Pedagogy

Yiddish Learning by New Learners: Two Zines and Two Games Student Projects from the Steiner Program’s Intermediate Class

Rebecca Margolis

INTRODUCTION

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.

It is thus with great pride that I present four stu­dent projects from the 2023 Stein­er inter­me­di­ate class.



Reproductive Justice

Farmer gerekhtikayt פֿאַרמער גערעכטיקייט

Zuni Gonzalez


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.


Working with Sex Work

Arbetn mit geshlekhtarbet אַרבעטן מיט געשלעכטאַרבעט

Simkhe Rinkewich

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.


Dos Kheyder-yingl דאָס חדר ייִנגל

A Yiddish Choose Your Own Adventure

*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

Yoshke Horowitz

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.


Shidukh שידוך: A Yiddish Card Game

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.

MLA STYLE
Margolis, Rebecca. “Yiddish Learning by New Learners: Two Zines and Two Games Student Projects from the Steiner Program’s Intermediate Class.” In geveb, December 2023: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/yiddish-learning-by-new-learners.
CHICAGO STYLE
Margolis, Rebecca. “Yiddish Learning by New Learners: Two Zines and Two Games Student Projects from the Steiner Program’s Intermediate Class.” In geveb (December 2023): Accessed Mar 02, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Margolis

Rebecca (Rivke) Margolis is a professor and Pratt Foundation Chair of Jewish Civilisation at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.