A letter from Aaron Lansky to Yiddish Book Center Members
Sholem-aleykhem. I’m writing to ask you to help us complete the final phase of a five-year project to create an all-new Yiddish textbook that will make learning Yiddish easier, faster, and a lot more fun. Thanks to a generous match from our former board chair Michael Reiff and his wife Tatiana Simonova-Reiff, every dollar you contribute will mean $2 for the Center.
Why does the world need a new Yiddish textbook? Because interest in Yiddish is growing by leaps and bounds, yet the most widely used Yiddish textbook first appeared in 1947!
A lot has changed in the seventy years since. Several well-regarded Yiddish textbooks were published in the past 20 years, but none combines the latest advances in language pedagogy together with newly available digital technologies and compelling graphic design. Which is why a young scholar named Asya Vaisman Schulman, upon taking over as director of our Yiddish Language Institute in 2012, made the creation of a new, state-of-the-art Yiddish textbook her highest priority.
It’s a rizike arbet—a Herculean task—to create a definitive new textbook from scratch. Asya assembled a talented team of fellows, editors, designers, illustrators, and academic advisors, and after five years of dauntless effort they’ve completed seven of the book’s eight chapters. Mirtseshem, if all goes according to plan, the final chapter will be completed by the end of this year, and the finished book will be in students’ hands next year.
Ma nishtane—how will this new textbook be different from all other Yiddish textbooks? For starters it will look different, with a clean, contemporary design, full-color art and illustrations, and recurring characters who reflect the diversity of Yiddish speakers today.
Building on the best practices of its predecessors, it will be pedagogically up to date, using a “communicative approach” that relies less on memorization than deduction: first students use the language—in conversation, sing-alongs, and word games—and then they figure out the underlying grammatical rules that shape their utterances.
Learning Yiddish entails challenges unknown to students of most other modern languages. If you’re studying French or German, say, you can hop on a plane to France or Germany and immerse yourself in the culture. Regrettably, it’s not possible to book a flight to Yiddishland, a construct that spans a thousand years, extends to the far corners of the globe, and yet has no territory of its own. So our new textbook has to play a double role: conveying not just words and grammar but context and culture.
Fortunately, the books and other treasures you’ve helped recover make us uncommonly well suited to respond to this particular challenge. Most language textbooks rely on bland, formulaic readings composed for the purpose. We, on the other hand, have drawn from our rich collections to include authentic texts that are deeply rooted in Jewish culture. Along with stories, songs, and poems, we include more contemporary texts, such as the Yiddish questionnaire from the last census, postcards, a Yiddish schedule from Monsey Trails (a New York-based bus line serving outlying Hasidic communities), travelogues, astrological charts, and more.
In short, after five years of hard work, after an enormous investment of time, money, ingenuity, and expertise, the Center’s new textbook is about to burst onto the scene and transform the way people learn Yiddish for years to come.
As you can imagine, there’s a physical limit to how many readings and resources we can fit between the covers of a single textbook. In fact, many of the most compelling items in our collections—film clips, videos, and audio recordings that would be incredibly useful to students—can’t be contained in a printed volume at all.
Our answer is to create a Hesofe: an Online Supplement that will integrate seamlessly with the printed book and make audio and video selections and interactive exercises an essential part of every lesson.
How will the Online Supplement be used? Let’s say we want to teach the parts of the human body: kop, oygn, oyern, noz, moyl, hant, and so forth. In the old days, students would just have to memorize the words. Now the textbook will lead them to a corresponding section of the Supplement where they can listen to a Dadaist sound poem called “Coney Island” (uncovered by our friend Henry Sapoznik) that describes a comically overcrowded city beach:
A hant farbayt zikh mit a fus
Un a fus krikht af a kop . . .
A hand is entangled with a foot
And a foot is jammed on top of a head . . .
As the students listen to the fast-paced recording they’re asked to draw what they hear. The vivid images will reinforce anatomical vocabulary in a way they’re not likely to forget.
Want to learn the future tense? Memorizing the inflected forms can be boring. It’s a lot more fun—and a lot more effective—to actually use what you learn by predicting the future. Students will get a chance to do just that by following a link to the Supplement and using a “secret method” contained in a vintage Yiddish fortune-telling guide that we discovered recently called Di geheyme kraft, oder der shlisl tsu der nevue (The Secret Power, or the Key to Prophecy).
Want to predict the weather in Yiddish? Just tune in to a recent Yiddish weather report from Kol Yisrael, the Israeli radio network. As the veter-novi (literally, the “weather prophet”) delivers his veter-prognoz, you’ll learn basic terms like shturem, vint, regn, and shney af di berg (storm, wind, rain, and snow in the mountains) and then chart them on a blank map of Israel.
Like the textbook, the Online Supplement traverses time and space. Students will be able to visit Bialystok, Poland, through film footage of a 1939 Yiddish travelogue. As Jews go about their daily lives and happy children eat bialys (vu den?), a stentorian Yiddish narrator informs us that “Bialystok Jews are known for their beauty.” After viewing the film, an interactive exercise asks students to use their smartphones to film Yiddish travelogues of their own towns, using the same declamatory tone as the Bialystok narrator.
The Supplement will be chock-full of Yiddish audio and video—most of which you helped us recover and remaster. Students will be able to listen to excerpts from Yiddish books read aloud at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal or to Montreal lectures by great Yiddish writers like Chaim Grade, Avrom Sutzkever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Rokhl Korn, Itzik Manger, and Kadya Molodowsky. And they’ll be able to watch video clips from our Wexler Oral History Project, as native Yiddish speakers recount riveting moments from their eventful lives.
The Supplement’s recordings will add color and texture to the textbook’s readings. After reading a poem by Mani Leib, a leader of Di yunge, an avant-garde Yiddish literary movement, students can turn to an online selection from our Frances Brandt Collection. There they’ll hear the poem sung by the poet Bertha Kling, who goes on to reminisce about the time her friend Mani Leib recited it in her own living room. Memories like these bring literary works to life and help students better understand the cultural context from which they emerged.
As the new textbook nears completion—and work on the Supplement gathers steam—excitement is building. When Asya offered a preview of the project at a recent conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, the Yiddish teachers in the audience applauded and told her it was exactly what they’d been waiting for. “I don’t want to teach one more Yiddish lesson until the new textbook is ready!” one Yiddish professor confided.
Hopefully the professor won’t have long to wait. Asya and her crew of fellows, scholars, editors and designers are determined to complete the textbook next year. Because the textbook and its Online Supplement are so tightly integrated, it’s imperative that we release both at the same time.
Which is why I’m writing to you. The projected cost of the multimedia Online Supplement, including research, audio and video editing, interactive exercises, graphic design, and programming, is $150,000. After underwriting most of the cost of the textbook, Michael Reiff and Tatiana Simonova-Reiff have agreed to step up to the plate again by matching every dollar donated in support of the Supplement.
Now it’s up to you. Thirty-seven years ago, after we first set out to rescue Yiddish books, thirty-seven years after Jewish leaders insisted that Yiddish was “dead,” more students, scholars, and yidn fun a gants yor (everyday Jews) are eager to learn Yiddish than ever before. It’s our job to provide them with the up-to-date textbook and multimedia resources they need to succeed.
Will you help us?
For a tax-deductible contribution of $1,000 or more, we’ll include your name and commemoration in the Hesofe, the Online Supplement.
Whatever you can afford—$360, $100, or $54—your tax-deductible contribution will count. In fact, it will count twice, matched dollar for dollar by Michael Reiff and Tatiana Simonova-Reiff.
If we’re going to release the Online Supplement next year there’s not a moment to lose. You can make your gift right now at yiddishbookcenter.org/newtextbook.
The Yiddish professor who spoke to Asya isn’t the only one counting the days until the new textbook and its Online Supplement are completed. You and I have a chance to leapfrog seventy years by bringing up-to-the-minute Yiddish learning to eager students for years to come. Won’t you be part of this history-making endeavor by making your generous, tax-deductible contribution today, while it’s still on your mind?
A hartsikn dank—With heartfelt thanks,
P.S.: You’ve already helped us rescue Yiddish books, recordings, and personal stories. Can I count on you to help us put these treasures to use for eager Yiddish language learners everywhere? The Reiffs will match every dollar you give, which means your gift will go twice as far. Please—won’t you make your tax-deductible contribution today? A sheynem dank—my personal thanks