Staring Down a Whole Library: How I Became Less Afraid of Learning Yiddish

There is a photo in which I look absolutely terrified. This photo was taken at the National Yiddish Book Center, during my first week of Yiddish classes, in the middle of what the employees of the book center fondly call “the stacks.” Behind the camera, rows upon piles upon boxes of books written in Yiddish stare me down. In front of the camera, fear radiates from all of my pores.

Translators at the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA.
Translators at the Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA.

The program that I participated in, the Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, brought together a group of nineteen students and gave us the materials to learn Yiddish at the National Yiddish Book Center. Our days were split between class, clubs, and activities, but for the first few weeks all I could do to stay afloat was to study long hours, often late into the night. I had long ago accepted that I was a slow language learner, and honestly, at that point, most of my classmates had reached the same conclusion. I could actually feel people scoot their chairs away from mine when it was time for group work. It was starting to become discouraging, and the fear that photo captured, of being unable to learn, remained tangible. The ultimate moment of rejection came when, as a member of Translation Club, I was asked to visually translate the text our group was working on. In other words, my club-mates would translate while I drew the pictures.

I was resentful, but who knew that the best way to make me do something is to tell me that I can’t do it at all? I started studying, even more intensely, with some vague intention of proving everybody wrong, and eventually moved up the ranks in the classroom. I found myself being able to help others, instead of always raising my hand for assistance. I consulted dictionaries, and sat among countless drafts of the translation. At the end of the seven weeks, I presented the translation that our club had put together as a group. It included my illustrations, but also my hard work translating a portion of the short story from English into Yiddish.

When I graduated from the program, I took the time to walk through the stacks once again. There are thousands of books there. Sholem Aleichem, Mendele the Book Peddler, S. An-ski, Peretz, Khava Rosenfarb, Israel Rabon, the list goes on. I wasn’t afraid of them anymore. I knew that with enough hours spent with my nose in the dictionary and a pen in my hand, I could eventually read any of them. And I would. The photo of me at the beginning of the program would contrast greatly against a picture you might take of me in the stacks today. I have learned that with enough hard work, a literature full of history, philosophy, political ideology, religion, and vibrant culture lays at my fingertips, and I have learned that Yiddish is not something to be afraid of. Not at all.


schneider_2016-03-28-author-image.png (966×700)Hannah Schneider is a Jewish Studies major at Smith College, where she concentrates in Yiddish translation. To date, she has translated the children’s story “A Memorial by the Stream,” by Moyshe Levin, and is in the process of working with professor Justin Cammy, and several other translators, on the first draft into English of Avrom Sutzkever’s memoir, “Vilna Ghetto.”

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