The Joys of Learning Yiddish

Oral History Excerpts About Teaching and Learning Yiddish

People choose to learn—and to teach—Yiddish for a variety of reasons. Some may have grown up with the language, while others have been inspired by encounters with Yiddish literature and culture. The Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project, begun in 2010, is dedicated to interviewing narrators of all ages from a variety of backgrounds in order to provide a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture. From the beginning, one of the focuses of the Project has been interviewing people about why and how they learn and teach Yiddish. This page spotlights a selection of interviews on this topic conducted over the years, providing insight into the myriad reasons for teaching and learning Yiddish and the joys that it can bring.


Why Study Yiddish? Teaching and Learning Yiddish

Learning a language is a big investment. There are many languages to choose from, so why learn Yiddish? Teachers, students, scholars, and performing artists discuss their reasons, the joys along the way, and the access they gained to a new world through the language itself.

Non-Jews Studying Yiddish Compilation 

There is a small but steady contingent of non-Jewish students in Yiddish classes. In this compilation of interviews, recorded in the early years of the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, hear from some who are part of this trend about how they got interested in studying Yiddish and what their experiences have been in the field.

A Choice of Language Acquisition

Avia Moore—a freelance theater artist—talks about how the choice to learn Yiddish, or any language, is a way of creating identity. Avia initially started learning Yiddish at the Yiddish Book Center and has been engaged in Yiddish cultural work ever since. She is a Yiddish dance instructor and has been involved in KlezKanada, a week-long Jewish music festival, for many years.

Yiddish Will Stay:  Artist Samuel Bak Reflects on the Yiddish Language

Samuel (Shmuel) Bak, native Yiddish speaker and distinguished Jewish artist, talks about the richness of the Yiddish language and its significance to Jewish culture and history. Samuel grew up in Vilna, known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its prominence as a center of Jewish learning and publishing. He got to know esteemed Yiddish writers, especially when he was identified by them as a child prodigy in the Vilna Ghetto.

Learning to Read Yiddish with Poems with my Father, a Yiddish Writer 

Bella Bryks-Klein, Yiddish speaker and daughter of Yiddish writer Rachmil Bryks, remembers how her father taught her to read Yiddish and recites some of the rhymes that helped her learn the alef-beys (Yiddish alphabet). Bella returned to Yiddish later in life and has been active as a correspondent for the Yiddish Forward, as well as a leader in Yiddish cultural life in Tel Aviv.

Illuminating a Culture: The Joys of Teaching Yiddish

Anna Fishman Gonshor, faculty lecturer of Yiddish Studies at McGill University, talks about the rewards of teaching Yiddish to the next generation. Anna grew up in Montreal in a family of secular Yiddish activists and remains an active proponent for Yiddish culture.

What Would She Have Written: Learning Yiddish to Connect to My Bobe

Hazel Frankel, researcher in Yiddish at the University of Witwatersrand, describes her journey to learning Yiddish and the influence of Yiddish literature along the way and discusses how she came to translation as a way of accessing the stories she didn’t hear from her own family. Her research and translation has focused on David Fram, a Lithuanian Yiddish poet who spent much of his life in South Africa.

An Opportunity to Be an Expert: Why Study Yiddish

Jessica Kirzane, specialist in American-Jewish literature, speaks about the opportunities the understudied field of Yiddish offers to academics looking to make their mark. She reflects on the special joy of studying and researching undiscovered Yiddish authors and thinkers and shares how she became seen as an expert on the writer Yente Serdatsky after translating just one of her stories.

The Yiddish Alef-Beys (Alphabet) to the Tune of The Sound of Music's "Do-Re-Mi"

Joanne Borts—Broadway singer and Yiddish activist—sings the Yiddish alphabet to the tune of "Do-Re-Mi," demonstrating how she teaches the children with whom she works in the project that she started called "Kids & Yiddish." The arrangement was written by Nathan Zumoff, z”l.

To explore the full collection of oral history interviews, visit the Wexler Oral History Project on our website.

If you're interested in learning Yiddish, we have plenty of resources on the Yiddish-Language Learning section of our website.