By Jessica Kirzane

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Feygi Zylberman, a middle school History and Jewish Studies teacher at a Progressive Jewish community day school in Melbourne, Australia, about her use of Yiddish in a Secondary School Jewish Studies classroom. She shared with me some reflections about her teaching experience, as well as an activity for teaching about divorce using the film Hester Street. You can download a PDF of the activity here, or a .doc version by clicking on the image to the right.

For Feygi Zylberman, who grew up in a secular Yiddish-speaking household in Melbourne, Yiddish has always been an integral part of her experience and expression of Jewishness, and she incorporates this knowledge and passion in her teaching on a daily basis. In her teaching, Feygi uses a wide variety of materials that she believes are relevant to the topics of the course and will help students enrich their understanding of Jewish culture and express their Jewish identities

Feygi often turns to materials originally in Yiddish as sources for her Jewish Studies classroom. She explains that she does not automatically or dogmatically turn to sources from Yiddish. Rather, she looks for the most appropriate resources to teach any given lesson, but because Yiddish sources tend to be what she knows best, she often finds herself turning to them. In her lesson on marriage, she invites students to examine ketubahs of couples from varied religious denominations and cultural backgrounds, including her own progressive Yiddish kesube. In her lessons on history and literature, she turns to writings by the the dray klasiker to illustrate the vicissitudes of the Jewish past. She invites her high school students to learn through these sources not only about the topics at hand (history, Jewish life cycles, etc.) but also about Yiddish language and its culture.

Recently, as a participant in the National Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop, Feygi put together a series of resources on divorce for her Jewish Life Cycles course. She explains that while divorce is a major part of the lives of her students, it often is not covered in standard Jewish Life Cycle curricula because it does not fit an imagined, ideal life path. She wants her students to understand their own and their friends’ lives, in all their modern complications, as part of their Jewish identities. As Feygi set about looking for resources on divorce, she turned to sources from Yiddish.

This resource is the result of her exploration. It is a worksheet to be used along with the divorce scene that falls at the end of the film Hester Street (1975), a Yiddish film based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. Feygi explains that although the scene is in Yiddish, it is very clear and straightforward to follow, and this makes it particularly useful for teaching secondary school students. Feygi describes the advantages of using this film to teach divorce in her Jewish Studies class, “In order to understand ritual, students really need to experience it. While this is very easy with topics such as Jewish marriages or Brit Milah ceremonies, it is harder to find resources to help my students understand more difficult rituals, such as divorce, in an age appropriate way. Using Hester Street allows them a very human understanding of the intricacies of this ceremony.”

Feygi tries to bring her Yiddishist self into the Jewish Studies classroom by integrating words or phrases of Yiddish into her English speech while she teaches. She believes that this is part of encouraging her students to express themselves as Jews in ways that feel authentic to them, and teaching them about a language that many of them feel close to in some way. She wants them to know that Yiddish is an option for them as they learn to express their Jewish identities. But she also wants them to know that it is one in a vast array of religious, cultural, political, and linguistic options. For her, what is important is not that her students come away with a love of Yiddish per se, but that they learn from her use of Yiddish (which is somewhat idiosyncratic in the progressive Jewish world), that there are multiple ways of being Jewish, and that they start working toward finding a way of being Jewish that is meaningful to them.

This article is reposted from In geveb. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.