Students rescue course in Yiddish Keep talking: Miriam Isaacs feared apathy would kill her new Yiddish class. But a spurt of interest saved it.

September 18, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Mazel tov. Congratulations. Yiddish 101 in Room 105 lives.

Only three students had shown up Monday for the first session of Miriam Isaacs' new credit course, Elementary Yiddish 101, at Baltimore Hebrew University.

Vey is mir, said the university's president, Robert O. Freedman. Woe is me. If enrollment doesn't pick up quickly, he said he would cancel the course on the 1,000-year-old language that he and Isaacs say is dying but they want to help save.

Suddenly things happened. More than a dozen prospective students called to inquire about attending. An anonymous benefactor sent Freedman a check for $3,000 yesterday to help support the course and four Sunday lectures. And Wednesday night, four more students showed up for class. Additional students might come to the next class, at 7: 30 p.m. Wednesday.

"Yiddish 101 is saved; we'll have the whole course," said Freedman, who has scheduled other Yiddish events at the university this fall.

There were smiles and jokes, but then it was back to work for Isaacs' class Wednesday night. The seven students began to introduce themselves to Yiddish gender, alphabet and word order. They had fun telling which words they did and didn't know in a refrigerator magnet game of Yiddish words, some of which resembled German, some Hebrew and a few Slavic.

One newcomer, however, dropped out of the course when confronted with the presentation of Hebrew characters. No way could she learn them, she said. Yiddish uses Hebrew characters but is a different language from Hebrew.

Isaacs is on loan for a semester from the University of Maryland, College Park to Baltimore Hebrew for the Monday-and Wednesday-evening course.

She is also teaching three courses at Maryland: Yiddish, Holocaust Literature and Immigration Voices, a course comparing Jewish and other cultures' immigration to the United States. Her Maryland courses are taught under the auspices of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at College Park, which supports the study of Jewish subjects.

"There is a slow and grudging acknowledgment that Yiddish should be treated as a serious subject," she said.

Isaacs said it is being taught in more and more colleges, usually at U.S. research universities, such as Harvard University, George Washington University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, Brandeis University, Ohio State University and Indiana University. About 35 students are studying it at George Washington.

Isaacs uses as her basic text "College Yiddish," by Uriel Weinreich. Yiddish 101 covers the same topics as any introductory language course: the alphabet, vocabulary, gender, word order, tenses, grammar, intonation, adverbs and adjectives, present and past tenses, prepositions, pronouns.

It also includes the history of Yiddish, spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, and Yiddish dialects, proverbs and geography.

She said Yiddish speakers, many in their 70s and 80s, numberin the tens of thousands in the United States and elsewhere -- mostly Hasidim, ultra-orthodox followers of certain rabbinical sects.

Isaacs said the decline of Yiddish in the 20th century was caused by three factors. Five million of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust spoke Yiddish. Many survivors were scattered and assimilated. And since its founding in 1948, Israel has "vehemently" rejected Yiddish in favor of Hebrew.

She tells a joke about that. A young Israeli boy is asked what he wants to do when he grows up. The boy says he wants to go to school, work on the kibbutz and, when he's older, speak Yiddish to his grandfather.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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