Pedagogy

Yiddish is back in Mokum

Duifje I. van de Woestijne

In the past couple of months, a flurry of articles, interviews and publications have appeared in the Dutch media about Yiddish being back in Mokum. The reason? Yiddish is once again being taught at the University of Amsterdam after an eight-year hiatus. Mokum is known to all Dutch inhabitants. Mokum (מקום) is the Yiddish word for “place” or “safe haven”. It is derived from the Hebrew word makom (מקום, “place”), and is commonly used as a nickname for Amsterdam. Although only a fraction of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust, echoes of that era still fill the canal city in the form of Yiddish-based slang. Of all the ways in which Jewish and Dutch culture blended, few are as easy to spot as the entry of Yiddish into Dutch slang. Many of the words have Hebrew origins, making it possible for Hebrew-speakers to fish out the lef (courage, or heart), ponum (face), or brooche (blessing) in a conversation.

Until 2015, Yiddish was taught by Shlomo Berger, Professor of Yiddish Language and Culture. After his unexpected death, his Chair remained vacant. In 2020, with the addition of Daniella Zaidman-Mauer, PhD Candidate in the Jewish Studies Department, a Yiddish revival began. This reached a height this year when a BA course was offered. In her research Zaidman-Mauer focuses on early modern Yiddish remedy books in Ashkenaz.

In a recent interview, when asked about the value of learning the language in light of technological advances, Irene Zwiep, Professor of Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac Language and Cultures, said:

…When you throw old texts into a translation machine, you notice that the machine doesn’t really have a feeling yet for all the layers in the language. The Jewish language is like a kind of linguistic cake with all kinds of layers on top of each other. Google Translate is not going to make chocolate out of that linguistic cake…

Why is it so important to teach the language at the UvA? The language is key to understanding many treasures of literature, folklore, songs, and films. From the cultural references embedded in the Netflix hit series Shtisel, or A Serious Man, to the records of cultural movements such as that of the Ansky Society, Yiddish is also crucial in understanding Jewish life in the (early) modern times, as it was the language spoken and written by the people.

Amsterdam was a center for Yiddish language and culture. This is because of two things: first, many Yiddish books were printed in the seventeenth century for the whole Yiddish speaking community all over Europe. Second, Ashkenazi Jews spoke the language among themselves. Even when Dutch became the official language Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam spoke, the use of Yiddish continued. In Amsterdam Jews lived predominantly in the ‘Jodenhoek’, the Jewish neighborhood; this is where most Yiddish was spoken but over the years the language spread over the city. This is the reason a lot of Yiddish words were introduced into the Dutch language, but specifically in Amsterdam this influence was at its peak. To this day a lot of Yiddish words are used in Dutch, and often people don’t even know that words they are using come from the Yiddish:

When Daniella Zaidman-Mauer came to Amsterdam during covid times, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The posters that encouraged Amsterdammers to wear a mask had a word in her mother tongue! ‘You don’t want sores, wear a mask’, it said. ‘Sores’? That is Yiddish. Just like that in the contemporary street-scene. 1 1 Source: Lorianne van Gelder, “Jofel Jiddisj” Het Parool 25-02-2023, translated by Duifje van de Woestijne.

Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Amsterdam is experiencing striking growth. While the number of Bachelor’s students has stabilized, the number of students in the Master’s program has doubled in a short space of time – the program now has thirty-one MA students. As a result, it has become one of the largest degree programs of its kind in Europe. With the introduction of Yiddish, the UvA is the only university in the Netherlands where the language, which is an important key to understanding Jewish history, is taught.

The course, Taalverwerving Jiddisj (Modern Yiddish Language Acquisition) was taught at Bachelor’s level. The course is an elective of the program Hebrew Language and Culture. It was also open to students of other programmes, and to the wider public via Open UvA Courses. What made the course such a success? And what has been the experience of the new group of Yiddish learners?

The focus of the course was mostly on learning basic reading and writing skills, an introduction to grammar, and some vocabulary. In the first few classes students were taught the Aleph-Beys and we immediately started reading short sentences: here is one student’s experience of learning the Aleph-Beys:

“Over a week ago, my fellow students and I finished the first part of the Yiddish class and because of the enthusiasm, there will be a follow up next year. A lot of people are interested in learning Yiddish, which was already clear from the beginning. There were many ‘senior students’, who used this opportunity to learn the language. My main subject is German Studies, which made it easier for me to learn Yiddish. Many Yiddish words originate from High German. Despite the fact that the Hebrew alphabet was quite difficult in the beginning, the language is very phonetic, which makes it easier. Because of this, I was able to form short sentences quite fast already. In order to teach us the Hebrew alphabet, we began every class with repeating the alphabet, all at the same time. Because of this we quickly became familiar with the Hebrew letters. It is fascinating to keep a language alive, especially in its historical context.”

Fransje Marleen Fluri, BA Student German Language & Culture

Towards the end of the course there was an increased focus on grammar and sentence structure. The highlight of the course was the performance of a play. Around Purim part of the class participated in the performance of ‘רויטהיטעלע’ (Little Red Riding Hood) in Yiddish which attracted almost 100 people.

“For me the night of Roythitele was something really special. Once the doors opened there was just a constant flow of people streaming in. The atmosphere was great, and everyone was laughing along. We all joined in to sing Oyfn Pripetchik at the very end of the performance. It was a very poignant and inspiring moment. Here we were, this large group of people singing together, in Yiddish, right in the center of Amsterdam. It felt somehow positive, restorative, and optimistic. I am looking forward to being back in the classroom again next semester.”

Gerard Coen, MA Student, Jewish Studies

What made the course such a success? The popularity of the course increased because of the media attention which arose after the university announced the course. Why did this specific course generate so much interest from the media? It is impossible to give a definite answer. Perhaps it’s because Yiddish reminds people of the vibrant Jewish life enjoyed in the Netherlands before the Shoah. Perhaps Yiddish reminds people of the ‘romantic’ Jewish life that we used to have in Amsterdam, and people hoped to reclaim it by learning the language.

“When the opportunity came up this academic year to take a Yiddish course, I grabbed it with both hands. We were with a large group of students and Daniella, the teacher, taught us the alphabet, which is written with Hebrew letters, in a short time. We were soon able to read words and sentences. We read an incredibly fun book during this course and even performed a play in Yiddish. We learned an awful lot and also had a lot of fun. I am looking forward to the advanced course in the next academic year!”

Karen Ubink, BA Student Hebrew Language & Culture

During the entirety of the course there was a really pleasant atmosphere in the class which was largely thanks to the teacher Daniella Zaidman-Mauer. Along with covering the basics, she incorporated the occasional joke and made sure it was an environment where all learners felt welcome. Something that testifies to the success of the course: of the forty students, twenty-two already registered for the advanced course.

“When I studied Semitic Languages at the University of Amsterdam, Yiddish was one of the languages that was part of the curriculum. Since then, I had rarely heard or read Yiddish anymore. Enrolling gave me a chance to brush up my Yiddish and I enjoyed every minute of it. The lessons were varied and fun. We started with the alphabet and pronunciation and then read a beautiful story. Each lecture ended with a Yiddish song. The students were of all age groups and so enthusiastic that some of us took part in the Yiddish theatre play ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ which we brought to the stage after just three weeks of lessons with an audience of 100 people. Most of us will continue and do the advanced course. Until then, we keep in touch by WhatsApp where the only rule is ‘Yiddish only’.”

Heide Warncke, Curator, Ets Haim Library & PhD Candidate at the University of Amsterdam

More good news: there will be another beginner’s course in fall that is open for everyone.

MLA STYLE
Duifje I. van de Woestijne. “Yiddish is back in Mokum.” In geveb, May 2023: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/yiddish-is-back-in-mokum.
CHICAGO STYLE
Duifje I. van de Woestijne. “Yiddish is back in Mokum.” In geveb (May 2023): Accessed Mar 02, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Duifje I. van de Woestijne

Duifje I. van de Woestijne started an MA in Jewish Studies at the University of Amsterdam in September 2022.