Yiddish Teachers Form New Group

When Lori Cahan-Simon, a singer and music teacher at the I. L. Peretz Workmen’s Circle school of Ohio, in Cleveland, was promoted to Yiddish teacher 10 years ago, her excitement was hampered by anxiety.

“I had no connection to other Yiddish teachers,” she told the Forward, “and when I looked online, I saw nothing.” Finally, in 2001, she started her own listserv, through Yahoo groups. Calling it yiddishteachers, Cahan-Simon tried to recruit members onto it by scanning university Web sites and Jewish communities for Yiddish classes. Soon, listserv members were discussing teaching methods and requesting curriculum ideas and materials. Certain requests were simple, like the teacher who needed the lyrics of a certain song for Sukkot; others required a more sophisticated response, like the university instructor who requested games and exercises to help drill her students on the grammatical dative and accusative cases.

Today, yiddishteachers has more than 180 members from all over the globe, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Belgium, Ukraine, Spain and Japan.

The group might have remained solely in cyberspace if not for a novel idea by Philip “Fishl” Kutner, a director of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. While planning the 12th conference of the IAYC, which took place in La Jolla, Calif., this past October, it occurred to him that the gathering could be an ideal meeting place for Yiddish teachers, as well. Cahan-Simon agreed and spread the word. About 30 active and former Yiddish teachers showed up at the conference, comprising a significant chunk of the 200 participants. Thus, the International Association of Yiddish Teachers was born.

When the time came to choose a URL for the fledgling organization, Kutner said, the teachers were disappointed to discover that they couldn’t use IAYT.org. “Unfortunately, that name was already taken by the International Association of Yoga Therapists,” Kutner explained, “so we chose IAOYT.”

At the conference, four sessions were devoted to Yiddish education: teaching Yiddish through song; curriculum content for different levels and age groups, pedagogical methodology, and a discussion about the goals of the IAYT: Should the main thrust be job announcements? Curriculum development? Should there be formal dues and committees?

When the conference was over, Gella Schweid Fishman, collector of an extensive archive of American secular Yiddish schools, helped Cahan-Simon prepare a questionnaire that was sent out to all Yiddish instructors at the conference and to all members of yiddishteachers listserv, in order to assess who exactly are today’s Yiddish teachers, the extent of these teachers’ Yiddish-language education and their goals in the classroom.

Today’s Yiddish teachers are indeed a varied group. A large percentage of them teach formal classes in university settings. Hilda Rubin of Rockville, Md., teaches Yiddish to senior citizens once a week. Cahan-Simon teaches children, also once a week. But Fabiana Lipka, one of three Yiddish instructors at Bialik Hebrew Day School in Toronto, teaches her fifth- and sixth-grade students four times a week. Almost 480 children study Yiddish at the school, from the third grade to the eighth. “By the time they graduate, they can read Yiddish literature,” Lipka said.

Lipka, a 47-year-old Argentine Jew, is a graduate of a Yiddish day school and the now defunct Lerer Seminar (Yiddish Teachers Seminary), both in Buenos Aires.

“I’m lucky, because the administration here at Bialik is very supportive,” Lipka said. “They provide funding for all sorts of Yiddish projects.” In spring 2008, for example, the school released a CD of Yiddish songs performed by students in the fifth and sixth grades. Bialik also presents Yiddish concerts, allows classes to produce videos in Yiddish and has included the Yiddish word-processing software Mellel in its computer lab. In March, the seventh grade will be presenting a Yiddish musical on shtetl life.

Despite the extensive support system, Lipka, like many Yiddish teachers, feels isolated. “There are very few of us in Toronto,” she said.

The question now is, will the new association help these teachers? “It could, if it’s taken seriously,” Fishman said. “So far, we still know very little about its members, their level of fluency or their knowledge of Yiddishkeit in general.” In the Yiddish world, the term Yiddishkeit refers to the traditions, folklore and lifestyle of the Ashkenazic Jews.

Years ago, Fishman explained, it was not easy to become a Yiddish instructor. One had to be either an immigrant from Eastern Europe with a deep knowledge of the Yiddish language and culture, or a graduate of a Yiddish teachers’ institute. Almost every Yiddish school was supported by one of four organizations: the nonpolitical, cultural Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute; the left-leaning Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring; the Zionist-socialist Farband schools, or the communist Orden schools.

Yiddish scholar and pedagogue Yudel Mark worked as a consultant to the Yiddish schools at the Board of Jewish Education, paying periodic visits to the classrooms in the Sholem Aleichem and Workmen’s Circle schools. He would then include, in a Yiddish magazine he published that was devoted to philosophical and methodological issues in the classroom, his assessments of the teachers and schools. “It was a tremendous aid for the teachers,” Fishman remarked.

Mark did not visit the Farband schools, because they did not wish to be associated with the other three organizations. Nor did he visit the Orden schools, which had their own system of monitoring their teachers.

“Today there is no Yiddish teachers’ seminary, and everyone works independently; there’s no supervision or accountability,” Fishman said. One way to structure the organization a bit more tightly, she suggested, would be to invite 10 to 15 members of the IAYT to the Yidish-Vokh, the weeklong Yiddish-immersion retreat that takes place every summer in Copake, N.Y. “I imagine most of these teachers have never had the opportunity to experience a week in a Yiddish-speaking environment. They could share their curriculum materials there, lead workshops and also help out with the children’s groups,” Fishman said.

The Yidish-Vokh would enable the teachers to network with advanced Yiddish speakers and to study how families who are raising their children with Yiddish have also brought more Yiddishkeit into the home so that Yiddish is not merely a language, but a way of life. “If we want the one-day-a-week Yiddish schools to start getting results, they will have to invest in family education,” Fishman added.

Lipka believes that Fishman’s idea is on target. “Twice a year, the Hebrew teachers in our school attend workshops and seminars organized by the Mercaz, the Center for Enhancement of Jewish Education in Toronto,” she said. “It would be so nice if once or twice a year, I could go to a place like that for Yiddish teachers.”

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