Bring Yiddish and Modern Jewish Literature to Today's Students

Selections from teachgreatjewishbooks.org

The Yiddish Book Center’s Teach Great Jewish Books website is a growing collection of resource kits designed to help teachers bring modern Jewish literature and culture into their classrooms, from high schools and supplementary schools to colleges. Created by educators, the kits bring together primary and secondary sources—stories and poems, photographs and film clips, essays and audio recordings—on a wide range of topics, along with guides to help teachers introduce the material into their curricula.  

Here’s a taste of the kinds of topics covered. You can explore all the resource kits at teachgreatjewishbooks.org.

Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool"

“Gimpel the Fool" (Gimpel tam) is an iconic Yiddish short story, one of the most famous and widely anthologized works by the Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. First published in 1945, it was translated into English by Saul Bellow in 1953 and published in Partisan Review, helping to establish Singer’s reputation in America as a major author. Drawing on significant motifs from Jewish folklore and history, the story addresses crucial questions in modern Jewish life, including how to maintain faith in the face of humanity’s evil actions, and how to act in situations of both powerlessness and power. 

There is a long tradition of illustrated Pesach Haggadahs that visually represent the four sons described in the Haggadah text: one wise, one evil, one simple (תם, “tam”), and one “who knows not how to ask.” This illustration of the Four Sons comes from a 1928 American edition of the Haggadah printed in Hebrew and Yiddish. The resource kit for "Gimpel the Fool" helps students connect this image to their understanding of the story.

You can support the creation of these kinds of resources for students and teachers all over the country by donating now.

Kadia Molodowsky’s “God of Mercy"

Kadia Molodowsky’s “God of Mercy” ("El khanun") is a moving, fascinating, and challenging Yiddish poem written in 1945. It has been translated multiple times and adapted for use in a Hollywood movie. Molodowsky, a leading poet of her generation, lived in Warsaw, where she taught Yiddish and Hebrew from 1921-35, before settling in New York. The poem was written with full knowledge of the events of the Holocaust, by a writer whose intellectual and cultural development took place in Eastern Europe but who had observed the horrors from a safe remove. This resource kit includes materials that will help teachers tease out the complexities in the poem and the various ways in which it has been received and adapted.

Text of the English translation of the poem "Merciful God"

This complete English translation of the poem, one of many available translations, was done by Kathryn Hellerstein, a literary scholar who has written some of the most penetrating studies of Molodowsky's work.

Donate today to help students engage deeply with works like "God of Mercy."

Grace Paley's "The Loudest Voice"

In Grace Paley’s 1959 short story “The Loudest Voice,” Shirley Abramowitz, a Jewish student in a public elementary school, is asked to be the narrator of her school’s Christmas pageant. Shirley is excited about the opportunity, but her parents—Jewish immigrants who left Europe for a better life in New York City—disagree with each other about whether she should do it. In depicting American Jews trying to navigate the Christmas season, this story points to the many dilemmas faced by immigrants living as minorities in America. Born in 1922, Paley herself was raised in New York by Jewish immigrant parents. In her relatively small body of work, mostly short stories and poems, Paley portrays the lives, loves, and languages of that milieu as well as any author ever has, making her a must-read writer for those studying the Jewish or multicultural American experience.

In this excerpt from a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, Paley discusses how the culture in which she was raised influenced her writing: 

(Read the full interview.)

That influence is evident in this audio recording of Paley reading “The Loudest Voice." These and many other sources make up an extensive resource kit for classes exploring this story and author, available at teachgreatjewishbooks.org.

You can help to create more resources like this, enabling high school students to engage with the literature of Jewishness and immigration, by donating today.

The Dybbuk

Ansky’s The Dybbuk is arguably the most iconic play of the entire canon of Jewish dramatic literature. S. Ansky (pseudonym of Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, 1863-1920) was a Russian-Jewish ethnographer and playwright whose signature work The Dybbuk played a seminal role in shaping modern Yiddish and Hebrew theater.

This kit presents resources to help educators teach about the play, its production history, and its significance, introducing students to a classic work of Jewish theater.

Donate today to help high school students dance with The Dybbuk.