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University of Maryland may cut Yiddish from course offerings

Professor Miriam Isaacs, shown with some of her students, is probably in her final year teaching Yiddish at the University of Maryland.
Professor Miriam Isaacs, shown with some of her students, is probably in her final year teaching Yiddish at the University of Maryland. (Courtesy of Miriam Isaac)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

Yiddish might be on its way out as a language offering at the University of Maryland, and its supporters are positively farklempt.

Funding will be cut after the 2010-11 academic year at Maryland's flagship public university for the sole professor of Yiddish, the evocative language of Eastern European Jews. That's the end of regular Yiddish instruction at U-Md., barring the intervention of a private donor, said Hayim Lapin, director of the school's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies. The reduction comes as many colleges are cutting back on full-time foreign language instruction to lower their costs.

"I think it's a tragedy," said Lapin, who appeals to the community for help in an open letter on the center's Web site.

Proponents of Yiddish study say its elimination at U-Md. would deal a grave blow to the discipline, because the university hosts the oldest and strongest Yiddish program among the handful in the region. A 2006 survey by the Modern Language Association found 969 college students learning Yiddish at 28 institutions nationwide. Locally, Yiddish is taught at George Washington University in the District and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

At stake is the recorded history of the Ashkenazi Jews, whose historic tongue endures among Holocaust survivors, within Orthodox communities from Brooklyn to Jerusalem and in the original writings of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

"Yiddish has a major, major written record," said Miriam Isaacs, a visiting professor who has taught Yiddish at U-Md. for 15 years. "The University of Maryland has bought up an enormous number of books. The [U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum] has an enormous collection. Who is going to read them?"

Her position is being cut, along with three others, as the center trims about 10 percent of its $700,000 budget for the next fiscal year and more in coming years, Lapin said. He has found sufficient funds to sustain her position for one more year. Thereafter, Lapin said, Yiddish will likely be taught on a "course-by-course" basis. The announcement prompted a strenuous letter-writing campaign by the cultural group Yiddish of Greater Washington.

"We raised hell. And we don't do that, generally," said Harvey Spiro, president of the group.

The population of Yiddish speakers has declined from more than 10 million at the start of the 20th century to perhaps a half-million today, according to scholarly estimates, diminished in Hitler's genocide and further eroded when Israel chose Hebrew as an official language.

"Yiddish has been dying for a thousand years," Singer once said, "and I'm sure it will go on dying for another thousand."

Hebrew is the language of prayer in Judaism. Yiddish, although rendered in Hebrew characters, is the everyday language. Irreverent, colorful and consonant-heavy, Yiddish passed from the lips of borscht belt comedians to the ears of the goyim, and thence into the Queen's English, introducing such priceless verbs as schlep, plotz, kvetch and utz.

Most assimilated American Jews have limited knowledge of Yiddish; the younger generation might hear it only on visits to bubbe.

"Yiddish was just the language that my grandparents would speak amongst themselves at family gatherings. That's pretty much all I heard of Yiddish before I took this class," said Seth Salver, 21, a U-Md. senior from Miami, who has one set of Ashkenazi grandparents. "I thought it was my duty as a young Jewish student at a university to pay my respect to this language that so many people think is dying."

His grandparents were "tickled pink," Salver said, "when I called them and started saying 'vos makhstu,' " a Yiddish salutation he has learned to read and write.

The introductory Yiddish course taught by Isaacs each fall has been consistently full at 18 students, she said, although it is down to seven this year because of a scheduling change. Enrollment tends to dwindle in the intermediate course she teaches in spring, as students turn their attention to Hebrew, a language more central to the Jewish studies major. There is no major in Yiddish.

The rollback at U-Md. illustrates a larger trend in language instruction across higher education: Full-time, permanent teaching positions are being cut, and professors replaced with temporary or part-time instructors, said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association.

The number of students studying foreign languages continues to grow, Feal said. But "you might see a reduced range of courses offered, you might see larger class sizes, and you might see fewer permanent professors."

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