Key to Yiddish
By Miriam Hoffman
National Center for Jewish Cultural Arts, Inc., 665 pages, $49.99.
Every year, a new crop of students arrives at university summer programs, professing a desire to study Yiddish. While not many actually learn the language, the demand for Yiddish studies courses has been holding steady. Every year also brings forth a new crop of Yiddish instructors. Many are gifted teachers, and some develop a true affinity for the language of their parents and grandparents. As this pattern continues, there is a corresponding rise in the need for new, effective and as authentic as possible instructional material — texts and exercises, as well as grammatical and idiomatic constructions.
The newly published “Key to Yiddish” uniquely fits the bill. More than a textbook, it is a comprehensive work, large in format and breathtaking in scope. The author, Miriam Hoffman, is an authoritative voice in the field of Yiddish studies. She is beloved by readers of the Forverts for her wry, witty, widely read columns and features, and by Yiddish theater mavens for her accomplishments as a playwright, translator and adapter of Yiddish drama and musical comedy. Above all, she is the teacher of, and mentor to, many hundreds of students at Columbia University, where she has been a lecturer since 1992. She also instructs at summer programs and academic conferences in Europe and North America.
True to its title, “Key to Yiddish” serves to unlock a genuine treasure trove of Yiddish language, literature and folklore. In its 14 chapters, Hoffman indulges no artifice, nor does she over-intellectualize. Readings, translations, exercises, grammatical explanations and idiomatic expressions are all masterfully interwoven and thematically and linguistically matched to the content. The culmination of the author’s 30 years of experience in teaching Yiddish on all levels, this volume showcases material that has proved successful when used by teachers as well as by serious students of Yiddish. The creative spirit of Yiddish folk culture, represented by folksongs, proverbs and jokes, permeates the work and becomes part of the student’s linguistic and cultural consciousness. The same holds true for the aptly chosen literary readings — prose and poetry — as well as the delightful adaptations of traditional and modern Yiddish writing and Eastern European folktales.
While its subtitle proclaims it a “textbook for beginners,” and it opens with an introduction to the Yiddish alphabet, accompanied by appropriate exercises, “Key to Yiddish” is most suitable for serious students at university-level courses of study and in intensive summer programs. Over the years, I have regularly encountered students who credit their achievements in Yiddish studies to Hoffman’s classes at Columbia. It is my sincere wish that with the publication of “Key to Yiddish,” many more will have the opportunity to learn from her.
Dov-Ber Kerler holds the Dr. Alice Field Cohn chair in Yiddish studies at Indiana University. The above review was translated from the Forverts.