How to Learn Yiddish

A guide to courses, tools and programs for mastering the 'mamaloshen.'

Want to surprise your bubbe (grandmother) by learning Yiddish? Or are you simply eager to connect to the mamaloshen (Yiddish for “mother tongue”)?

Numerous options are available through universities; organizations such as YIVO (Yidishe Vissenshaftliche Institut), the Yiddish Book Center, and Workmen’s Circle; and even on your phone.

Books
Online Courses
Semester-Long In-Person Courses
Immersion Programs
Apps
Enrichment

Advice Before You Begin

Before starting, consider what your goals are and how much time and money you can realistically invest. Do you want to be able to converse with Yiddish-speaking family and friends? Are you a student whose most pressing need is to be able to decode texts for a paper or project? Do you want to be able to read family records? Or do you just want the challenge of learning a new language?

If you don’t necessarily want to speak the language, a book may suffice. If you care more about speaking than reading, an in-person or online course in which you can interact with others verbally will be a better bet. Since Yiddish descends from medieval German and borrows Hebrew vocabulary and the Hebrew alphabet, having a background in Hebrew or German, is definitely an advantage when beginning your Yiddish studies. Beware though that if you already speak German, you may have to ”relearn” words and grammar. Similarly, if you learned Modern Hebrew, you will have to get used to Ashkenazi pronunciations and inflections.

Cost and time are also important factors. While immersion programs can be among the most efficient and fun ways to learn any language, they are also the most expensive, especially when you factor in travel, room and board. Online classes can cost a few hundred dollars, but books may clock in under $50. Self-paced classes may be the obvious choice for those with unpredictable schedules, while courses held at specific days and times may work better for those who are able to clear out blocks of time from their schedule and who need the structure in order to stay on task.

Below are various resources for learning Yiddish. Prices are subject to change. You may also want to inquire locally about courses offered at universities, synagogues and Jewish community centers near you. If you know of other useful resources or have feedback about any of those listed, leave a comment below or email community@myjewishlearning.com.

Books

Yiddish: An Introduction to the Language, Literature and Culture (Sheva Zucker)
This series teaches Yiddish literacy, grammar and vocabulary in an accessible, straightforward way. It also utilizes excerpts from classic Yiddish literature to help teach the language and familiarize students with the monuments of Yiddish culture.

Online Courses

Workmen’s Circle

Taught via videoconference, for various levels of beginner, intermediate and advanced learners. Recordings of each seminar are e-mailed to students. Advanced courses are taught completely in Yiddish and focus on Yiddish literature and history. For serious Yiddish lovers, there is even an advanced course on understanding the nuances of Yiddish grammar! Classes are held once a week for a 10-week semester. For WC members $250, non-members $295.

Semester-Long In-Person Courses

Columbia University (New York City)

Columbia University in Manhattan offers degree programs in Yiddish Studies. Available classes include Elementary Yiddish I and II, Intermediate Yiddish I and II, Yiddish for Academic Purposes, and Reading-Yiddish Literature. Note that all classes may not be available during all semesters. Non-matriculated students may take one class per semester.

Rutgers University (New Brunswick, New Jersey)

Rutgers offers in-person courses on Yiddish language, culture, and literature at its campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey. There are currently no Yiddish classes planned for the Spring 2018 semester, but keep your eyes open for a class or two in Fall 2018. Courses are open to non-matriculated students, and those over the age of 62 may audit courses.

Universität Salzburg (Salzburg, Austria)

Salzburg University’s Jewish Cultural History program is unique among Jewish studies programs in Europe because it allows students to focus on secular Jewish cultural history as opposed to having only a religious focus. Three semesters of Yiddish instruction are part of the master’s track program, and students have the chance to work with experts in Yiddish literature. While one may enter the master’s degree program, courses are open to non-matriculated students.

Workmen’s Circle (New York City)

Class options include Beginners Yiddish I, II, and III; Intermediate Yiddish I and II; Advanced Yiddish; and a selection of courses that focus on important figures in Yiddish literature, such as Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Classes are held once a week over a 10-week semester. $100-$250 for WC members, $140-$315 for non-members.

YIVO (New York City)

YIVO offers an array of in-person courses, from beginner to advanced, at its Manhattan headquarters. Courses generally meet once a week for 10 weeks, 15 West 16th Street in Manhattan. YIVO members $250, non-members $325. Membership $54/year. Yivo.org

Immersion Programs

The Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program

Tel Aviv, Israel

A four-week immersion program held at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Students attend Yiddish courses and participate in workshops and excursions. Instruction is geared towards both native English and Hebrew speakers, and students of all nationalities are welcome to apply. Program dates for 2018 are June 28-July 25. Students earn four college credits upon completion of program. Full-time students enrolled in degree programs are eligible for a scholarship. Tuition is $1,450, plus a $60 registration fee. Housing is an additional $800.

Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature & Culture

New York City

This Manhattan-based six-week summer immersion program is sponsored by the YIVO Institute and Bard College. Courses range from absolute beginner to advanced and include instruction not only in reading, writing and speaking, but also in the history and culture of Yiddish. Sign up for YIVO’s newsletter to keep up to date on upcoming registration dates and deadlines. Tuition is $6,000. Scholarships are available and students needing housing can stay at the International House, where prices range from $900-$1,300 for the six weeks.

Yiddish Book Center
Amherst, Massachusetts

The Yiddish Book Center offers both a one-week winter immersion program and a seven-week summer immersion program in Amherst, Massachusetts. The one-week program, YiddishSchool, is geared towards beginner, advanced beginner and intermediate learners, and is open to all age groups. The 2018 YiddishSchool program runs April 22-27. Tuition plus a room shared with one other person is $1,100 ($375 extra for private room.) Tuition for commuters is $750. Registration limited to Yiddish Book Center members.

The seven-week program also takes place in Amherst. Students may stay in dormitory suites at Hampshire College, which is within walking distance of the Yiddish Book Center. Students can earn up to six college credits. The program is available to undergraduate and graduate students between ages 18 and 26. Tuition is free; however, housing is $1,400, and students are also expected to cover the cost of meals. Stipends that cover costs such as food as well as free housing available to participants in the Yiddish Book Center’s internship program.

Yiddish Farm
Goshen, New York

About 65 miles outside of New York City, the Yiddish Farm in Goshen, New York, offers a two-week summer program, but also offers shorter-term volunteering and learning opportunities. For the summer immersion program, which runs April 23-June 13 in 2018, participants are expected to reside on the farm and perform work there. Students of all ages, ethnicities, and religions are welcome to participate, although the farm is shomer shabbes (Shabbat-observant). English is allowed to be spoken the first week of the course, but after that, only Yiddish is allowed, regardless of proficiency level. College credits are available for $200 per credit. The summer program costs $1,999 ($2,999 for those requiring a private room). Volunteering is free, but participants must pay for housing if required.

 

Apps

The apps below are not the only ones on the App Store and Google Play, but we selected them because they were recommended by individual educators. Most cost under $10, and some are free. (Note that prices are subject to change.) If you’ve had a good or bad experience using these apps or recommend other ones, let us know!

Pocket Polyglot Yiddish

This iOS app uses digital flashcards, audio recordings of native speakers and multiple-choice quizzes. Words and phrases are grouped by topic, and learning is self-paced. Available for iOS and Android. ($2.99)

Radio Yiddish Pour Tous

This free app enables you to listen to Yiddish music, including klezmer. Available for iOS and Android.
uTalk Classic Learn Yiddish. uTalk teaches essential everyday Yiddish words and phrases. Vocabulary is reinforced through quizzes, images and other tools. This app even enables you to record yourself and compare your pronunciation to that of native speakers! Available for iOS. ($7.99)

Yiddish Slang Dictionary and Quiz

This free app teaches Yiddish slang, as well as Yiddish words that you could use as slang. Available for both iOS and Android.

Tools for Enrichment

Yiddish Music on iTunes

Many Yiddish songs and albums are available for purchase on iTunes. A few notable works include selections by contemporary Montreal-based klezmer band Shtreiml as well as traditional songs such as “Oyfn Pripetshok.”

Teglicher Forverts

A free Yiddish-language e-mail newsletter published by the Yiddish Daily Forward. Content is about Jewish news and current global events. The website is navigable in both Yiddish and English, and a print version is also available.

Yiddish Book Center

On the Yiddish Book Center’s website, you can browse and read a variety of Yiddish works in the original. The digitized collection includes classics of Yiddish literature, such as S. Ansky’s drama Der Dybbuk, as well as Yiddish translations of English-language literature, such as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (Dos Bukh Fun Dzshongl). You also can download and print out PDFs free of charge.

YIVO

In addition to its Yiddish-language courses, YIVO offers online and in-person courses in English that teach about Yiddish culture, literature and history, including Introduction to Old Yiddish (in-person), Folksong, Demons, and the Evil Eye: Folklore of Ashkenaz (online), and Discovering Ashkenaz: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe (online). More are in development. Sign up for its newsletter to receive updates on classes. Prices for in-person classes are $250 for members and $325 for non-members. Prices for online classes are $45-$80 for YIVO members and $60-$110 for non-members.

 

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