Cornell’s first-ever cohort of Yiddish language learners have entered another semester of mastering alphabets and reading poetry written in the medieval Jewish tongue.
The Jewish Studies Program piloted a Yiddish class this fall with a two-credit elementary-level course, and continued student interest allowed the program to expand this spring by introducing Jewish Studies 1777: Elementary Yiddish II.
Although Cornell teaches a Yiddish linguistics course, this is the first school year that the University offered Yiddish language instruction — following in the footsteps of universities like Columbia and Harvard who already have an undergraduate Yiddish language curriculum.
“It makes sense to have Yiddish as part of a Jewish studies program,” said course instructor Prof. David Forman, Near Eastern studies. “Many of the issues that Jewish studies addresses — history, the birth of Zionism, political movements in Jewish life, immigration, assimilation — are all illuminated by an understanding of Yiddish.”
Studying Yiddish does not yet fulfill the Arts and Sciences language requirement, but Forman told The Sun he treats it like a regular language class — working toward fluency is the goal. The enrolled students are progressing through a Yiddish language textbook and are immersing themselves in the Jewish history and culture that is intertwined with the European tongue.
Class conversations span from Yiddish literature to food and they have welcomed a visit from Cornell’s Klezmer Ensemble, which performs traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music. Forman said he hopes students can use Yiddish in their work and lives, whether that means participating in Yiddish theater, conducting scholarly research on the history of Jews in Eastern Europe or exploring identity.
Max Greenberg ’22, who enrolled in both semesters of Yiddish, said that speaking the same language as his great-grandparents has been especially exciting for him.
“Being able to learn that language and speak those same words has a profound impact on being able to reconnect with cultural heritage,” Greenberg said, “especially because there are few avenues for that kind of reconnection.”
Once the majority language of about 10 million Jewish people, Yiddish now has about 500,000 speakers, many of whom hail from orthodox communities.
But Jewish Studies Program director Prof. Jonathan Boyarin, anthropology, the Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, said the interest in speaking and learning Yiddish among the secular Jewish population has grown — a trend that may explain why the pilot course generated enough student interest to continue into a more permanent program.
Yiddish was not the only language launched at Cornell this year. Since fall 2019, students have been able to learn the traditional language of the Cayuga Nation, the indigenous community on whose land Cornell’s Ithaca campus stands. The University also introduced an American Sign Language curriculum in the fall semester.
“There are a lot of points of bridging and empathy between the range of Native American and the range of Jewish experiences,” Boyarin said. “Universities should be places where heritage is preserved and transmitted.”
As these young initiatives continue, Forman said he hopes what started with one Yiddish course will ultimately develop into a full-fledged language program with advanced-level and literature classes. But for now, he said he remains grateful that Cornell offers students a chance to connect with a language and culture that, to him, feels like home.
“Having Yiddish spoken aloud in our classrooms is thrilling,” Forman said. “It is such a privilege to share what I’ve learned with my students, and if they get part of the way there and then have to pick it back up after they leave Cornell, great. They’ve got more than we had last year.”