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A New Kind of Yiddish Textbook

Rokhl’s Golden City: ‘In Eynem’ takes a new approach to learning the language

by
Rokhl Kafrissen
November 30, 2020
Original photo courtesy the author
Original photo courtesy the author
Original photo courtesy the author
Original photo courtesy the author

The history of Jewish Eastern Europe is written in sources like pinkasim, the kind of books you imagine giving off that authoritative and heady old book smell. But for those who seek it, the history of modern Yiddish pedagogy is written in bundles of mimeographs. Stick your nose in pedagogical sources and you get a whiff of principal’s office and a face full of purple ink smears.

In the mid-1960s, the artist and educator Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman ran an after-school playgroup-svive for Yiddish-speaking children called Enge Benge. With the kids, she wrote numerous plays and published a newsletter written by them, also called Enge Benge—all of it done on mimeograph. Before Dr. Mordkhe Schaechter published his intermediate and advanced textbook Yiddish II in 1986, his “book” had been a bundle of mimeographs he used in his Columbia classes. And, according to historian Mark L. Smith, before his landmark textbook was published in 1949, Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish got a “dry run” as a stack of mimeo sheets during the magical 1948 UCLA summer seminar he ran with his father, Max Weinreich.

In the late 1940s, teaching Yiddish at the college level was still unusual, and, in some quarters, unwelcome. Resistance didn’t only come from the expected places, where Yiddish was still considered less than legitimate. When Max Weinreich began teaching Yiddish at City College in the fall of 1947, the Yiddish essayist and theater critic A. Mukdoyni claimed that “bringing Yiddish to the university would cause the death of Yiddish as a living language.” Needless to say, apathy on the part of American Jews was far more lethal than for-credit classes and a new textbook.

Of course, 1949 was not the beginning of Yiddish textbooks. In America, formal Yiddish language education had been around for quite a while in the schools and youth movements across the left political spectrum. Indeed, the perceived political agenda of those textbooks was not welcomed by everyone who used them. As an example, see a slim 1934 volume called Fun yidishn lebn (From Jewish Life). The introduction notes that in the Talmud Torah system, there was a need to teach the students Yiddish, but the textbooks for the politically affiliated schools were “Yiddish in form, but not content.” Even so, the book contains short chapters about the Jewish holidays, as well as sections on political figures like Chaim Weizmann and Theodor Herzl.

Though some fine, modern textbooks aimed at college level beginners have appeared in the last 30 years, College Yiddish has remained authoritative for university instruction. Its article and adjective endings tables, lists of vocabulary words, and synopsis of grammar section are still indispensable to serious students. Indeed, the very same copy of College Yiddish I used in my first Yiddish class at the end of the last century was shlepped along to my advanced level grammar classes at YIVO during the summer of 2019.

But other parts of the book have not aged well. Anyone who has started College Yiddish at Lesson One fondly remembers reciting yidn voynen in ale lender (Jews live in every country.) Those who made it to the end of the book, however, recall it with qualified fondness. Lesson 23, The Jewish Nose, may be the only Yiddish lesson ever to rely on mass facial measurements. The moshl or moral is, as Weinreich has it, that one cannot identify a Jew by his or her nose. That was probably a relief to those studying Yiddish in the shadow of WWII. But students today aren’t so comfortable with calipers-based pedagogy.

As a person who does Yiddish in public, I get a lot of inquiries as to how to start learning the language, especially self-study at home. I think of College Yiddish as a rite of passage, maybe even a hazing, into the cult of humorless Yiddishists. But it’s not a book I recommend lightly, unless you’re a naturally gifted linguist, in which case, I have no business giving you advice.

Lately, I’ve started thinking of College Yiddish not so much as the product of a multitalented Yiddishist whose job was in linguistics, but as the product of a linguist with a special affinity for Yiddish. Before his untimely death at the age of 40, Weinreich was part of the vanguard of young American linguists, in the same circle as Noam Chomsky. In fact, I emailed Chomsky recently to ask him about their relationship and whether Chomsky, raised in a Hebrew-oriented home, ever talked Yiddish with his friend. Chomsky had brief, but warm memories of Weinreich: “The serious discussions I recall well were about Uriel’s pioneering work bringing serious semantics into work into modern linguistics, rare at the time.” But as for nonshop talk, especially about politics, there wasn’t much to share. In the 1960s, their lives were both busy and “intense.” It was in February 1967 that Chomsky published “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” a kind of manifesto for politically aware academics to be involved in the antiwar movement. Weinreich would pass away at the end of March 1967. His Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary would be finished posthumously, ensuring his fame as a lexicographer, even among nonlinguists.

 

The preface to the first edition of Weinreich’s College Yiddish is by Roman Jakobson, a towering presence in 20th-century linguistics and a unique figure who bridged the worlds of art and scholarship (though, not as far as I can tell, a Yiddish speaker). Jakobson wrote: “There cannot be approximate knowledge of a literary language for its users. Full mastery or illiteracy—tertium non datur.” Imagine being a really dumb 19-year-old who doesn’t even know the difference between a handwritten gimel and zayin. (Hey, they look the same, just facing different directions.) Jakobson’s are not exactly the warm words of encouragement desperately needed by those who are already struggling. “The first tool of such a mastery,” Jakobson goes on, “is a textbook of grammar.” Reading this two decades later, my learning-challenged brain, and heart, sank: “… a textbook dealing with a language and its structure must be made by a person trained in the science of language.” Must it, though?

The truth is, the science of pedagogy is still very young and we don’t really know how best to teach young people, or if there is even one best method. As I said, College Yiddish is still an important resource for Yiddish students. But its approach to the subject is not quite as unimpeachable as Jakobson might have you believe.

When it comes to learning languages, the consensus still rests on the idea that for most people, learning a second language fluently must either happen by 17 or 18, or via total immersion. And acquiring a second language via an intimidating putty-colored book full of tables and rules isn’t actually normal or natural (sorry, professor Jakobson). Unfortunately, language immersion (or lack thereof) is one of the special challenges of modern Yiddish language pedagogy.

In the face of these unique challenges arrives a remarkable new textbook from the Yiddish Book Center. In Eynem (Together) was co-written by Jordan Brown and Asya Vaisman Schulman (director of the Yiddish Language Institute at the Book Center) with Mikhl Yashinsky, and published in August 2020. It’s full of cheerful pictures, bright colors, and a goylem (golem) you grow and develop as you progress in lessons, like a shtetl-goth Tamagotchi.

In Eynem comes at a time when it is possible to fully integrate all the potential of audio, video, and internet-enabled pedagogy. The dialogues in the book are voiced by native Yiddish speakers. For example, two of the voices are provided by Perl Teitelbaum, who was born in postwar Poland and grew up speaking Yiddish and Polish, and Eli Rosen, an actor who is my age, and grew up in Hasidic Brooklyn. It’s an innovation that seems simple now, but feels like an astounding leap forward for a language which has been dogged so long not just by its lack of immersion opportunities, but the vast jumble of audio sources available to the language learner. If you want to hear spoken (or sung) Yiddish, it’s just a click away, but good luck finding the things you need to hear for your lessons this week, or figuring out dialect and register.

Asya Vaisman Schulman has been using the “communicative approach” for years in her teaching. Rather than aiming for “grammatical competence,” students learn in a way resembling the language acquisition of children. The approach is highly interactive and kinetic. As Vaisman Schulman told me recently, it’s all about “lowering the affective filter” in a classroom setting, one that is less stressful and more fun than the usual language class. We expect kids to make mistakes when they speak and: “… that’s normal. The development of current pedagogy builds that into the language learning process.” The communicative approach takes having fun seriously, with the understanding that an engaging, relaxed classroom experience is more effective.

In Eynem’s innovations aren’t all about clickability and fun. The book groups vocabulary words by gender and color codes them, making the acquisition of the word and gender together much more natural. It’s the kind of low-tech organizational tweak that would have absolutely changed my life at 19, and probably left me with a much better foundation for advanced studies. Grammar rules are introduced with whole sentences and explanations of each rule are found in English at the end of each chapter. Again, I wonder what might have been had I started by absorbing whole sentences rather than trying to cram rules into my head.

As welcome as In Eynem is, one problem still looms large for Yiddish students and teachers. The book takes about a year and change to work through. There is still no equivalent for more advanced students. And in teaching matters of style and usage, the task is even more challenging.

For now, Mordkhe Schaechter’s jam-packed Yiddish II is still the best guide to style and usage for advanced students. When I brought up Yiddish II with another friend of mine, himself an adult learner of Yiddish who is now a teacher, he gave a recognizable sigh of affection and exasperation. He expressed hope that the, ahem, less-than-user-friendly organization of Yiddish II would one day be ameliorated by having its contents made available as digital, searchable text.

So many of the folks I talk to these days want to jump-start their Yiddish studies with far more cost-effective apps like Duolingo. The smell of mimeograph has long ago evaporated from the process, archived only in the hippocampi of millions of us pre-digital Olds. I have to bite my tongue as I catch myself insisting to younger friends that a $100 textbook and/or individual lessons is the only way to go.

Kerstin Cable is a language coach who was quoted recently on the pitfalls of gamified language apps: “Eventually you’re going to be in front of people, sounding like an idiot. It’s part of the process.” That’s possibly the best Yiddish language advice I’ve ever heard. If I must give you any advice of my own, it’s to get College Yiddish, open it to the beginning, and scribble Cable’s words right under Jakobson’s preface. Sounding like an idiot? It’s part of the process. Keep both philosophies in mind as you begin whichever Lesson One works best for you. The truth is, the best Lesson One is the one you actually start.

ALSO: In December the Paris Yiddish Centre Medem Library is offering new classes, including two seminars for advanced students, taught in Yiddish. Register here … Dec. 1, Dr. Tali Loewenthal of University College London will speak on “Yiddish in London Habad Schools” (talk in Yiddish with live English translation available). More information here … Launch party for the Inside the Yiddish Folk Song project is Dec. 2 … You can still catch the last two of professor Marc Caplan’s free lectures about the Yiddish national epic of Belarus, Moyshe Kulbak’s Raysn, on Dec. 2 and 9. Sign up here … The Folksbiene’s Chanukah Spectacular concert has an all-star lineup and tickets are free, Dec. 8 … Also on Dec. 8, one of my very favorite contemporary klezmer players, trumpeter Susan Hoffman Watts, is featured in a free performance and conversation program from Intercultural Connections called Close Ups … Also on Dec. 8, biographer Lauren Sklaroff will talk about Golden City favorite, Sophie Tucker … Dec. 9, the Congress for Jewish Culture presents a panel of renowned Yiddish theater authorities in honor of the 100th anniversary of The Dybbuk. Then, on Dec. 14, the CJC presents an online production of The Dybbuk (in Yiddish with English translation) … There’s almost nothing I’d rather listen to than Naomi Seidman talking about Freud’s Jewish Languages (podcast) … Applications are now open for the 2021 session of the prestigious Steiner Summer Yiddish Programat the Yiddish Book Center.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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