In Yiddish Class, Teacher and Students Find Mishpokhe—‘Family’

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By Joe Wilensky

The students had brought items to class for a show-and-tell session, prompted to learn two new words in Yiddish related to that thing. One brought in a necklace; another showed off a set of erasers shaped like sushi; another a film camera. One student brought a ukulele (in Yiddish, also ukulele), prompting a class discussion about the many words that the language has regarding music and instruments.

Strune is ‘string,’” noted the instructor, David Forman. “And does anyone know another word for ‘instrument’? It’s actually the word that we often use for a Yiddish musician, a klezmer. A kley is an implement, or vessel, and zemer is ‘song’ in Hebrew.”

Yiddish instructor David Forman writes in Yiddish on a blackboard
Forman’s devotion to Yiddish includes translating the work of his grandfather, the author Solomon Simon.

There have been many mini-lessons like that in this elementary Yiddish class. From one or two new words, a connection is made—not just in Yiddish, but a bridge to another language, to Jewish culture, to tradition.

(The sushi-shaped erasers posed more of a challenge; the class settled on esnvarg—something close to “foodstuffs.”)

Cornell began offering Yiddish in 2019; in 2022, it became eligible to fulfill the College of Arts and Sciences’ language requirement.

This is the first academic year that the full course progression is being rolled out, with Elementary Yiddish I and II offered in the fall and spring at four credits each, with an intermediate class planned next.

In 2022, Yiddish became eligible to fulfill the College of Arts and Sciences’ language requirement.

“Many people think of Yiddish as the language of humor and shtick,” Forman observes. “But students quickly learn that it’s a complete language—able to express the subtlest, most profound things.”

The current class has just five students. But interest has been strong, and participants have found they are deepening their knowledge not only of the language, but of history and heritage—often on a very personal level.

Materials science and engineering student Alice Fried ’26 never knew her great-grandparents, who passed away when she was very young—but she knows they spoke Yiddish, and thought the course would help her feel a stronger bond to them.

“Other than observing the holidays with my family, I do not find myself regularly connecting with Jewish culture,” she says. “Attending Yiddish class four times a week, and practicing it for much of the rest of the week, has given me the opportunity to connect daily with my culture along with the language.”

Detail view of Yiddish instructor David Forman holding a Yiddish textbook

Originating in Europe more than 1,000 years ago, Yiddish is the historical, everyday language of Ashkenazi Jews.

It incorporates elements of High German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages, and includes traces of some Romance languages.

It’s written using a modified version of Hebrew script, though its grammar structure and vocabulary have more in common with German than with Semitic languages like Hebrew or Arabic.

Offering a few examples of Yiddish’s tone, humor, and embrace of its source languages, Forman points out that the endearing term boytshikl (“little guy”) takes the English noun “boy” and adds the Slavic tchik and Germanic (-l) suffixes to render the word both diminutive and affectionate.

Yiddish idioms and sayings are often vivid and/or humorous, Forman says.

Vi kumt di kats ibern vaser?”—which translates literally to “How does the cat get across the water?”—means the equivalent of “Easier said than done.”

“Abi gezunt” (“as long as you have your health”) is one of the many possible answers to “How are you?” that artfully evades the question—redirecting attention, Forman says, to what’s really important. “It seems philosophical, even stoic—but tone is everything,” he says. “It can express genuine gratitude or a not-so-thinly veiled complaint.”

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By the early decades of the 20th century, Yiddish was spoken by more than 10 million Jews, both secular and religious.

After millions of European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel renewed Hebrew as not only the language of prayer but as a spoken tongue.

Yiddish—seen as an old-world throwback, the language of the Jewish diaspora—fell out of favor. Today, only about 500,000 people speak Yiddish; half of those, many of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, are in the U.S.

Students quickly learn that it’s a complete language—able to express the subtlest, most profound things.

Instructor David Forman

But recent years have brought a growing interest in the language by secular Jews and others who have discovered that Yiddish is a vital part of Jewish heritage— having thrived on both sides of the Atlantic in art, theater, literature, humor, and elsewhere.

In classroom settings, studying it can be a rewarding way to examine how Jewish culture has adapted over the generations while also maintaining a distinct identity.

Many Americans are already familiar with Yiddish words and phrases that have made their way into English use; the language is the source of numerous food-related terms like “nosh” and “bagel” as well as colorful terms like schmooze, putz, klutz, mensch, and “Oy vey!”

The recent resurgence has also entered pop culture—from the hit Off-Broadway run of a Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof (“Fidler Afn Dakh”) to several popular streaming TV series and new translations of literary works. Even the online language-learning site Duolingo added Yiddish a few years ago.

“I have been surrounded by Yiddish all my life because of my grandparents, who came to the United States from Romania,” says Samantha Chussid ’24, a psychology major in Arts and Sciences. “I have always wanted to learn more of the language to connect with them and their roots, and my daily phone calls with them have created a bond between us that is only growing.”

Human Ecology fashion design major Lila Frost ’25 says she enrolled in the class because she is fascinated with how language signifies and responds to culture.

“I descend from Litvish [Lithuanian] shtetl dwellers, and wish I could visit their vanished world,” says Frost. “Yiddish has been a window into it.”

I have always wanted to learn more of the language to connect with my grandparents and their roots.

Samantha Chussid ’24

Forman, who also has translated Yiddish and cataloged documents for the University Library, continues to advocate for the serious study and appreciation of Yiddish. He aims to raise its esteem among American Jews—beyond the stereotypes of Borscht-Belt comedians, quips, and complaints.

“Yiddish was the majority language of the majority of the world’s Jews for nearly 1,000 years,” he says. “I actually go to some trouble not to give in too much to shtick, however much it may be expected and enjoyed,” he explains.

“Too many people think of Yiddish—in the memorable words of a friend of mine—as ‘a language composed entirely of punchlines.’”

Photos by Jason Koski / Cornell University; video by Alex Bayer / Cornell University.

Published December 11, 2023


  1. Rafi Lasar, Class of 1982

    I am fortunate to count Forman as a friend who has helped guide me through my learning Yiddish as an adult. His students are fortunate to have him and to be able to connect with their language roots as young as they are. I only wish Cornell had had a Yiddish program when I was there in the late 70s/early 80s.


  2. Barbara Gordon, Class of 1982

    Would be great if there could be an online class for alums.

  3. Steven M Schultz, Class of 1978

    As a Cornell graduate considering taking a summer course at Cornell Adult University, I would be interested taking a Yiddish course if offered during the summer. My mishpucha would kvell.

  4. Naomi (Block) Esmon, Class of 1969

    I only wish this course existed back in the ’60’s!! Would have made a WHOLE lot more sense for me than the Russian I took because I was tired of French from high school and as I recall were the only languages available as an Aggie science major. I tried a beginning Yiddish class when I first moved to Oklahoma City in ’76, but it rapidly fell apart when the one man who knew more than a little Yiddish yelled out the word/answers before the rest of us could. A mensch he wasn’t.

  5. William Owens, Class of 1976

    This story calls up some memories: My secular Jewish mother and Welsh-Irish father enrolled me in a Yiddish course taught by the poet Menke Katz when I was 11– an opportunity I sadly wasted! In high school a friend was the daughter of Joseph Landis, a CUNY Queens College professor who did much to bring about the revival Yiddish studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus I got to see Ida Kaminiska in a production of a Yiddish play at Queens College (which a search of the NY Times archives reminds me was titled “Glickl Hameln Demands Justice”).

  6. Stephen Shainbart, Class of 1985

    In my opinion, Jews (of which I am one) could use a course like this now more than ever, and Cornell needs it too (after the horrible anti/semitism seen recently at Cornell and other universities). And I agree with others- it would be wonderful if an online class would be available to alumni!

  7. Joe Magid, Class of 1979

    While I suspect I wouldn’t have fared much better in Yiddish class than I did in the German I ended up taking (memorization is not one of my better skills), but at least my dad his mom, who emigrated from the Pale of Settlement in eastern Europe, could have helped me; when I asked them for help with my German – both were fluent as my grandmother spend over a year in Austria before coming to America & my dad’s dad was Swiss German (died years earlier) – they exclaimed “that’s high German, no one speaks that! You’re on your own!”

  8. David Forman

    I’m so pleased by the article Joe Wilensky has written, and I’m delighted by these enthusiastic responses. I have received a few privately as well.
    Very glad to have evoked good memories for some of you.
    As for those who expressed interest in studying the language online, this is not the right moment for me to take that on. There are some very good programs out there, including those offered by the Arbeter Ring and by Yivo. I learned as an adult myself. It’s never too late!
    You can find my email by searching on Cornell University’s website. If you do try an online class, let me know how it’s going. Perhaps I can come up with some other resources and suggestions as well.

    • Ellen Muraskin, Class of 1975

      I’m so glad you mentioned those online courses, David. I’ve taken six or seven at Arbeter Ring and they’re good, attended (and taught!) online by people from all over the world. Once you get a little conversant, there are online “shmoozes,” conversation groups, being zoomed around the world, moderated by folks I’ve met in San Jose, London, and Paris. YIVO basid in NYC and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA also do this, I believe; as you know, the YBC came out with the first new textbook, In Eynem, in years.

      I share your passion for learning and teaching Yiddish, as well as your last name. Maiden name, Forman. My father’s father came from Shargorod, now Ukraine. Not such a rare Jewish name, true. Ober ver veyst, efsher zaynen mir mishpukhe!

  9. Charles Iseman, Class of 1967

    I wish that Yiddish had been offered in 1963-67. I would have greatly enjoyed that instead of taking more French classes than I wished to take — my major was mathematics.

  10. Eugene Lisansky

    I had an opportunity to learn Yiddish when I was about 9, but hating school (especially school on SATURDAYS), I blew it off, much to my perennial regret. It would be great if Cornell offered this online, but then you’d lose the spontaneous interactions that bring language learning to life.

  11. Roberta Becker

    I believe “Gut Morgn” is “good morning”.
    Maybe it also means “Hello” but probably
    not said in the evening.

    • David Forman

      Yes, it’s often translated as “Good morning.”
      Historically, it’s actually a closer equivalent to the (now obselete) English greeting, “Good morrow,” since ‘morgn’ means ‘tomorrow’ and not ‘morning’. You can use it as a greeting in the afternoon as well as in the morning, though that does confuse some people whose point of reference is the English sound-alike.
      And yes, you’re also right that in the evening you’d use a different greeting. Most often, that would be “Gutn-ovnt.”

  12. Julie Bestry, Class of 1989

    When I was at Cornell in the late 80s, I repeatedly signed up for the Yiddish course which I was (repeatedly) told would be taught the next semester, though it never was.

    During WWII, my mother and grandmother lived with her bubbe and zayde (grandmother and grandfather) and Yiddish was used at least as often as English. How I would have loved to take Professor Forman’s class and practice speaking the mamaloshen with her! My mom is a longtime member of a Yiddish club in Buffalo, NY, and I’ve sent this article to her and to one of the club’s leaders. Great job! Zei gezunt!

    • Kayla Shames, Class of 2021

      As a graduate of this program and now a resident of Buffalo I’d love some more info on this club!

  13. Fred Abeles, Class of 1957

    What nice article and set of comments
    I immigrated to the US in 1938. I spoke German as a child until I went to public school in NY. I could understand the little Yiddish I heard because of its German roots. My daughter (Cornell BS, PhD) and I play klezmer music on our violin and cello respectively.

  14. Sue Ellen Schwam, Class of 1975

    Would love to take it on line. Graduated in 1975, College of Human Ecology

  15. Emile Bensedrine, Class of 2023

    It makes me so freylekh (happy) to see that Dr. Forman’s Class has gotten off the ground and fulfilling the A&S language requirement! He’s a great professor too! I highly recommend to any current students interested in Yiddish or Ashkenazi+Jewish culture to enroll. Even during the height of covid, getting the chance to connect in Yiddish always made the day brighter.

  16. Stacy Stableford, Class of 1976

    As a 1976 graduate, I never had the chance to learn this colorful, expressive language formally at Cornell. Now in my late 60’s, I’m taking online classes with YIVO and also UJA. One teacher is based in Argentina, using KLAL and the other is in Toronto, speaking Poilish. I love it all but oh, how I wish Cornell offered this online! I’ve long known that Cornell gave me the best education from the best teachers and I know this is still true. I value this kind of learning so Professor Forman, please find a way to offer a course online. A sheynem dank!

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