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Yiddish Goes Virtual With Online Classes

More proof the language isn’t dying: interactive online courses

Stephanie Butnick
September 19, 2014

Forget the trend stories decrying the death of Yiddish or proclaiming Yiddish’s trendy revival: the Jewish language remains very much alive in the United States, and by the looks of things, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The Workmen’s Circle, which bills itself as “the largest provider of Yiddish language classes in the United States outside of academic institutions”—and where your humble blogger took an introductory Yiddish literacy course several years ago—is now offering online Yiddish courses. While those might be three words your bubbe would never expect to hear in the same sentence, the virtual classes are further proof that the language of our Eastern European forebears is continuing its long tradition of adapting to fit the needs of its speakers.

Nikolai Borodulin, who will teach two of the three virtual courses this fall, Yiddish Literacy Online (“Learn to Read Yiddish in 4 Sessions”) and a 10-session Intermediate class, said the software—a web conferencing service called WebEx—is user-friendly, with a whiteboard feature and the ability to show videos. Each class session is recorded, and the video can be sent to students if they aren’t able to ‘attend.’

Borodulin is a master teacher at the Workmen’s Circle, and has been teaching Yiddish for several decades (he memorably taught the weekly course I took). It’s the second year of the program, with last year serving as something of a test run. Borodulin said he had virtual students as young as 15 (one taking the course with her grandfather) and well into their 80s. People who are homebound and couldn’t take a class in person, he explained, are able to take advantage of the online environment.

Another advantage of being online is that students can log in for the lessons from all over—and the teachers can, too. The third course this fall, an advanced Yiddish class, is being taught by Abraham Lichtenbaum, director of the Argentina branch of YIVO. Borodulin called him “one of greatest Yiddish teachers in the world.”

Here’s a demo of Borodulin teaching an online lesson on vowels. He’s not running around like he did while teaching my class, pointing energetically to objects around the room asking us to name them, but the information is still being clearly transmitted. “It loses my acrobatics,” he admitted, “but the sense of humor is still there.”

You can find out more information about the Workman’s Circle’s virtual fall offerings here.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.