Help us bring up-to-date Yiddish language learning to more students than we ever dreamed possible
Help us launch a new plan to aid Yiddish language teachers in improving their Yiddish and their skillset for teaching it.
When the Yiddish Book Center began teaching Yiddish more than forty years ago, no one could have imagined that demand for Yiddish classes would explode so dramatically. In recent years—and especially since the start of the pandemic—enrollment in Yiddish classes has skyrocketed. Almost half a million people have signed up to learn Yiddish using a new Duolingo app.
Rising demand poses two fundamental challenges, however. First, students need a textbook and learning materials that are the equal of those used for other modern languages—something major publishing houses have shown little interest in producing. Second, most of today’s Yiddish teachers are not native speakers, and few have had formal training in teaching a foreign language.
Fortunately, for the past decade—before COVID was on anyone’s radar—the Yiddish Book Center has been laying the groundwork to meet both these challenges. In 2012 we launched a Yiddish Language Institute and hired a young scholar named Asya Vaisman Schulman as its director. Asya was born in Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi), the Ukrainian city where, almost a hundred years before, international delegates first declared Yiddish “a national language of the Jewish people.” After spending her early childhood in Moscow she moved with her family to the United States and quickly learned English and Yiddish. For her bas mitzvah project she created an early online Yiddish dictionary. She raced through Barnard in three years, earned a PhD in Yiddish at Harvard, and honed her teaching skills at Harvard and Indiana before joining the staff of the Yiddish Book Center.
When Asya arrived here, her top priority was the creation of a new Yiddish textbook. At the time, the most widely used textbook was Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish, which first appeared in 1949. Other, more contemporary volumes had come out since, but what Asya had in mind was something altogether different: a state-of-the-art, multimedia textbook based in a “communicative approach” that would totally revolutionize the field.
It took eight years for Asya, Jordan Brown, Mikhl Yashinsky, and a team of fellows to complete In eynem: The New Yiddish Textbook. Published by the Center’s White Goat Press in August 2020—five months into the pandemic—the colorful, two-volume work took the Yiddish world by storm. An initial printing of 1,000 copies sold out in a matter of months and received a Textbook Excellence Award from the Textbook and Academic Authors Association. “I've seen a lot of foreign language textbooks over the years,” said one of the judges, “but this one was so engaging that I had a hard time putting it down. It’s the best marriage of authentic language and culture (both day-to-day and high culture) I’ve seen in a foreign language textbook.”
Now in its third printing, In eynem (the title means “All Together”) has been adopted by Yiddish classes at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, McGill, the University of Toronto, colleges in Poland, Sweden, England, and Israel, and in many classes at YIVO, the Workers Circle, and other organizations.
With In eynem successfully launched, we now face the second and even greater challenge. Like everyone else, our initial response to increased demand was to recast our own Yiddish offerings online. Effective language learning, however, works best in small, interactive classes, and even with online sessions we realized that we could accommodate only a small percentage of the growing numbers who wanted to attend. That’s when we decided that the best solution was to do for Yiddish language learning what you had already helped us do for Yiddish literature and translation: to leverage our efforts by teaching teachers who, in turn, could teach students of their own.
In other languages it might not matter that your teacher wasn’t a native speaker. If, for example, you were studying French with a non-native speaker you could make up for it by spending a few months in Paris or the south of France. The only comparable option for Yiddish immersion might be a Hasidic enclave in Boro Park or Monsey where Yiddish is widely spoken but outsiders are less than welcome.
That makes it all the more important that Yiddish teachers in colleges and universities speak the language really well, since theirs is the only Yiddish their students are likely to hear. No one knows this better than the teachers themselves, many of whom are eager to improve their own Yiddish and their skillset for teaching it.
To meet these needs the Yiddish Book Center is launching a long overdue, three-part, in-service training program for Yiddish teachers. The course will start with a fellowship where working teachers learn the principles of second-language acquisition and use them to create effective Yiddish lesson plans. At the end of the fellowship phase teachers will participate in an intensive, year-long practicum where they’ll attend monthly workshops, teach classes with feedback from mentors who attend online, and share real-world experiences in an online community of their peers. The third part of the program involves advanced language classes for Yiddish teachers conducted entirely in Yiddish, with a focus on writing and speaking to help them improve their own Yiddish language skills. Teachers who successfully complete the full three-part program will receive certification attesting to their qualifications—a standard that doesn’t currently exist in the Yiddish field.
Like our existing educational programs for classroom teachers, rabbis, cantors, writers, illustrators, and translators, the three-part professional program for Yiddish teachers will be offered free of charge. Even as we work with teachers we’ll continue to develop pedagogical materials for students, adapted for online as well as in-person learning. The need for such adaptation has become increasingly apparent. A game that uses LEGO pieces to teach prepositions, for example, may work great in person, but it requires significant retooling for remote learners.
In creating the initial multimedia component of In eynem we drew from our online archives and enlisted well-known Yiddish performers like Eleanor Reissa, Allen Lewis Rickman, Lili Rosen, and Paula Teitelbaum to record dialogues, excerpts, and vocabulary lists. During the pandemic these resources have proven a godsend for those using In eynem on their own.
Going forward, we’ll continue to tap the Yiddish Book Center’s rich audio and video holdings, such as the Francis Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, a collection of Yiddish lectures and literary evenings recorded at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal between 1953 and 2005; the Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books, which includes full-length Yiddish novels, plays, short stories, and memoirs read aloud by Yiddish actors at the Jewish Public Library in the 1980s and ’90s; and our own Wexler Oral History Project, which includes thousands of hours of recently recorded, high-definition video interviews, about a quarter of them in Yiddish. These recordings will enable students to experience the real-world idiom, cadence, and vocabulary of native speakers.
I almost forgot: in response to popular demand we’re hoping to release a digital version of In eynem that will be more affordable than the print edition and allow greater flexibility for updates and improvements. In eynem, of course, was intended for beginners; as more students complete it, we’re creating a new series of online learning materials geared specifically for intermediate students.
We have no illusions: reimagining and retooling Yiddish language learning will be a rizike arbet, a Herculean task. Fortunately, Asya and her team are as brilliant as they are driven, and they’re totally up for the job. Now all we need is your support.
We estimate the three-year cost of this initiative at $450,000. Our friends at the Simha and Sara Lainer Foundation in Los Angeles have agreed to jump-start the effort with a grant of $150,000. Now we’re turning to you and other close friends to raise the additional $300,000.
Often when I write to you it’s because of an emergency: thousands of Yiddish books are in danger somewhere in South America and we need to race down to save them. Today we’re facing a different kind of urgency. For many years you and I could only dream of a day when large numbers of people would be clamoring to learn Yiddish. Now that day has come, and it’s up to us to respond. We already have a practical plan, a clear vision, and a generous grant on the table. But we can’t do it without you.
Will you help us?
- A one-time, tax-deductible commitment of $25,000 will underwrite the creation of Yiddish learning materials for intermediate students;
- $5,000 will sponsor a year-long fellowship for an experienced Yiddish teacher;
- $2,500 will allow a teacher to deepen his or her own Yiddish knowledge in our advanced language course;
- $500 will help us create interactive exercises based on our online archive, so students can learn directly from recordings of native speakers.
Larger gifts like these are great, but I want to assure you that whatever you can afford will make a difference. Please, won’t you help us bring Yiddish to the eager and enthusiastic students we’ve been waiting for all these years by sending your generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?
Mit a hartsikn dank (With heartfelt thanks),