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Youngsters pose for their class photo in the early years of the Yiddish speaking Peretz School
Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada Archives



By Rebecca Walberg, June 28, 2010

For the first time in 25 years, high school students in Winnipeg can learn Yiddish at school.  While Yiddish was a subject at the Talmud Torah and Peretz schools, a generation of Winnipeg Jews grew up and were educated with almost no exposure to Yiddish at school. Ethel Amihude, a lifelong Winnipegger and teacher, is offering a half year Yiddish course at the high school level for students at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, which has been met with much interest.  Between 20 and 22 students have enrolled in each of the three sessions she has taught so far.

“It’s an introductory course,” Amihude explains, “and it’s based in Yiddish culture, reading and writing.”  As well as the mechanics of the language, she teaches the history and context of Yiddish, a thousand year old language that was for much of modern history the primary tongue of most European Jews.  Many people find Yiddish easier to learn than Hebrew, she notes, in part because there are no nekudot, or marks to indicate vowels, in Yiddish, and it is written entirely phonetically.

The significance of Yiddish in Jewish history is often overlooked, Amihude points out.  Because Jews lived in communities scattered throughout Europe, a sense of belonging to a wider Jewish community and having a Jewish identity was only possible through the use of a common language.  Communication between Jewish groups, and the establishment of formal and informal networks that spanned the continent, was successful because, despite local variations, Yiddish became a lingua franca.  Anecdotes reveal that this still happens occasionally today, as with a Brazilian student of Amihude’s who communicates with relatives still living in Brazil in Yiddish, the only language they have in common.

Amihude learned Yiddish from childhood, partly because her Yiddish speaking grandmother lived with her family.  When she was a student at the Peretz school, formal instruction added another layer to her understanding of the language.  The introduction of her class at the Gray Academy comes on the heels of the development of Yiddish language classes through the Department of German and Slavic studies at the University of Manitoba.  The eventual goal is to harmonize instruction in the two programs to make it as easy as possible for Gray Academy students to continue their studies at the University of Manitoba.

The options for Judaic Studies at the U of M have also increased, with a reintroduction of a minor option for students in the Faculty of Arts there.  Yiddish and Hebrew language classes, as well as courses in Jewish religion and history, Middle East politics, the Bible and Talmud provide the basis of this program, which was one of the first in its kind in Canada in the 1950s but was sharply cut back 20 years ago.

This emphasis on the broader cultural and historical aspects of Judaism parallels the approach Amihude takes in her classes.  Language skills are taught in the context of learning about life in the shtetl, the social roles in daily life, Yiddish art and literature, and politics.  This mirrors the trend towards a Yiddish revival throughout the US and Canada.  While Yiddish as an everyday language nearly vanished after the Holocaust, except in ultra-Orthodox circles, increasingly secular and modern Jews are seeking to preserve the rich Yiddish culture that is part of the heritage of most Ashkenazi Jews today.  Klezmer music is enjoying an unlikely renaissance, and a number of young American authors, such as Nathan Englander and Michael Chabon, are writing critically and commercially successful books infused with a Yiddish flavour.


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