Themes and Activities

Our Field Trip Program is designed for middle and high school students and addresses the Massachusetts Department of Education’s Curriculum Frameworks. (Download a brochure about the program at the bottom of this page.)

We offer a number of field trip themes, each with several related activities.

Themes

Immigration and Cultural Preservation

From 1880 through 1924, one-third of Eastern European Jews left their countries of origin, with 90 percent of them—more than 2.5 million people—immigrating to the United States. Students examine the challenges these new arrivals faced as they tried to fit in in their new home while still holding on to their own language and culture. Students also explore how the tension between assimilation and cultural preservation plays out for immigrants today.

Pre- and Post-Holocaust Jewish Life

Yiddish was the vernacular of roughly three-quarters of the world’s Jews from the tenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. Five million of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, or 85 percent, were Yiddish speakers. Students learn about Jewish life before and after the Holocaust, including the immeasurable effect of the Shoah. They also gain an understanding of Yiddish language and culture, which will provide context for visits to a Holocaust museum, such as the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at UMass Amherst.

Jewish History and Heritage

The Yiddish Book Center is home to 130,000 Yiddish books, sheet music, a recreated Yiddish print shop, films, exhibitions, and more, making it a unique resource for introducing students from Jewish day schools or supplementary schools to Yiddish language and culture, and Ashkenazi Jewry’s influence on Jewish history and Jewish life in the United States. Students have an opportunity for hands-on engagement with our materials; after reviewing the alef-beys—and considering how the same letters are used differently in Yiddish and Hebrew—students help sort Yiddish books or sheet music, an activity that remains core to the Center’s mission.

European Area Studies

Yiddish has never had a nation-state of its own; Yiddish speakers have always lived among other languages, and have made valuable contributions to the cultures and countries in which they lived. Students explore the relationship between Yiddish language and culture and the languages and cultures of its European neighbors—looking, for example, at Jewish contributions to French-speaking countries.

Industrialization

During the Industrial Revolution of 1870-1914, economies shifted to a focus on manufacturing—a shift that coincided with the arrival in the United States of more than two million Eastern European Jews, many of whom found work in exploitative factories with unsafe conditions. Students investigate the effects of industrialization, focusing on migration from villages and shtetls (small towns) to cities, sweatshop work, labor organizing, and new technologies that made work and life easier.

Activities

Yiddish Language Lesson

We can also tailor activities to meet the particular needs of your class.

Students learn about the migratory history of the language and discover parallels between English and Yiddish. They learn the alef-beys (alphabet) and put it to use, deciphering a few words from a text connected to the theme of their visit, then learn a few conversational Yiddish phrases. If a longer lesson is desired, students can also sort Yiddish books connected to the theme of the visit.

(Appropriate for Immigration and Cultural Preservation, Pre- and Post-Holocaust Jewish Life, Jewish History and Heritage, European Area Studies, and Industrialization themes.)

A Bintel Brief

For immigrants, newspapers in their native languages were crucial for retaining connections to the homes they’d left behind. Students read selections from a Bintel Brief, a popular early twentieth-century advice column for Jewish immigrants, then consider how they would have responded to the letter writers as they grappled with the kinds of challenges faced by newcomers to America.

(Appropriate for Immigration and Cultural Preservation, Pre- and Post-Holocaust Jewish Life, Jewish History and Heritage, and Industrialization themes.)

Oral History

Oral history is an important tool for cultural preservation, recording individual people’s stories about traditions, important events, communities, and cultural values and identities. Using excerpts from our Wexler Oral History Project, we highlight how much there is to learn about history and culture from everyday people. Students learn oral history techniques, then try their hands at interviewing one another about their families’ histories and traditions; they also receive an oral history guide to help them interview family, friends, and community members.

(Appropriate for Immigration and Cultural Preservation, Pre- and Post-Holocaust Jewish Life, Jewish History and Heritage, European Area Studies, and Industrialization themes.)

Yizkor Books

Yizkor bikher, or memorial books, were created by survivors to commemorate towns, cities, or regions destroyed in the Holocaust. Students examine actual yizkor books, locate the communities on a map, and discuss what they can discern from the books’ names, stories, and photographs. Then they’ll consider what they would include in a book commemorating a community that’s important to them.

(Appropriate for Immigration and Cultural Preservation, Pre- and Post-Holocaust Jewish Life, Jewish History and Heritage, and European Area Studies themes.)

Resistance Poetry

Poetry has featured prominently at key moments of upheaval and struggle in Jewish history. Depending on the theme of their visit, students learn about either the Sweatshop Poets, who grappled with the inhumane working conditions of sweatshops and factories in the late 1800s and early 1900s, or about poetry as a vehicle for spiritual resistance during the Holocaust. Students analyze poems within their historical and cultural contexts, then work collaboratively to write a poem that reflects on their lives, their struggles, and their experiences with resistance.

(Appropriate for Immigration and Cultural Preservation, Pre- and Post-Holocaust Jewish Life, Jewish History and Heritage, European Area Studies, and Industrialization themes.)

Visiting Exhibit

The Yiddish Book Center regularly hosts visiting exhibits, which often address some of the themes explored in our Field Trip Program. If a relevant exhibit is on display at the time of your field trip, a related activity can be planned for your visit.

Exploring the Center

Field trip visits can also include opportunities to explore the Yiddish Book Center’s building and grounds, such as guided tours or free time to explore on your own; a scavenger hunt that delves into the Center’s Unquiet Pages exhibit on the scope of Yiddish literature and our collection; or a nature walk in the gardens and orchard behind the Center (weather permitting), including a short lesson on Yiddish nature vocabulary.