Saturday, 27 August 2016

Rochelle Sibley - Adventures in Yiddish (4): Learning Yiddish in the digital age

Despite frequently and loudly wishing that I’d started learning Yiddish sooner, I am beginning to realise that I began at the optimum time.  As much as I regret that I didn’t get the chance to study Yiddish literature at university, learning Yiddish back then, before the internet had really evolved, would have been a very different experience.  Although Yiddish is a language without a country, it has instead found a virtual homeland online, and many of the resources that have helped me to learn the language have only really come into existence in the last five to ten years.

The resurgence of Yiddish has resulted in a variety of online publications that double up as excellent teaching resources.  Top of the list is the amazing פֿאָרװערטס, aka the Yiddish Daily Forward, a Yiddish language newspaper that has been in circulation since 1897, but whose online version is updated daily.  What makes the פֿאָרװערטס website so helpful to the novice language student is if you click on any word in any of its thousands of Yiddish articles, you see its English translation.  Of course, you can achieve the same effect by sitting with a page of Yiddish and a dictionary, but it’s the speed of this online process that creates the advantage.  I’ve tried translating from Yiddish to English with dictionaries and with the פֿאָרװערטס word search facility, and the latter is not only faster, but by typing out the words to search for them I learn them more easily. Admittedly, you need to use an online Yiddish keyboard to do this, but even so the online process is far quicker than me flipping through a paper dictionary and getting distracted every time I find a familiar, funny or obscene word.  The joy that I felt when I first read a paragraph of פֿאָרװערטס without clicking a single word was absolutely unparalleled.

פֿאָרװערטס also has a fantastic array of videos, audio recordings and other multimedia resources, so that you can hear Yiddish being spoken in all its variations.  While the Yiddish I’m learning is the standardized YIVO version, there are still people speaking Yiddish dialects from all over Europe and beyond.  It’s one thing to know that there are differences between Litvak Yiddish and Polish Yiddish, as well as between Hasidic Yiddish and Ashkenazi Yiddish, but it’s another to actually hear them.  It also means that if you want someone to show you how to make sorrel soup and matzomeal pancakes, you’re set.  Not that פֿאָרװערטס has the monopoly on videos in Yiddish.  Thanks to Youtube, I can watch entire films in Yiddish, as well as having proof that James Cagney could speak Yiddish like a pro (not really a surprise given that he grew up on the Lower East Side).
And then there are the books.  As I’ve discussed previously, the UK Yiddish scholar is pretty boned, book-wise.  Thankfully, we live in a digital age, so although getting paper copies of books in Yiddish is a struggle, there is an alternative.  The Yiddish Book Center, probably my favourite book-related institution on the planet, has ensured that Yiddish texts remain accessible despite their scarcity.  Forget Jaws or E.T., as far as I’m concerned, Steven Spielberg’s greatest contribution to the world is the Digital Yiddish Library that he funded.  This means that anyone anywhere can download over 11,000 digitised works of Yiddish literature, all for free. For this, I can even forgive Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, although that’s probably because I haven’t watched it.  While nobody can pretend that a pdf is the same as holding a real book in your hands, it’s so much better than nothing.  And if you run out of steam with the reading, you can even listen to native Yiddish speakers reading some of these classics out loud, thanks to the Center’s Yiddish audiobooks.
Even in the past 18 months, there have been new Yiddish resources appearing online.  אין געװעב (In geveb), an online journal of Yiddish literature, translation and pedagogy, is one example.  Many of their articles can be read in both Yiddish and English, so it’s perfect for the novice Yiddishist, while seeing contemporary scholarship on Yiddish language and culture is pretty heartening when you’re living in a Yiddish-less town. 

I think that this is most encouraging aspect of the online Yiddish community: it is clear evidence that twenty-first century Yiddish is very much of the moment, rather than being a historical echo of some lost age.  Without these digital resources I wouldn’t know about the ways in which the language is evolving to respond to societal change, or be able to listen to Yiddish metal, and I certainly wouldn’t know how to make vegetarian gefilte fishSo while it would be wonderful to already have 20 years of Yiddish learning under my belt, I suspect it would have been far more difficult and discouraging to have begun all this in a pre-digital world. Now, I can listen to Yiddish podcasts on the bus to work and watch Yiddish films on my laptop whenever I want, so that the language is in the world around me rather than just being sounded out in my head when I read.  All I have to do now is make sure my next mobile phone can cope with the Yiddish alphabet, and there should be no stopping me.


Max Sparber said...

This has been my experience. There certainly are a lot of tools for learning Yiddish on your own, or from a distance, or digitally now. I've been documenting my experiences on my website in the hopes that it might help other people who have the same interests:

petrajones said...

I quickly became disillusioned with the yiddishist community as it's more a post-vernacular language. I wanted to swap everday conversations to yiddish and found few that could and of those that could fewer that wanted to. I'm a member of many Yiddish social network groups and found it ironic that activity among Ladino speakers was much higher. I also found the Esperanto quality of klal yiddish a bit frustrating and ended up going to stamford hill to learn the everyday language there.