Gerry Tenney brings Yiddish culture to B’nai Tikvah students. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Gerry Tenney brings Yiddish culture to B’nai Tikvah students. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Putting a bisl Yiddish culture back in Sunday school

Gerry Tenney writes a word on the whiteboard and asks the kids if they know it. The word is “bubkis,” and the attentive fifth- and seventh-graders at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek say they do. Tenney rejoices.

“Yes!” he exclaims. “It’s working! We’re putting Yiddish back into the brains of people.”

Tenney is there as part of “Tam — Tastes of Yiddish Culture for Kids and Teens,” a program of KlezCalifornia that sends presenters into schools to give children a bit of Yiddish culture.

“The idea is that we want to change Jewish education to include Yiddish,” said Judy Kunofsky, executive director of KlezCalifornia, an organization that promotes and celebrates Yiddish culture.

The Tam program consists of 26 lesson plans for grades K-12, on topics from klezmer music to Yiddish literature to Ashkenazi food. A lesson on the way Yiddish affects how people speak Hebrew brings up the pronunciation of things like challah and mitzvah and menorah; a lesson on Yiddish visual art shows photographs and paintings that bring a lost world to light. Another lesson teaches how the struggle for workers’ rights was shaped by the Yiddish workers who fought for them.

“What we’re trying to do is to give a sense of the whole culture,” Kunofsky said.

The lesson plans are available online and have been tested out by KlezCalifornia. Teachers interested in having a Tam lesson in their class can choose the topic and either download a lesson or request a presenter. The lesson plans are free, but having someone like Tenney does come with a fee, which Kunofsky says is reasonable.

“We charge the schools less than what we pay the presenters,” Kunofsky.

At B’nai Tikvah, the teachers chose klezmer — that’s why Tenney and his mandolin were there.

“I think it’s fun to bring something different,” said Keren Smith, B’nai Tikvah director of education.

Jane Enloe, who teaches the seventh-graders there, agreed. She said that she wanted to have a Tam lesson because she welcomes anything that helps kids “turn on” to Jewish culture.

Tenney’s presentation included teaching a song about potatoes, relating an urban legend about how clarinets became so popular in klezmer, and explaining how the music made it to the U.S.

“There were all these Jews who were longing for the Old Country,” he said.

In between, he explained a little about how Yiddish is related to German and asked students to raise their hands if they knew certain words.

“I’m interested to see how many Yiddish words come down to you kids,” he said.

The idea for the program was sparked by seeing children enjoy the workshops at the Yiddish festivals KlezCalifornia runs regularly.

“We always include one or two workshops for kids or for families,” Kunofsky said.

But a formal set of lesson plans has been a long time coming. Ten years ago, one of KlezCalifornia’s board members suggested they focus on children’s education. Testing of the lesson plans started in 2013.

“We found some things didn’t work so well and some things worked better,” Kunofsky said.

There was also a question of funding; Tam has received help from the Natan giving circle, the Marinus and Minna B. Koster Foundation, and the Chaim Schwartz Foundation. But the most challenging part, Kunofsky said, is getting the word out to schools and teachers, who already have limited time and a busy schedule.

“The real work is in the outreach,” she said.

KlezCalifornia is committed to getting more Bay Area children connected to Yiddish culture, especially in light of how many have Yiddish roots, whether they know it or not.

At B’nai Tikvah, the kids may have had only an hour of Tam, but it made a change from their usual Sunday. Tenney’s lesson ended with getting the children up to dance in a circle. Then he thanked them. The children were encouraged to thank him back — in the Yiddish they just learned.

A groysn sheynem dank,” they chorused.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.