Stanford dishing up Yiddish class this fall

Yiddish has been endangered a lot longer than the beleaguered spotted owl.

But the non-official language of the Jews is still breathing.

The Stanford Jewish studies department is contributing to the Yiddish revival by offering a new class, as well as scheduling its fifth annual two-lecture program in Yiddish studies.

"Many people say that Yiddish is a dying language," said Harvey Varga, who has signed on to teach three quarters of beginning/intermediate Yiddish at Stanford, which started this fall. "That's an accusation that I hope lives on for many more years and centuries."

Janet Hadda, professor in the department of Germanic languages at UCLA, will be the guest speaker on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 20 and 21, at free evening lectures open to the public.

The 8 p.m. Oct. 20 opener, "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Family as Fate and Fortune," will be in English at Stanford's Annenberg Auditorium.

Hadda wrote the 1997 biography "Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life." Singer, the Polish-born winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote all his novels and short stories in Yiddish, although he lived most of his 87 years in the United States.

At 5 p.m. the following evening, Hadda will lecture in Yiddish on "Ashkenaz: Memory and Fantasy" in the History Corner, Building 200, Room 2.

Hadda, who has Ph.D.s in both literature and psychoanalysis, first became attracted to Yiddish culture in 1967, after reading the English translation of Singer's "The Family Moskat" while in graduate school.

"It made me want to learn Yiddish," she said. "The culture seemed so full of life, energy, conflict — more than any other rendition of Jewish life I had encountered.

"I wanted to know the culture and, in order to know the culture, I needed to know the language," she added.

Steven Zipperstein, Stanford's Jewish studies department director and professor of Jewish history, wanted to add a Yiddish course to the program for several years.

Once the department secured outside funding to teach Hebrew last year, Zipperstein was able to focus attention on Yiddish instruction.

For the last two years, Ken Moss, a graduate student of modern Jewish history, taught an introductory no-credit Yiddish class. Not all of last year's six students stuck with the course for three quarters, but those who did expressed different motivations for learning Yiddish.

"Some had an academic interest and others had a more personal interest," said Moss. "For some, Yiddish was an alternative way to understand what being Jewish means."

The new for-credit Yiddish course, which is fully funded by the university, holds two-hour sessions twice weekly.

It's attracted 10 mostly graduate students, more than instructor Varga expected. "I don't know what I can do in terms of recruitment," he said, "but once they're in my class, I've got a lot to offer them.

"My goal at the end of the year," he added, "will be to have conversations in Yiddish with my students."

Zipperstein is excited about Varga's classroom techniques. "He has charisma. There's something electric about his personality."

Varga, 47, who has taught Yiddish for the last 10 years at the Berkeley-based Lehrhaus Judaica, has what he calls a spontaneous, entertaining approach to teaching Yiddish, nourished by his youth in Brooklyn's Williamsburg and Boro Park neighborhoods. "Everybody around me spoke Yiddish — the grocer, the butcher and the kids on the block," he recalled.

From the first class session, Varga says he speaks almost exclusively in Yiddish, telling simplified anecdotes from the old 'hood. He might relate a humorous conversation between a Jewish mother and her son, in which she inquires for the umpteenth time, "So, what's the story? When am I going to hear about a wife?"

Varga is also known to paint an exchange between a rude waiter and a pushy customer in a deli, emphasizing salutations and how to order.

"Some of the dialogues are based on events that happened in my childhood. They are funny and give a lot of information in terms of vocabulary," he said. "Because I come from that culture, I bring a more three-dimensional approach to the language. I kind of feel I am the language."

Hadda doesn't expect Yiddish to suddenly thrive again, but she sees a renewed interest. "It's more about awareness and cherishing heritage," she said. "Yiddish is endangered. But you can't get to the wealth of Eastern European Jewish literature by learning Hebrew."