Yiddish a Mixed Bag at Jewish Schools Worldwide

Dwindling Number: A student at Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne, Australia, one of the few non-Orthodox schools where Yiddish is a key part of the curriculum.
Courtesy of Sholem Aleichem College
Dwindling Number: A student at Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne, Australia, one of the few non-Orthodox schools where Yiddish is a key part of the curriculum.

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Published August 19, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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For some Jewish day schools, there is no teaching Yiddishkeit without Yiddish. Buoyed by the Yiddish renaissance of the past two decades, which has produced an increased interest in university Yiddish programs, a renewed interest in Yiddish theater and even the advent of Yiddish heavy metal bands, these schools have held steadfast to their Yiddishist roots and missions.

“We are a Yiddish school,” principal Helen Greenberg said proudly of the Sholem Aleichem College in Melbourne, Australia.

But Greenberg’s school is one of only a handful like it around the world. Despite its global resurgence, Yiddish is part of the core curriculum of just a few non-Orthodox day schools in far-flung locations around the globe.

Hipsters may be reciting Yiddish poetry in coffee houses in Tel Aviv and New York, but not many day schools are making room in their packed class schedules for the mameloshn.

The Jewish People’s & Peretz Schools-Bialik High School in Montreal, is the only school in North America that has a compulsory Yiddish program running from first grade through the end of high school. Although it requires all students to study Yiddish, the school has had to reduce the number of hours the language is taught during the week. Whereas Yiddish was once taught on a daily basis, today JPPS-Bialik students receive instruction only three or four times in a 10-day cycle, depending on grade level.

As a result, “things have definitely been watered down,” according to Lorna Smith, who has been teaching Yiddish at the high school for 29 years. She says the Yiddish program’s goal is “to have students develop a love of and pride in Yiddish and Yiddish heritage,” but she admits that her expectations in terms of the level of students’ knowledge of Yiddish grammar and literature have had to be adjusted over time.

Sheila Witt, who teaches Yiddish to the younger grades at JPPS-Bialik, focuses on instilling Jewish values and heritage through the language. She and Smith find songs and singing to be useful tools, and many students participate in the school’s Yiddish choir. “We don’t do verb tables anymore with the kids, but we are still teaching them Yiddishkeit,” Witt explained. Witt, who has been at JPPS-Bialik for 34 years, attributes a reduction in teaching hours not only to the French language instruction mandated by Quebec’s government, but also to the change in the culture of the local Jewish community over time and to the lack of Yiddish reinforcement in the students’ homes.

In the years after 1948, Hebrew language instruction took center stage in day schools. Over the years, with increasing demands for day schools to provide excellent academics and a wide variety of electives and enrichments, even those schools that originally taught Yiddish as well have either reduced the number of hours of its instruction or eliminated it entirely.

Sholem Aleichem, on the other hand, has refused to cut back on Yiddish hours. In order to maintain Yiddish class every day for at least 45 minutes for all of its nursery school through sixth-grade students, the school has adjusted its schedule and lengthened its school day as necessary. And though instruction on Jewish holidays and Jewish history are part of the Hebrew curriculum at other day schools, at Sholem Aleichem they are taught in Yiddish. “Interest in Yiddish is blooming,” Greenberg said. “Families that had pushed for Hebrew are now pushing for more Yiddish. There is a Yiddish revival around the world, and the community here is definitely seeing things differently now.”

That may be so in Australia, but in Mexico, lack of enrollment forced the Nuevo Colegio Israelita High School (known as “The Naye”) to close its doors. The Naye was one of only a few day schools in Mexico at which Yiddish was taught. And even when it was open, the level of language instruction at the school had diminished significantly over the years. Ben Harris, who used to create the video blog The Wandering Jew for JTA, visited The Naye in late 2009. He found that most of the students were not conversant in the language, and that it seemed Yiddish was really more a cultural vestige than a living, used language.

While some day schools with long-standing Yiddish traditions are cutting back on the number of instruction hours, others with no such histories are experimenting with adding the language into their curriculum. At Los Angeles’s New Community Jewish High School, Sheyndl Liberman Reich teaches a Yiddish course, and students can elect to take it in place of Hebrew for one year (about 30 have chosen the option). With some students opting to study the language for 100 hours over the course of a year, “we are definitely putting Yiddish on a stronger footing,” Reich said.

“I’ve taken Hebrew for 11 years, but felt no actual connection. I took Yiddish and I enjoy taking Yiddish, because with everything I learn, I feel closer to my grandparents, my great-grandparents and to my mom, who speaks Yiddish to my great-grandparents. As the years have gone by, Yiddish has left my family, but in this class I feel like I am reviving it,” one of Reich’s students reflected in a class evaluation.

At Bialik Hebrew Day School, in Toronto, “Yiddish has always been an important thread in the mosaic of the school,” said the school’s principal of Jewish studies, Simona Dayan. “We strive to stay true to the original values of the school, set out by our founders 50 years ago, and part of this was an emphasis on Yiddish and its culture.” There, too, however, the intensity of the language’s instruction has diminished. Like its Montreal namesake, Toronto’s Bialik focuses today on “instilling in the students a love of Yiddish culture, and an appreciation for their heritage.”

Having seen the fruits of their labor, these day schools have found value in sticking to their Yiddish guns, so to speak. Bialik (Toronto) graduate Elisheva Gould is now a 33-year-old Jewish educator in New York. “My Yiddish education at Bialik really touched me,” she said. “As a young adult, I realized that I have Yiddish-colored lenses when I look at the world. A big part of my culture comes from my Yiddish education, and I am passing that on to my students now.”

Renee Ghert-Zand is a writer and Jewish educator. She blogs at Truth, Praise and Help.

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