The Yiddish program extends over another semester, offering language study and cultural reconnection


Cornell’s first-ever cohort of Yiddish language learners entered another semester of mastering the alphabets and reading poetry written in the medieval Jewish language.

The Jewish Studies program piloted a Yiddish class this fall with a two-credit elementary level course, and continued student interest has 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 academic year that the University has offered Yiddish language instruction – following in the footsteps of universities like Columbia and Harvard which already have an undergraduate Yiddish language program. .

“It makes sense to have Yiddish as part of a Jewish studies curriculum,” said Professor David Forman, professor of Near Eastern studies. “Many of the issues addressed by Jewish studies – history, the birth of Zionism, political movements in Jewish life, immigration, assimilation – are all informed by an understanding of Yiddish.”

Studying Yiddish does not yet meet the language requirements for arts and sciences, but Forman told The Sun he treats it like a regular language course – working towards fluency is the goal. Enrolled students progress through a Yiddish language textbook and immerse themselves in Jewish history and culture which are intertwined with the European language.

Classroom conversations range from Yiddish literature to food and they hosted a visit from Cornell’s Klezmer Ensemble, which performs traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music. Forman said he hopes students will be able to use Yiddish in their work and life, whether that means participating in Yiddish theater, conducting academic research on the history of Jews in Eastern Europe or exploring identity. .

Max Greenberg ’22, who enrolled in both semesters of Yiddish, said speaking the same language as his great-grandparents was particularly exciting for him.

“Being able to learn that language and speak those same words has a profound impact on the ability to reconnect with cultural heritage,” Greenberg said, “especially because there are so few opportunities for that kind of reconnection.”

Once the majority language of around 10 million Jews, Yiddish now has around 500,000 speakersmany of whom come from Orthodox communities.

But Jewish Studies program director Professor Jonathan Boyarin, Anthropology, Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, said interest in speaking and learning Yiddish among the secular Jewish population has grown – a a trend that may explain why the pilot course generated enough interest among students to pursue a more permanent program.

Yiddish wasn’t 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 is located. The University also introduced an American Sign Language program in the fall semester.

“There are a lot of points of connection and empathy between the range of Native American experiences and the range of Jewish experiences,” Boyarin said. “Universities must be places of preservation and transmission of heritage.

As these young initiatives continue, Forman said he hopes what started with a Yiddish course will eventually grow into a full-fledged language program with advanced level and literature courses. 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 out loud in our classrooms is exciting,” Forman said. “It’s such a privilege to share what I’ve learned with my students, and if they go part of the way and then have to come back after leaving Cornell, great. They have more than us last year.


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