In Academia, Yiddish Is Seen, But Not Heard

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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If Yiddish has a future on college campuses, it may literally go unspoken.

In Yiddish studies programs across the country, a new generation of scholars are learning Yiddish as a language of scholarship, but many of them never master Yiddish as a language of conversation. This was in evidence at a graduate student conference on “Yiddish/Jewish Cultures” held last month at New York University, where the proceedings were conducted in English, students delivered their papers in English, professors presented speeches in English and, in their free time, the conference attendees conversed almost entirely in English. Yiddish may have been the focus of the gathering, but mameloshn was rarely heard there.

“This conference was intended as an academic conference,” student organizer Lara Rabinovitch told the Forward. “The aim was not to create a Yiddish community for two days.”

There are 13 full-fledged Yiddish studies programs at North American universities, according to Paul Glasser, associate dean of the Max Weinreich Center at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. There are also several more that offer a few courses on Yiddish and Yiddish culture. Though there are no exact figures, Glasser estimates that the programs have “several dozen” students enrolled in Yiddish studies.

The field of Yiddish studies, however, is undergoing a shift to a place where preserving the language itself as a spoken tongue is not a top priority. Lawrence H. Schiffman, chairman of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, which sponsored the conference, said, “You’re talking about a situation where this field, which was basically looked at from a Yiddishist standpoint — keeping alive a dead language — has become an academic field.” The university, Schiffman said, is no place to revive a language.

Yiddish faces two challenges in the academic world. One is that while Yiddishists outside academia strive to preserve the spoken and written language through Yiddish clubs, klezmer camps and theatrical productions, for many Yiddish scholars at universities Yiddish is a language of study, not communication. Conversational Yiddish is an important tool for some students, but for others it is nonessential to their work. So even while Yiddish studies classes draw interested students, Yiddish language classes lack the same pull.

At the same time, it is becoming harder and harder to teach Yiddish. Unlike France or China, there is, as scholars like to put it, no “Yiddishland,” no country where students can immerse themselves in Yiddish language to improve their fluency.

“There’s no center for Yiddish,” David Roskies, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told the Forward. “There’s no address, no doorbell you can ring.”

As the last generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants dies out, the majority of native speakers in America today are the ultra-Orthodox, who have used Yiddish not as a bridge to the modern English-speaking world but as a bulwark against it. Their population is growing, but so far few have shown interest in connecting with the academic or secular Yiddishist worlds.

In theory, university classes should fill the language gap, but in practice they can only do so much. Jeffrey Shandler, a professor at Rutgers University, pointed out that students who learn languages in the classroom, particularly later in life, often have a better passive knowledge than an active knowledge. That is, they can read or understand better than they speak or write.

Furthermore, language instruction at universities is often relegated to a lower tier of prestige and funding. “For all the fancy stuff about cultural studies and theory and very sophisticated tools for studying materials in Yiddish in the university,” basic language instruction remains “underpaid, undervalued and under-supported by American universities,” said Kathryn Hellerstein, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Yiddish, like many languages, is often taught by graduate students and lecturers rather than by tenured faculty. Hellerstein said that while she loves teaching language, it is often a difficult task.

“It’s hard work. A lot of it is tedious, repetitive, face-to-face contact with a person. It’s not glorious, and it’s not valued very much, but it’s got to be done,” Hellerstein said.

If the academy produces a generation of scholars who have a passive rather than an active knowledge of Yiddish, who can read and understand the language but can’t produce it, then the proper languages of comparison for Yiddish on campus may not be French and Chinese but Latin and Ancient Greek — the dead languages of pure scholarship.

However, several professors suggested that there might be a remedy, if not a solution, outside of academia, in the oft-derided realm of popular Yiddish culture, land of “I Love Yiddish” T-shirts. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor at NYU, warned against dismissing out of hand nonacademic clubs and camps aimed at preserving Yiddish as a spoken language. “What goes on in that context can be incredibly rich and serious,” she noted during the conference’s roundtable discussion about the future of Yiddish. “We need to take it seriously, and we need to work with it.”

Shandler suggested that these programs “could provide ideal points of entry for the study of Yiddish.” Indeed, before, and even during, their time in academia, some of the students had attended Yiddish camps and summer programs. Those few who did speak Yiddish to each other were often friends from such places.

“In Yiddish, the boundaries are always softer than they appear to be,” Shandler said.

After the roundtable, the conferees filtered out into the lobby, where a violinist and an accordion player began to play klezmer tunes. As they snacked, drank, chatted in English and began to talk about their journeys home, the students occasionally paused to listen to the accordion player as she sang folk songs in fluent and passionate Yiddish.

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