipate. Then the scene is played two more times as the students note how the words are pronounced in English transliteration. They return to their groups to compare and practice pronouncing the words in Standard Yiddish and Central Yiddish. They then practice acting out the scene until they feel comfortable with it, with the instructor moving from group to group to help as needed. The scene can then be acted out in whole or in part using the dialect in pairs or small groups and played for the class. Making this a fun activity where the students feel comfortable in their small groups and are free to try their hand at Yiddish acting can be a great way to “lower the affective barrier” (reduce the inhibitions of the learners in the classroom).

2. Future tense fill in the blanks

This exercise can be used to practice the future tense, which appears several times in the scene. Students are presented with the script with the auxiliary verbs in their infinitives. They are asked to conjugate them. They then listen to the dialogue and check their responses. The instructor can also use this exercise to deal with questions of word order in Yiddish by drawing attention to the relative positions of the subject, object and verbs in each sentence.

3. Fun with idioms

This exercise practices using some of the rich idiomatic language in the scene. Students are given a list of idioms that appear and they are presented as vocabulary: what do they mean, how might they be used? For example, in this scene, the adverb שוין is used several times in very idiomatic ways. The idiom, מ’שטיינס געזאָגט, is used near the end to turn something neutral or complimentary into an insult, and can be used either on its own or preceding any noun. Students then listen to the film clip to see how the idioms appear in the scene as well as how they are pronounced. They come up with examples of how these words or phrases might be used in other contexts.

4. Translation activity

Students are presented with the script including the transcribed Yiddish and the English subtitles and watch the scene several times. They then work in small groups to produce an idiomatic translation that best captures the scene, noting the parts that they found most challenging. They then compare their own translations to the original subtitles to note how and where they differ most. Each group presents its translation aloud and the class compares results. This can lead to discussion about the challenges of translation, in particular in the medium of subtitled film (“diagonal translation”). For example, the market norm for subtitling is that the screen should show no more than two lines at a time (one is better) and that each subtitle be concise and take up fewer than 35 characters. What recommendations do they have for the “perfect” translation? What follows is the Yiddish text of the scene with the translations provided in the subtitles to the film.

1. מאַמעלע: איך האָב אײַך קיין מאָל ניט ליב געהאַט און איך בין אַ פּשוטער גנבֿ.

2. גנבֿ: דאָס וועל איך ניט שרײַבן.

3. מ: וועסט שוין יאָ שרײַבן.

4. ג: איך וועל שוין יאָ שרײַבן.

5. מ: פּשוט מיט אַ וואָוו (׳ו׳) און גנבֿ מיט אַ גרויסן גימל (׳ג׳). אַ גרויסער גנבֿ. די פּאָליצײַ זוכט מיך אַרום.

6. ג: זי זוכט מיך ניט אַרום!

7. מ: מע וועט שוין זוכן. נו? די פּאָליצײַ זוכט מיך אַרום… איך טראָג זיך אָפּ קיין אויסלאַנד און דו וועסט מיך קיין מאָל מער ניט זען... מער ניט זען… יעצט, מיט דרך־ארץ, ארץ מיט אַ לאַנגען צדיק (’ץ׳)… אונטערשריפֿט: פּאַן ענדשזיניר, מ'שטיינס געזאָגט, מאַקס קאַץ (כּ׳ץ).

8. ג: דאָס וועל איך ניט שרײַבן. ... איך וועל שוין יאָ שרײַבן.

1. Mamele: I never loved you. I’m just a thief.

2. Thief: I won’t write that.

3. M: [No subtitle provided]

4. T: Yes, I will write it.

5. M: “Thief” with a big “T” - a big thief. The police are looking for me.

6. T: They’re not!

7. M: They will be! I’m leaving the country. You’ll never see me again. Respectfully yours… Signed, Engineer—maybe—Max Katz.

8. T: I won’t write that. Yes, I will write it.

Margolis, Rebecca. “Yiddish Film Activities for the Language Classroom: Teaching with Mamele.” In geveb, September 2018:
Margolis, Rebecca. “Yiddish Film Activities for the Language Classroom: Teaching with Mamele.” In geveb (September 2018): Accessed Aug 11, 2020.


Rebecca Margolis

Rebecca Margolis is an associate professor in the Vered Jewish Canadian Studies Program at the University of Ottawa, Canada.