Yiddish course offers ‘laboratory’ for studying cultures

The College of Arts and Sciences has expanded its language offerings by launching a Yiddish program. The fall 2019 pilot class, Elementary Yiddish I, was overenrolled, demonstrating strong student interest, and the program is continuing this spring with Elementary Yiddish II.

“Yiddish is a vital part of not only Jewish cultural heritage, but European culture generally,” said Jonathan Boyarin, director of the Jewish Studies Program. “It’s a wonderful laboratory for studying how cultures and people mix and learn from each other while maintaining distinct identities.”

The two-credit courses do not currently fulfill the A&S language requirement, but Boyarin is hoping they will be expanded to include more advanced classes and eventually fulfill the requirement. Financial support comes from The Friends of Cornell Jewish Studies, a group of alumni dedicated to strengthening Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program.

“My goal for the class is to have a program where students can get out and really be Yiddish speakers and do the next thing with the language,” said instructor David Forman.

Yiddish is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews, said Boyarin, the Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies in the Departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies. It originated in central Europe more than 1,000 years ago and incorporates High German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages, and some traces of Romance languages.

Once spoken by about 10 million people, Yiddish is now spoken by about 500,000. But during the past few decades, the number of speakers has started to increase, Boyarin said.

“People call Yiddish ‘mama-loshn,’ which means the mother-tongue,” Forman said. “In the old world, Yiddish was the vernacular, the language of the everyday, the language of the home. Hebrew was the language of the elite, of the scholars, of the written word. For centuries, very little was written in Yiddish.”

There was an explosion, however, of Yiddish literature starting in the mid-19th century, Forman said. Although the production of new Yiddish writing has slowed, the body of literature is out there, ready to be accessed. Forman is doing his part; this summer, Kinder-Loshn Publications will publish his translation of his grandfather’s novel for children, “The Clever Little Tailor.”

During the fall course, Forman used music – plus a textbook of standardized Yiddish, and written and spoken assignments – to teach the language and culture. The Cornell Klezmer Ensemble paid a visit one week.

The Cornell Klezmer Ensemble visits Elementary Yiddish I.

Boyarin, whose scholarly work in ethnography and translation extends to explorations of Jewishness and Native American identities, notes that another ancestral language, Cayuga, is being offered for the first time this year.

“It means a lot to me that Yiddish instruction was introduced at Cornell in the same year as instruction in the Cayuga language,” Boyarin said. “People can identify with each other across the channel of wanting to balance ancestral continuity with living in the present. Having these enrichments come in clusters makes everybody stronger.”

Read a version of this article in the Cornell Chronicle.


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