In a brightly lit classroom, decorated with colorful posters and Hebrew lettering, the 24 second grade schoolgirls, dressed in crisp blue uniforms, listened as the young, modestly attired teacher reviewed the Genesis chapter in which God commands Abraham to leave his homeland.
“Vayomer — who knows the meaning of the word vayomer?” the teacher asked in Yiddish, to which almost all the pupils eagerly raised their hands. “Yes, Chani?” the teacher asked. “And he said!” the little girl replied brightly — also in Yiddish.
In a Hasidic school, this Bible class in Yiddish would have been unremarkable, considering the fact that Yiddish is the lingua franca of most Hasidic sects. But in fact, this scene took place at the Beth Jacob of Boro Park – one of a network of ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools run by the decidedly non-Hasidic, English-speaking Lithuanian community.
To an outsider, both groups — the Hasidim and the Lithuanian Jews (formerly known as Misnagdim) — seem identical because both groups lead an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, often live in close proximity to each other and raise large families. But each group, in fact, has a markedly different history, with its own rabbis, schools, communal institutions and world outlook. Most notably, the majority of Hasidim in the United States (except the Lubavitchers) speak Yiddish on a daily basis, while the Lithuanian Jews, particularly those born after the Holocaust, raise their families, socialize and conduct their business meetings almost exclusively in English.
But Beth Jacob — a well-regarded school of more than 2,000 pupils, ranging from nursery to eighth grade — has bucked the trend. “Here, families are given a choice of registering their daughters in a Hebrew track or in a Yiddish one,” explained Miriam Maimon, director of grades one through four. Although the numbers vary slightly from year to year, the pattern has remained fairly constant: Two of the seven sections are taught in Yiddish, and the rest in Hebrew. In other words, out of 200 girls in every grade, 50 of them, or 25%, study in Yiddish.
The fact that most families choose the Hebrew track has not changed the position of the school regarding the Yiddish language. “There is a reason for this,” said Rabbi Osher Lemel Ehrenreich, principal of Beth Jacob for the past 52 years. “When the Enlightenment caused the ghetto walls to crumble, the only protection the Jews had against modernity was having their own language. As Rabbi Aharon Kotler, head of New Jersey’s Lakewood Yeshiva, once said, ‘Yiddish was our ghetto.’ In our community, ‘ghetto’ is not a word to be ashamed of.
“On the other hand, Yiddish is not something to be deified,” he added, referring, a bit ironically, to secular Yiddishists who had replaced religious Judaism with an exclusive dedication to secular Yiddish culture. “Yiddish is a vessel to attain our religious goals. It is the language which our grandfathers used to learn Torah, and that’s why many people feel that the true taste of Torah can only be attained by learning it in Yiddish.”
The curriculum of the Yiddish track at the school is demanding. It includes an intensive yearlong study of one chapter in the Bible, during which students learn how to read and write both Hebrew and Yiddish (for the latter, they use the latest glossy, colorful Yiddish primers and workbooks from the Bobov Hasidim), study rabbinic commentary on the daily prayers and the weekly Bible portion, and are given a class in Jewish values. In addition, the students learn the same secular subjects taught in non-Jewish schools, including English, math, history, science, art and music. The teachers also find time for more playful activities. A recent visit to the school found the first grade teacher guiding two girls in an improvised skit, presented in Yiddish, of a mother helping her daughter shop for a new dress. The girls giggled as they acted out the scene for their classmates.
The Yiddish spoken by the young teachers is similar to the Hasidic Yiddish in America. The article “di” has replaced all the other articles in Yiddish, much like “the” in English, and the teachers often mix in English words and phrases. For those of them who feel unsure of their written language skills when putting together Yiddish handouts, there are older native speakers on staff whom they can consult. Teachers can also reference the century-old Harkavy English-Yiddish dictionary located in Maimon’s office.
This is not the only Lithuanian girls’ school in Brooklyn to offer Yiddish. Several other schools teach one class, usually Bible, in Yiddish, and at the Masores Elementary School, pupils attend an informal Yiddish class once a week, “just to give the girls, none of whom comes from Yiddish-speaking homes, a feeling for the language,” said Rochel Oppenheimer, the Hebrew studies director at the school.
None of the other schools, however, offers an intensive Yiddish program comparable with that of Beth Jacob. So the concept of such a program raises some questions: If the Lithuanian community speaks almost exclusively in English today, which families are choosing the Yiddish track, and why?
“The demographics of Boro Park have changed dramatically in the past 20 years,” Maimon explained. “Many of the Lithuanian families have moved out to Lakewood, N.J., and Monsey, N.Y., and in their place, Boro Park now has a growing number of Satmar, Bobov, Munkatch, Belz and other Hasidim. Although most of these families send their daughters to their own schools, a number of them have decided, for whatever reason, to send them to our school. But they still want their daughters to maintain a connection with the Hasidic community, which is why they want them to learn Yiddish.”
And what about the Lithuanian families who choose the Yiddish track? “They probably feel, like I do, that children have a natural ability to learn languages,” Maimon added, “and Yiddish is just as much a part of the Lithuanian tradition as it is of the Hasidic one; so why shouldn’t they learn Yiddish, too? We especially hear this from the fathers. Many times a mother will say that she simply wants her daughter to be where her friends are, and it doesn’t matter to her whether this be the Hebrew or Yiddish track. But if the father really wants his daughter to learn Yiddish, chances are, she will.”