Dec 12, 2023
In my quarter century of Yiddish language and culture teaching, the intensive format has always been my preferred mode. I love the intensity of the compressed format; the enthusiasm and openness that students — who have put their regular lives on hold to immerse themselves in Yiddish — bring to their learning; the commitment of the teaching staff, who have done the same; and the vast possibilities for enrichment. However, what I love most are the unique cultures that form among cohorts: the quirky linguistic markers that students adopt; the names and nicknames that they take on or are assigned to reflect their Yiddish selves; the practices that they integrate into their communal Yiddish lives. Although each program differs, I have found the same classroom energy in each program I have taught for: the YIVO Zumer Program, the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer program, my own intensive Yiddish course offered at the University of Ottawa, and the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program at the Yiddish Book Center.
The structure of the Steiner Program, which now entails on-site collective living for almost two months and a shift to all-Yiddish life within the first weeks for beginners and intermediates alike, has fostered a particularly cohesive brand of Yiddish culture. I may well be biased, having been with the program continually since 2009 and having formed close bonds with its people and the physical space of the Yiddish Book Center and the bucolic terrains of Amherst, where the program is housed. However, you can also find expression of it in the writing of past students from the program who have shared their experiences, most recently Maya “Zuni” González’s Your Inner Child Will Thank You for Learning Yiddish. There is something special about living fully in Yiddish, away from the hustle and bustle of regular life, surrounded by cornfields, and in the close company of like-minded others.
In what follows, I offer examples of how this intensive program brand of Yiddish culture translates into concrete outputs in the form of final projects by my 2023 intermediate class. I do this partly because they are amazing, but also in order to contribute to broader conversations about the futures of Yiddish. What can we expect from the current and future cohorts of new learners of Yiddish, who increasingly make up our ever-expanding non-Haredi Yiddishland? These learners are diverse in their backgrounds and religious and ideological orientations, yet something has brought them to Yiddish. What do they take away from their learning, and what applicability does it have in “the real world”?
My teaching practices at the intermediate/advanced levels entail having the students engage with a variety of sources to discover how Yiddish song, poetry, literature, film, and ideology can form a usable past. Together and entirely in Yiddish, we take these texts and give them meaning for our current realities. The final project entails taking something we have done in class as a springboard for new contributions to the Yiddishverse. Over the last years, alone or in pairs, the students have created new songs, short stage or film interpretations of texts, or creative writing. Some years evince particular trends; for example, Yiddish dubs of English comedy television that are, frankly, funnier than the originals.
This year’s Steiner intermediate cohort introduced innovation in two trends: the Yiddish game and the Yiddish zine. The first was most definitely inspired by my wonderful co-teacher, Eydl (Adrien) Smith Alentseva, who ran daily shmues sessions with the students where their communicative activities included playing a variety of Hasidic games. The second reflects the extent to which Yiddish has become bound up with translating embodied experiences into new language to express them, especially for areas that have traditionally constituted taboos such as sex work or reproductive justice. Collective efforts to forge Yiddish vocabularies to talk about who we are —for example, word lists and activities that reflect non-heteronormative families — mark a way for new learners to dramatically alter not just the language but social attitudes. Yiddish has come to constitute a deeply meaningful and malleable space for its new speakers, for whom the language represents part of a better tomorrow in line with the utopianism that has always been ingrained in it. These spaces, which I called “created language spaces” in my recent book, Yiddish Lives On, are ever evolving with our new learners as their driving force.
For my final project, I created a zine to showcase over thirty Yiddish words related to reproductive justice. My inspiration came from many places, inside and outside of yidishland. In June 2022, during my first Steiner Summer, the American Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling protecting abortion rights in the United States. A friend told me the news (in English) during a break between Yiddish classes, and I couldn't help but express my heartbreak. I could not, however, express it in the language we were meant to be speaking. The frustration of that moment inspired me to find Yiddish words to discuss my own struggles with reproductive health and justice.
Since 2017, I have struggled with chronic reproductive disorders. Doctors dismissed my pain for years before providing diagnoses and treatments, and in doing so, denied me the words that I needed to partially regain control over my body. So, this project is also a product of my desire to empower myself and others to talk openly about personal experiences with reproductive health in Yiddish.
The experiences of womanhood, expressions of queerness, and leftist political activism are historically linked through Yiddish language and culture. I drew inspiration from many moments in Yiddish history, but primarily the fight for birth control in the early 1900s. This zine weaves historical threads together to produce a lexicon of reproductive justice terms that are useful for the present day.
To create the initial list of English-language terms, I searched through vocabulary lists from reproductive health organizations and selected words that would be useful for the greatest number of individuals and those that felt important to my own lived experience. An expanded version of this list should include terms to further describe pregnancy, reproductive disorders, medical trauma, and intersex experiences with reproductive health.
In Yiddish, I primarily utilized Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner's Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary (2013) and Mordkhe Schaechter's Pregnancy, Childbirth and Early Childhood: An English Yiddish Dictionary (1990). I also looked through Yiddish books from the early 1900s describing health and the body, including B. Dubovski's Doktor Bukh series (1921) and Margaret Sanger's Vos Yede Meydel Darf Visn (1916), translated into Yiddish by K. Teper. To talk about the trans experience of reproductive health, I included words from Sasha Berenstein's "A List of Yiddish Transgender/Nonbinary Terms." For terms that did not yet exist in Yiddish dictionaries, like "pro-/anti-choice" and "body autonomy," I created new ones.
Finally, as medical language shifts around reproductive health to decenter gender, it is imperative that this shift be reflected in Yiddish. However, I am not a trained linguist and I hesitated to change words that are strongly gendered, such as mutersheyd (vagina) and mutertrakht (uterus). These harmful words intrinsically relate body parts to motherhood. I hope to have conversations about these terms that inspire new ways to think about them in Yiddish.
This zine represents a small collection of personal knowledge, creativity, research, and community input about reading and speaking about sex work in Yiddish. I chose to translate Carol Leigh’s words about coining the term “sex work” into Yiddish, in order to do the same in Yiddish. As far as I can tell, although in English-language academia and pop culture, the term “sex work” is in common use, it has not made it into Yiddish until now.
There is very little scholarship (that I found) about either Yiddish-speaking sex workers or their representation in Yiddish, and what discussion there is of these topics often blurs the line between “sex work” and “sex trafficking” that has been laid out well by sex worker scholars. Historically, the term “white slave trade” has been used in this context, invoking radicalized moral panic and perhaps ushering Eastern European Jewish women into whiteness for the first time. On the other hand, the figure of the “swarthy” Eastern European Jewish pimp cut a figure that, I would argue, contemporary Jews still try to distance ourselves from, partially through a taboo on discussion of sex work within the community.
These taboos were already present one hundred years ago, as can be seen in “God of Vengeance.” However, as you can see from my translated excerpt, Asch was aware of the complexity of Jewish sex workers’ gendered proletarian position. He depicts them frankly discussing their options and decisions, as well as pushing the envelope with queerness and autonomy. In my translation and read of this scene, the workers see themselves as outsiders with a wily view of the hypocritical underpinnings of society.
Karpinowitz takes a more earthy approach to depicting life in the underworld. I adore hearing about the strike of the sex workers, although he gives most of the glory to his archetypical Socialist idealist, Siomke Kagan. It is exciting, though, that in the story I excerpted and others, the sex workers strike, negotiate, smuggle revolutionary notes, and provide mutual aid for themselves and others. They were just like us!
Sex workers are an important part of the Yiddish, and Jewish, past and present. I have yet to find any first-hand literature in Yiddish from a sex worker; such literature is sadly rare in any language. I hope that this resource can forward the conversation about sex work in Yiddish, help us find old gems and even create new ones.
*note: to open this file, you will need to download it from In geveb's Google Drive (link above) and open it in your own browser
For my final project, I chose to create a Choose Your Own Adventure-style text-based video game, which I called Dos Kheyder-yingl. I had a few inspirations- since my first exposure to Yiddish children's literature I have been fascinated by its ideological richness, and during this summer's Steiner Program I had the chance to learn about and read several examples. As a child, I was particularly fond of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I wanted to use that familiar format to demonstrate my understanding of the differences in ideology of assorted streams of Yiddish content. In addition, among my cohort we had spoken about video games, the difficulty of speaking about video games in Yiddish, and our desire for Yiddish-language games to play.
The first choice in Dos Kheyder-yingl is orthography, and the orthography the player chooses totally changes their experience. If the player opts for Soviet orthography, the story becomes about an early exposure to revolutionary activism. In the text using Hasidic orthography, religion and the role of the protagonist’s rebbe is emphasized. The klal-shprakh version can include grim scenes. The player can even choose to experience the story in transliteration, at which point it becomes more nostalgic, viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of someone who might understand Yiddish from the home, but who does not have a deep ideological background to view it through.
Rokhl Agosto-Ginsburg and Nokhem Steinglass
When we heard that we needed to do some kind of creative project to finish off our intermediate Yiddish class, we knew that we wanted to make our own board game. In particular, we were inspired by our love for Hasidic board games that Yiddishize popular secular board games. For our project, we chose to create a new Yiddish derivative of our favorite card game Coup (Indie Boards and Card 2012).
In the original game of Coup, each player holds a position of dubious power in a dystopian government. The player uses their connections to other high-ranking officials in order to accumulate enough money to stage a coup and unseat their competitors. It is essentially a game about having power and killing people for money, neither of which struck us as particularly Yiddish. What appealed to us about the structure of the game was its focus on characters, something we felt could be easily adapted to a new, Yiddish setting. First, however, we had to solve the problem of the zero-sum game. If the players in Yiddish Coup are not competing for money and power, what are they competing for? It was important to us that the players compete for something that would be desirable in the shtetl and for which people would actually need to compete: in the case of Shidukh, a match between the player’s daughter and the rebbe’s only son.
Once we had decided on the goal of our game, we moved on to Yiddishizing the characters. To do this, we first listed out the roles from the original game:
Duke: social and financial power
Assassin: kills people
Captain: institutional corruption
Ambassador: arranges relationships
Contessa: defends from assassinations (social power)
The Ambassador was, in our opinion, the simplest card to Yiddishize. The card that creates relationships between figures in the shtetl would, of course, be the Shadkhn (matchmaker). From there, we assigned the Rebbe to the role originally played by the Duke and the Balebuste (homemaker) to that of the Captain. The remaining roles, those of the Assassin and Contessa, were inspired by The Dybbuk. Our version of an assassination would allow players to possess another player’s daughter with a Dybbuk, which could be exorcized only by our final character, the Tzaddik (holy man).
What we found most challenging about the project was translating the game’s instructions into Yiddish. Though our time at Steiner had given us both experience with literary translation, we were unfamiliar with the intense specificity required to adequately convey instructions in a new language. However, despite its difficulty, the translation process proved intensely rewarding as it forced us to use words we knew in completely different contexts and even made us coin a few new terms.