Back to school | College students delve into their heritage through Yiddish

For those who try to get in better touch with their Ashkenazi Jewish heritage by studying Yiddish at college, there are challenges — but those can be outweighed by the naches (pride) of rediscovering the nearly lost language.

“The most exciting thing about learning Yiddish is that it opens the door to the fascinating world of Yiddish culture that has flourished for over a thousand years and awaits explorers, researchers, translators and educators,” says Agi Legutko, director of the Yiddish language program at Columbia University in New York.

Many U.S. colleges — Columbia, the University of Maryland and New York University, to name a few — offer Yiddish, a language once spoken by about 13 million Jews in central and eastern Europe.

For many centuries, Yiddish defined Jewish existence in central and Eastern Europe, and in New World countries to which Jews immigrated. It was the language not only of the home, but also of a rich literary culture, which like Yiddish itself combined Jewish motifs and content with European form.

For today’s students, the most challenging aspect of studying Yiddish is overcoming stereotypes, Legutko believes.

“Many students come to class with preconceived notions about Yiddish, such as it’s not a real language, it’s a dialect, it doesn’t have grammar, it’s a language of jokes and curses,” she says. “It’s a full-fledged language, and I place a lot of emphasis on grammar in my teaching, so the students are often surprised that they have to learn grammatical rules and concepts that are entirely foreign to English-speakers.”

Another challenge students encounter, says Legutko, is that the language taught in academia is standard Yiddish, which was created by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research prior to World War II and is a variety that almost none of the Yiddish speakers hailing from Europe use.

“The students trying to communicate in Yiddish with the native speakers often encounter some sort of resistance such as, ‘No, this is not how you say it,’ which may be discouraging,” Legutko says.

Born and raised in Krakow, Poland, Legutko didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 23. By then, she was already deeply submerged in Jewish culture and history, working as an English-speaking tour guide to Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of Krakow and a town which boasts more than 700 years of Jewish history.

“I was fascinated with Jewish traditions and religion, loved reading [Isaac Bashevis] Singer, and only then found out about my Jewish roots. … Talk about genetic memory. I started learning Yiddish in order to read Singer in the original, but also as a way of going back to my roots,” Legutko says.

Adi Mahalel, a Yiddish instructor at the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, did not grow up with Yiddish, but studied the language as an undergraduate at the University of Haifa and as a graduate student at Columbia.

Originally, Mahalel studied Yiddish because he wanted to read authors Sholem Aleichem and Singer in the language, but he said his quest turned into more than that.

“I got interested in all aspects of Yiddish culture,” Mahalel says. “When I teach Yiddish, one of the highlights is that it is very fluid. It absorbed many influences over the centuries.

“In the past, it was the language of the home. In the present, it is the language of certain Jewish groups. The old stereotype is incorrect. Saying it is only the language of the home is an immigrant mentality. In practice, this is not true. Yiddish is the language of the whole Jewish national identity it was created around.”

Legutko says students no longer struggle to find opportunities for the practical use of Yiddish.

“It’s true that there is no country where you can go to have a full submersion in the language, but with the Internet and new Yiddish initiatives underway, there are many opportunities to practice the language,” she says. “