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Jewish Journal

Schools to Teach Ein Bisel Yiddish

by Sarah Price Brown

August 25, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Linguists have predicted that within 100 years, more than half of the 6,000 languages that exist today will disappear.

For a long time, it's looked as though Yiddish was among those bound for extinction, but scholars and Yiddish speakers, as well as some Jews who remember their parents speaking Yiddish, have never given up on the language.

And now there's a better chance that a new generation of Jews will understand Yiddish and the Jewish culture it embodies. This fall, three local Jewish day schools will offer their middle and high school students classes in Yiddish, the language spoken for 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews of eastern and central Europe.

The three schools represent a spectrum of Jewish education and geography in Los Angeles: New Community Jewish High School in the west San Fernando Valley is non-denominational, Shalhevet School in the Fairfax district is Orthodox and Sinai Akiba Academy in West Los Angeles is Conservative.

"The purpose of this course is to give [students] the key to unlock the vault that contains the history of their people," said Dan Opatoshu, who sits on the board of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit that develops programs to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture, which will administer the classes.

About 11 million Jews spoke Yiddish before World War II. Today, the number has dwindled to 2 million, comprising mostly elderly and ultra-Orthodox Jews scattered in the United States and around the world, said Aviva Astrinsky, head librarian at the YIVO Institute in New York, which studies the Yiddish language, Eastern European Jewish life and the American Jewish immigrant experience.

The very existence of the YIVO Institute, an organization founded in Europe in 1925 and moved to New York in 1940, is evidence of concerted efforts to pay homage to, preserve and even revive Yiddish. The National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., founded in 1980, has rescued more than 1.5 million Yiddish books, sending them to libraries around the world, from Harvard to Hebrew University in Jerusalem and national libraries in China and Japan.

Learning Yiddish will give young people access to a vibrant culture, a wealth of literature, film, theater and music that has largely been forgotten, Opatoshu said.

Opatoshu came up with the idea for a high school Yiddish curriculum when he realized that day-school students were learning "a truncated history that goes from the Bible to the Holocaust to the establishment of the state of Israel" and skips a millennium of Jewish culture in between.

The Jewish narrative places too much emphasis on the attempted annihilation of the Jews and too little emphasis on how Jews lived before World War II, Opatoshu said.

"For some reason, we've decided as a people to commemorate, study, learn every detail, honor the extinction of our civilization ... and we don't spend any time to examine what that history actually was, how we lived, what we created," he said.

Opatoshu wanted to see Yiddish in the Jewish day school curriculum, not as an after-school program but as a central part of Jewish learning.

The resulting program is called Take [pronounced tahkah] Yiddish, meaning Really Yiddish, as in "not just the punch-line-of-the-joke Yiddish, not just what's-the-difference-between-a-schlimazel-and-a-schlemiel Yiddish," Opatoshu said.

The curriculum is being developed from scratch, because while there are a few good Yiddish college textbooks, no new, innovative ones exist for younger students, Opatoshu said.

Hannah Pollin, 23, will teach the classes at all three schools. She has organized her material around themes such as "greetings and introductions," "time and seasons," "emotions and sensations" and "holidays."

Pollin, who majored in Yiddish at Columbia College, said her courses will combine language principles with historical context. While students will study vocabulary and the grammatical structure of Yiddish, a language derived from German and written with Hebrew letters, they will also learn about Yiddish culture. When teaching the days of the week, for example, Pollin said she will talk about the daily routine of Jews in Eastern Europe. She would explain, for instance, how Jews prepared for Shabbat and how they celebrated it. Using photographs, films and songs, she would illustrate the way life was.

This summer, Pollin scoured the archives of the National Yiddish Book Center, for teaching materials. Among the piles of books and magazines through which she had been sifting, she came upon a Yiddish comic strip from the 1940s and '50s, "Moishe and Friends," a sort of Yiddish equivalent to "Calvin and Hobbes."

In one scene, Moishe and his buddies climb atop a statue of Abraham Lincoln, where they discuss the end of slavery and the importance of social equality. In another, Moishe plays baseball with a black friend, who, like everyone else in the comic strip, speaks Yiddish. Pollin said she would use the Moishe and Friends cartoon to spark a discussion about what it means to be Jewish in Los Angeles.

"There are lots of different people out there," she said she would tell her students. "You live among them, but you go to a Jewish school. How do you balance the two?"

"I'm very excited about it," said Bruce Powell, 57, head of New Community Jewish High School. He said he expected a dozen students to sign up for the class this fall.

Yiddish does not have to be practical to be worthwhile, Powell said. Some students might go on to become scholars of the language, but for others, "this can just be fun," he said. Why study Yiddish? "It's almost the same question as saying, why do we study American history," Powell said. "It's extremely important to know from where you came."

Opatoshu, 58, grew up in New York speaking Yiddish to his grandparents. His grandfather, Joseph Opatoshu, was a leading Yiddish novelist. Friday nights, poets and artists, including the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall, would gather round his grandfather's table, discussing intellectual ideas in Yiddish.

Opatoshu also learned about Yiddish culture from his father, actor David Opatoshu, who appeared on the Yiddish stage in the 1930s and later became a Hollywood actor, playing the leader of Zionist activists in the 1960 movie "Exodus."

After years in the movie business as a screenwriter, Dan Opatoshu decided to go back to school to study history, discovering along the way that he had "Yiddish somewhere inside me, in my blood, in my bones."

Opatoshu started attending Yiddish festivals joined a Yiddish reading group, and got involved in Yiddishkayt Los Angeles.

Opatoshu brought his idea for a Yiddish curriculum to his brother-in-law, Steven Spielberg, who pointed him in the direction of the Righteous Persons Foundation. Opatoshu ended up securing a $130,000 grant for Yiddishkayt Los Angeles to launch a three-year pilot program.

Yiddish experts say the decline of the language can be traced to a number of factors: the Holocaust, Jewish immigrant assimilation and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in the 19th century.

The "Take Yiddish" project description warns of the "imminent danger" of Yiddish "being forever lost" and says the program's goal is to create a "revitalized Yiddish education" as a means of "fostering Jewish identity" for "generations to come."

Whether teaching Yiddish to middle and high school students can stem the decline of the language is up for debate.

"If you don't catch the kids early and teach them basically from the cradle, then they never really become fully fluent speakers," said Doug Whalen, president of the Endangered Language Fund in New Haven. But "if teenagers are still using [the language] on a daily basis, then it's fairly safe." Whalen considers Yiddish "moderately endangered," because some parents are still teaching it to their children.

"We want to see if we can make this work," said Aaron Paley, 47, founder of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles.

The alternative could be devastating.

"When you lose a language, you face the extinction of an entire ... perspective, a worldview and a history," Paley said. "All of that -- all at once -- disappears."

For more information on Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, call (323) 692-8151 or visit www.yiddishkaytla.org.

 

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