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Yiddish course offers ‘laboratory’ for studying cultures

The College of Arts and Sciences has expanded its language offerings by launching a Yiddish program. The fall 2019 pilot class, Elementary Yiddish I, was overenrolled, demonstrating strong student interest, and the program is continuing this spring with Elementary Yiddish II.

“Yiddish is a vital part of not only Jewish cultural heritage, but European culture generally,” said Jonathan Boyarin, director of the Jewish Studies Program. “It’s a wonderful laboratory for studying how cultures and people mix and learn from each other while maintaining distinct identities.”

The two-credit courses do not currently fulfill the A&S language requirement, but Boyarin is hoping they will be expanded to include more advanced classes and eventually fulfill the requirement. Financial support comes from The Friends of Cornell Jewish Studies, a group of alumni dedicated to strengthening Cornell’s Jewish Studies Program.

Yiddish is the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews, said Boyarin, the Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies in the Departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies. It originated in central Europe more than 1,000 years ago and incorporates High German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages, and some traces of Romance languages.

Once spoken by about 10 million people, Yiddish is now spoken by about 500,000. But during the past few decades, the number of speakers has started to increase, Boyarin said.

During the fall course, instructor David Forman used music – plus a textbook of standardized Yiddish, and written and spoken assignments – to teach the language and culture.

– Kate Blackwood

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Abby Butler