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Paris: A real-life ‘Yiddishland’?

8 November 2011

Provost Teaching Award winner Dr Helen Beer is setting off on a fact-finding trip to Paris today in a bid to learn more about the effective teaching of Yiddish. She tells Ele Cooper why she’s crossing the Channel. 

Dr Helen Beer

How would you describe your approach to teaching Yiddish?

I teach Yiddish in Yiddish – and I do so until it’s coming out of my ears. I feel a kind of responsibility for the subject that perhaps I wouldn’t if I had hundreds or thousands of colleagues doing the same thing.

It’s a minority language that not that many people speak these days and it doesn’t have any geographical boundaries – you can’t send people to ‘Yiddishland’ to top up their language and cultural skills.

Have you discovered any particularly effective methods for teaching Yiddish?

I find that if you encourage a group of people to work towards a common goal that has the potential of being highly enjoyable, using a language that they don’t know, their language skills sky-rocket. For that reason, each year I stage a Purim Shpil, a Yiddish production that coincides with the Jewish festival of Purim, which involves the whole Jewish and Hebrew Studies department – both students and staff – regardless of whether they can speak Yiddish.

I strongly believe that drama and music improve teaching and learning; they kick-start students’ learning in a completely different way to classes. I’m also a big dinosaur in that I believe intensely in face-to-face teaching rather than having everything on the internet.

How easy is it to balance your teaching and research commitments?

I’ve always loved teaching, and I wish the same gravitas would be given to teaching as it is to research these days. I have to be honest: the amount that I teach together with all my extra commitments means that I don’t have very much time for my own research. 

I’m also endlessly being asked to translate. I try as far as possible to give away those jobs but occasionally they’re so fascinating (for example simultaneous translation in the High Court) that I can’t resist doing them myself.

Your status as a Provost Teaching Award winner enabled you to apply for funding to go on a fact-finding trip. What made you pick Paris?

Paris’s Maison de la Culture Yiddish has developed over the years as the most interesting and innovative centre for Yiddish teaching in Europe. It’s a very vibrant place with people coming and going all the time. 

They have monthly literary seminars, visual exhibitions on subjects like science education in Yiddish, and language courses ranging from absolute beginners’ level to the most advanced. At the same time they’ve got all kinds of cultural activities like choir workshops and courses on the use of humour in Yiddish literature. 

In 2002 I produced a world premiere of Jacob Jacobson, a full-length Yiddish play. That production inspired [La Maison] to form a drama group, which I was very chuffed about! 

Throughout the rest of the world, if you work in Yiddish you work in isolation, but in Paris there’s a whole collective. Some are native Yiddish speakers like me, some are academics working in different universities around Paris, and together they’re doing something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

It sounds like a fascinating place. What are you going to investigate during your trip?

I thought it would be very interesting to attend as many classes as I possibly can over the five days I’m there. I want to speak to the teachers before and after each session about the kind of teaching they do and why, and also coordinate meetings amongst the collective. My plan is to impart certain questions before I go so they have some thinking time beforehand. 

I also want to find out to what extent they share materials and use technology in their teaching and compare it to what I do here. I might come across something and think ‘That’s terrific, I absolutely must adopt that instantly’, or I might think ‘That’s great but it wouldn’t work in London’. I don’t know. 

Do you anticipate the trip having a significant impact on the way you teach?

I have to say I don’t know. Because I’ve done so much teaching in my life, there are certain things that I feel work and would be unlikely to discard. However, I’m always happy to experiment. Teaching is like that, you have to be quite intuitive and you always have to have an awareness of who you have before you. 

Even though I’ve made many trips to Paris, sometimes teaching there three times a year, I’ve never actually been with the purpose of attending absolutely every class that they’re holding in order to get a panoramic view. So many issues will arise, I’m sure. I’ll have to take a big fat notebook.

Dr Helen Beer is lecturer in Yiddish at the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. We will be reporting on the outcomes of her trip once she returns from Paris.

Page last modified on 08 nov 11 17:27

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