At the Harvard of China, something brand nu — a class in Yiddish – The Forward

Over 30 students gathered for the first Yiddish course at Peking University in Beijing – and, according to their lecturer, the first Yiddish course ever taught in China.

On the evening of September 7th, enrollers and auditors in Psychology, Space Physics, Engineering, Law and Mathematics majors learned this alef-beys and the popular Yiddish song about learning, “Afn Prepetschik.” Her teacher was Yang Meng, one of only a handful of Chinese academics who became fluent in the language. She is also the first we know to perform a Chinese Yiddish song.

Yang learned Yiddish as part of her PhD. Research on Jewish exile in Shanghai during the Shoah. “Among the scholars of Jewish Studies, I happened to know that there were none Mainland Chinese who spoke Yiddish at the time,” Yang said, “I thought, why don’t you try it!”

I spoke to Yang via email about how the course is going, the state of Jewish studies in China, and why Chinese students might find common ground with Yiddish language and culture.

The following conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

What would you say is the awareness of Yiddish in China? Is it different from awareness of other forms of Jewish culture and language?

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The overwhelming majority of Chinese have no knowledge of Yiddish. Even at Peking University, the so-called Chinese Harvard, very few students or faculty have ever heard of Yiddish. Some students came to my Yiddish classes because they were once my students in my Jewish Civilization in Global Context course.

Most Chinese have very little knowledge of Judaism because it is not part of the education in schools or universities. Of over 200 students in my Jewish Civilization course last semester, only five of them ever knew the word “Holocaust,” even though they were all aware of this tragic event. Very few have ever heard of Shabbat, let alone Yiddish.

From reading an article in Jiddish Studies magazine in geveb, I found out that there is also a Jewish study program at Nanjing University. What is the overall status of Jewish Studies in China? And has that changed since launch?

Very few universities or academic institutions in China have Jewish study programs, e.g. Such as Nanjing University, Shandong University, Henan University, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, etc. Other universities have only one or two scholars related to research or teaching. As in the city of Beijing, where there are almost 100 universities or colleges, my Jewish Civilization Course is the only Jewish Civilization Course open university-wide.

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Yang Meng (on screen) taught the Alef-Beys using a clip from Schindler’s List. The plaque reads “I am from China” in English, German and Yiddish as all three are Germanic languages. Courtesy of Yang Meng

Do you have people in China to speak Yiddish with? Apart from your class?

The only Yiddish-speaking couple I know in Beijing are the rabbi and his wife. That’s why I try to make the students understand that Yiddish is a key to Jewish culture. This was the Jewish language in the pre-war Jewish world, this was the language that influenced American English and the culture that had an impact on American society after the war, this is the language spoken today by Holocaust survivors and speak to the Orthodox community worldwide.

Is there anything about Yiddish – either as a language or in the culture or the stories that surround it – that you think Chinese students would recognize in their own background and culture?

Since Shanghainese is my mother tongue, I have more feelings for different languages/dialects. Today, Shanghainese is also facing a situation similar to that of Yiddish and even worse, since there was not such a rich literature in Shanghainese as in Yiddish. Shanghainese has its unique flavor and shouldn’t just go away. Efforts are already being made to revive Shanghainese in Shanghai, for example courses in Shanghainese in schools in Shanghai. Students coming from all parts of China have dialects from their hometown (their shtetl), and they may feel the importance of a local language that is closely related to their people.

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Last semester I organized two screenings: “human” and “Unorthodox” and I guided the Chinese students to understand the language and culture in the films. This semester I plan to show films by Woody Allen and the series “Shtisel”.

Do you think you will also get the chance to teach Yiddish next semester?

In the next semester I will lead a seminar on “Jewish World Literature and Art”. I would like to open more about Jewish Studies, but getting permission is not easy. I tried, fought, insisted, insisted. My colleague Professor Zhao Baisheng wrote a very supportive letter for my Yiddish course and eventually my Yiddish course was approved after repeated failures. I am very grateful to Kehillat Beijing and Kehillat Shanghai. Both Jewish communities in China have offered me much help and support with my teaching, and I firmly believe that there is great value in promoting Jewish studies in China and in letting both Chinese and Jewish civilizations find their ways to get to know one another.

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