Yiddish Dies at Maryland

Yiddish professors, students reflect on the decline of the mamaloshn on campus

The University of Maryland, apparently, thinks that Yiddish is a dying language.

Home to 6,500 Jewish students, starting next year the university will no longer offer full-time courses in the language that was once the lingua franca of Jewish households across Europe. Hayim Lapin, director of the University of Maryland’s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, announced in an open letter this past academic year that budgetary concerns motivated the decision.

“The state of Maryland’s unprecedented budget crisis is impacting both the University of Maryland and the greater Maryland community alike,” Lapin wrote. “Unfortunately, our cuts are not limited to Yiddish.”

Miriam Isaacs, Maryland’s visiting (and only) associate professor of Yiddish—who will leave the school after this semester, thinks that a slightly more political reason—rather than just financial difficulties—drove the elimination of the program.

“They couched [the decision] in the general framework of budget cuts: All visiting people are being let go,” she said.

Whatever the reason for the end of Maryland’s Yiddish program, it has left the school’s Yiddish students dismayed and surprised.

 “It’s certainly disappointing that a university with such a strong and involved Jewish community cannot keep a Yiddish program running,” said junior Natasha Westheimer, who studies the language.

Students at other East Coast schools with large Jewish populations, however, will not face the same issues as Westheimer. At the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Rutgers University, Yiddish programs seem safe despite the weak economy.

“Yiddish is not going anywhere,” said Kathryn Hellerstein, associate professor of Germanic languages at the University of Pennsylvania, who teaches Yiddish there. Hellerstein explained that Yiddish, while not necessarily the mother tongue of every Jew, is still valuable because it remains the principal language of communities across the country and around the world. As such, she said, it still has relevance today—which many students at Penn recognize.

Gennady Estraikh, associate professor of Yiddish Studies at New York University, agreed with Hellerstein about the chances that the school’s Yiddish program will end. “There is no hint of discussing it,” he said with a pronounced Eastern European accent.

But Isaacs—the Maryland professor—feels that the American Jewish community as a whole does not share that recognition of Yiddish’s central place in Jewish history and current Jewish life because the only places where American Jews see Yiddish spoken are among the elderly and ultra-Orthodox. American Jews, she said, think that Yiddish is about “kitsch and kvetch” but do not know that it is the language of literature, histories and philosophy.

This problem is particularly acute, Isaacs added, in the Jewish studies community, which is now more focused on Israel than on Europe—in part because study of Israel garners more funding. Maryland opened the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies in Fall 2006.

“Why is Israel studies more important now?” Isaacs asked. “Because this is where the donors are giving the money. They don’t like it that left-wing professors are talking about Israel in critical ways so they are pouring in money into universities for Israel studies, and that is coming at the expense of Jewish studies.”

Nancy Sinkoff, the Rutgers University Department of Jewish Studies chair, agreed that Yiddish’s stock is falling in America. In contrast to Maryland, however, this has led Rutgers to make teaching Yiddish—as both a language and a culture—a priority while recognizing that it has lost relevance for many Jews today.

“When you think Jewish,” Sinkoff said, “You think Israel and America. When we have that unusual kid who wants to study Yiddish, we set them up and make resources available.”

Carly Feldman, a recent graduate of Temple University’s Jewish studies program, agreed that though American Jews enjoy throwing Yiddish words into conversation, American Jewish culture does not value the language. Feldman agreed that Yiddish is not relevant to the daily lives of most American Jews, and that, as a result, students are less inclined to study it.

“Americans love Yiddish,” Feldman said. “Everyone knows what ‘shvitzing’ means. Judaism can function without Yiddish. It doesn’t play a significant role in my life, but for my grandfather, Yiddish played a huge role in his life.”

Given those negative attitudes towards the language, Isaacs offered a slightly different reasoning for why Yiddish might stay at Penn. “Kathryn Hellerstein’s husband is the chair of the department. That may have something to do with it,” Isaacs said. “I hope that’s not the only reason, but it could be a reason.”

Whatever the reason, Yiddish is entrenched at Penn. As part of the Jewish Studies program there, students need to study a Jewish language—either Hebrew or Yiddish. So the department offers up to five semesters of Yiddish courses, two introductory, two intermediate, and one class in literature and culture.

Yiddish also happens outside the classroom at Penn. Students host a Yiddish tisch, or table, where they converse in that language only. The Penn Jewish community also hosted a Yiddish-themed Shabbat.

Estraikh, who was NYU’s first full Yiddish professor, grew up speaking Yiddish in the Ukraine. He teaches the language because he finds it crucial to appreciating East European Jewry. In order to help maintain the study of Yiddish, NYU hosts the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s summer program, an annual academic conference on Yiddish.

“In academic studies it is a question of understanding,” he said. “If a department is conducting this kind of research [on Eastern European Jews], it is hard to avoid Yiddish.”

Because of that, undergraduates at NYU can study only Yiddish culture and literature. In order to study the language itself, the few students who are interested must enroll in graduate courses or find opportunities outside of the course listings.

These options, however, do not help students at Maryland who want to further their knowledge of what was called the mamaloshn, or mother tongue of East European Jewry. Sonia Silinsky Krupnikova, who has taken two classes in Yiddish, feels that the Jewish studies department has its priorities wrong. She said in November that the Yiddish majors may organize a protest against the decision, though none has yet occurred.

“I think that if anything is going to happen it will probably happen [in the spring] semester,” she said. ”I know that if I had heard anything, I would be the first to sign up. Given the fact that we just started an Israel studies program I am a little confused as to why we are sort of ducking out of the Yiddish studies program.”

Krupnikova grew up speaking Russian and later learned English and Italian. Despite having a better knowledge of those other languages, however, she said that she feels closest to Yiddish.

 “In some ways Yiddish is more of a mother tongue to me than any of the other languages I speak,” Krupnikova said. “It’s just a very instinctive attraction. Yiddish just draws me in.”

Others see a bright side to the end of the Maryland program. Sinkoff explained that Maryland was Rutgers’s “main source of competition” in terms of attracting students who wanted to study Yiddish. Their decision to cut Yiddish, she said, “is kind of great for us.”



UPDATE, Jan. 28Hayim Lapin has just informed us privately that the center has just raised $120,000 to support the Yiddish program through the spring of 2013. The center plans to publicize this information within one week.

This article is sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.



 Judah Gross is a senior at the University of Maryland and the editor in chief of the Maryland Mitzpeh–the school’s Jewish newspaper. He is the New Voices contributing editor and thinks the Maccabeats video is overrated.

3 Older Responses to “Yiddish Dies at Maryland”

  1. Joshua Pines
    January 27, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    No mention of Brandeis?

  2. Michael Rabkin
    January 27, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Emory University has a wonderful Yiddish language program. In fact, one choose from four courses in Yiddish (elementary and intermediate). http://college.emory.edu/home/academic/course/descriptions/yiddish/index.html. The joke is if you look at EMORY as an acronym, it’s Early Methodist, Only Recently Yiddish. Emory is also home to the world’s only all-Yiddish college a capella group, A KLEYNE VELT. See the Yiddish at Emory Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=35814795839

  3. Hershl
    January 28, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    I studied with Prof. Isaacs several years ago at the University of Maryland.
    I am not sure why it would take $120,000 to fund the programme for two years. There is one employee, Prof. Isaacs, and her few hours a week teaching introductory Yiddish ( they rarely had enough students to justify anything beyond that) cannot possibly cost that much.
    Other observations.
    The Myerhoff Center has more money than it needs to fund Hebrew and Israel-centered programmes. However, I don’t believe that Yiddish ever was a priority for them.
    Prof. Estraikh, another one of my teachers, is Russian. Hence, his ” pronounced Eastern European accent.”
    Yiddish is no more a dialect than Dutch. It is a language.

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