Mameloshn Thriving in Montreal

Bialik School Teaches in Yiddish — and Three Other Languages

By Jason Silberberg

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Eli Batalion graduated from high school in 1997, he was able to speak four languages fluently. And when he was asked to give a valedictory address at the graduation ceremony, he chose to do so in the language closest to his heart, informing the audience, in eloquent Yiddish, “…Duss iz mayn identitet. Kh’bin a poylisher yid.” (“This is my identity. I’m a Polish Jew.”)

Batalion graduated from Bialik High School, a Labor Zionist school that is part of a secular Jewish education system in Montreal known as the “Jewish People’s Schools and Peretz Schools” (JPPS), which ranges from prekindergarten to high school. It is the only system in the world with both elementary and secondary Yiddish programs, and the only school system in North America to feature a mandatory four-language core curriculum — English, French, Hebrew and, of course, Yiddish.

While Yiddish is mandatory, proficiency in the language varies, owing primarily to the number of years that a student has been enrolled in the JPPS program. Not surprisingly, students such as Batalion, who have been part of JPPS since elementary school, tend to have a much greater command of the language than those who have not. But by any language program’s standards, the Yiddish program is exceedingly thorough, covering not only Yiddish language and mechanics, but also the classics of Yiddish literature and theater. Indeed, the Yiddish education is of such a high caliber that the Canadian government has officially recognized Yiddish — along with French, English and Hebrew — as a legitimate and accredited language.

“When we say Yiddish, we mean language, grammar, literature, songs, folktales and culture,” vice principal Hanna Eliashiv explained. “We have a rich curriculum, which includes Sholom Aleichem, Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim [and] Maurice Rosenfeld, just to name a few.”

This is no small feat. Competent secular Yiddish educators in primary and secondary schools are hard to come by in this day and age — overshadowed and outnumbered, as Yiddish studies tend to be in general, by the study of Modern Hebrew. Not surprisingly, then, an increasing number of Yiddish instructors are actually former Bialik graduates. “They used to be raised in the Jewish Teachers Seminary of Montreal, but that has been closed for nearly 30 years now. Now they are former students. Where else are we going to get them from?” Eliashiv said.

Eliashiv added that Bialik has, in recent years, received a fresh infusion of native speaking Yiddish teachers — as well as students — from abroad, primarily from Argentina and Mexico. This is attributable to the comparatively high number of secular Yiddish day schools still in operation in Latin America.

And at Bialik, Yiddish is not just a language — it’s an experience. Students participate in a variety of extracurricular Yiddish activities outside the classroom to increase fluency in, familiarity with and love of the language. Activities range from reading copies of the Forverts to elderly Yiddish speakers, to participating in critically acclaimed Yiddish theater productions. Last year, for example, students participated in a heartfelt, not to mention wildly successful, rendition of Batia Bettman’s musical, “No More Raisins, No More Almonds: Children’s Ghetto Songs,” about young people living in a World War II-era Jewish ghetto. The play, originally conceived as nothing more than a school project, was received so well by audiences that it soon snowballed into a yearlong production, culminating in a performance in March at Quebec’s annual Action Week Against Racism. Bialik also publishes a student-run newspaper written in a variety of languages, including Yiddish.

Capping off Bialik’s Jewish educational experience is a senior trip to New York City and Washington, D.C. Stopping at Ellis Island, the Tenement Museum and, naturally, the old Forward building on the Lower East Side, the trip is designed to give students a taste of the Jewish immigrant experience. “We do it so that everything they’ve learned comes alive,” Eliashiv said.

In contrast to the United States and most of Canada, many private schools in Quebec receive substantial government subsidies, making schools such as Bialik highly accessible to the public. In fact, these days at Bialik, a student has up to 60% of his or her general studies tuition covered by the provincial government. As a result, Montreal has the highest rate of Jewish elementary school attendance in all of North America.

Not surprisingly, students tend to have a ferocious allegiance to the school and its pro-Yiddish philosophy. To those critics who would ask: “Why bother with Yiddish, a nearly extinct tongue?” Bialik’s 1997 valedictorian and unofficial spokesman, Eli Batalion, has this to say: “Foyleh zhlubes!” (“Primitive boors!”)






Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.