Lernen yidish far sholem: Teaching Yiddish in a Secular Jewish School

By Erin Faigin

Every Sunday, I teach Yiddish language and culture at a secular Jewish school. Secular Jewish education, a term used by a range of institutions across the country, focuses on the cultural aspects of Jewish life rather than religious dogma. While language education might seem unrelated to secular Judaism, giving students access to Yiddish and the worldview it promotes is in line with the work of secular educators across the world. The curriculum of the Sholem Community, a supplemental secular Jewish school in Marina Del Ray, California follows this line of thinking, making language central to instruction about secular Jewish culture.

The Sholem Community describes itself as a “secular and progressive Jewish educational, cultural, and social institution.” Students learn about Jewishness through historical, cultural and material lenses. While a typical Jewish education in America involves some instruction in prayerbook or modern Hebrew, at the Sholem Community students are not only exposed to Modern Hebrew, but introduced to Ladino, Judeo-Persian and Yiddish throughout their education. The cultural component of the Sholem Curriculum asks two central questions, “Why preserve culture at all?” and “What do we want to preserve—and why?” By including these languages regularly in classroom instruction, students at Sholem are active participants in preserving the linguistic diversity of secular Jewish culture. Ideally, students will learn to recognize these languages as the byproduct of multicultural societies, where Jews and non-Jews lived in close contact, exchanging words and ideas. This in turn can help to foster multicultural dialogue in our own community, a reimagining of the boundaries of secular Jewish life.

This fall, I began my current position as a Yiddishist in Residence and Intern at the Sholem Community. A large part of my job consists of shadowing teachers, substituting when needed, and providing back-up in the classroom. But the joy of my position is teaching Yiddish to the yugnt—my students age from kindergarten to middle schoolers. There are six classes, grouped by age, and I meet with each two to three times a semester. Given this small amount of interaction, my goals are limited: I want students to come away with the idea that Yiddish is a functional language that was, and continues to be, broadly spoken and used. If they remember vocabulary—all the better.

Music is the primary mode through which Yiddish has been taught at Sholem. Hershl Hartman views the objective of this approach as “getting the sound of Yiddish into students’ ears and the taste of it onto their tongues.” He continues that the use of Yiddish is “a means by which to dispel the common culture’s concept of Yiddish as a ‘funny/cursing/kitchen’ language.” 1 I agree that music is an integral part of Yiddish language learning, but in my capacity as a language instructor, I also incorporate vocabulary and literature. My aim is to increase the level of students’ knowledge about Yiddish from the mere appreciation that a music-driven curriculum promotes to a more comprehensive view of Yiddish culture.

My approach is kinetic, auditory and playful, following the norms of the Sholem curriculum as well as the resources available to me as a Yiddish language instructor for the very young. The Sholem curriculum is student-centered, and students are encouraged to guide and direct lessons and discussions. Lerer are encouraged to teach in multiple modes, engaging students not only through rote memorization, but movement, listening, art, and performance. My teaching does not involve the kinds of curricular materials more commonly associated with Sunday school education—the worksheets and readers customarily found in elementary school classrooms are practically invisible at Sholem, and there are no modern secular Yiddish learning texts for elementary learners. My teaching style, which relies heavily on improvisational games, was also inspired by the In geveb article Teaching Yiddish Through Performance by Hannah Pollin-Galay, which stresses the importance of creativity and action in these informal educational settings.

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