Courtesy of Yang Meng
Huang Zijing, 19, is a medical student at Peking University, but he also practices the aleph-beys, the Yiddish alphabet.
Huang took a class on Jewish culture last year at Peking — known as the Harvard of China — and became fascinated with klezmer music. Now he’s enrolled in the first Yiddish language course ever offered in China.
“It is a symbol of the history of the Jewish people,” he told The World. “So I think by learning this language, I can know about the Jewish culture and the language better.”
The Yiddish language once thrived among European Jews before World War II, but now UNESCO considers it endangered. Over the past few years, there’s been growing interest in the language, including in China, where students at one of the country’s most prestigious universities are learning the language.
The class he attends is taught by assistant professor Yang Meng, who studied German before she switched to Yiddish.
“Sometimes I feel it's not I chose to learn Yiddish, but Yiddish chose me,” she said. She was doing research on World War II Jewish refugees in Shanghai when a professor told her there was no one studying Yiddish in mainland China. She thought, “Why not give it a try?”
In China, most people are unfamiliar with Jewish culture. There are Jewish studies departments at a handful of universities, but it remains a niche subject. Positive stereotypes about Jewish people have fueled a steady trade in books and videos about Jewish innovation and even Jewish child-rearing practices. But there is also a growing trend of negative depictions of Jews on social media.
Part of Yang’s aim in teaching Yiddish is dispelling those stereotypes.
“Many Chinese take for granted that all Jews are the same,” she said. “I think that is a very problematic approach to understand the Jewish people. This class also touches upon the Jewish culture. So we’ll mention the problem of global anti-Semitism.”
Courtesy of Yang Meng
She said it took years to convince Peking University to add a Yiddish language course. Now, 30 students show up to the class each week.
One of the challenges for her students is that there aren’t many people around to practice because there are very few Yiddish speakers in China. But Yang said that’s also part of the draw for them.
“Yiddish is now an endangered language, and that part has sometimes made Chinese students more into it, you know, to explore something which is now so-called disappearing,” she said.
Yang uses clips from TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Unorthodox” to give her students exposure to the language. And she gives them cultural context for the words they hear in the shows.
“They are also surprised to find that Yiddish is becoming part of the English language in American society,” she said.
Yang’s students told The World they are learning much more than just the language. Huang said he is learning about the Jewish experience, and especially lessons in adaptation.
“Through the whole history they move a lot,” he said. “They made something new to survive. And now I think they're thriving. So I think it can be learned from Jewish people or the Jewish culture, and use it in my own development or even the whole country's development.”
Courtesy of Yang Meng
Other students said they appreciate the exposure to other parts of the world.
“I think it’s meaningful to learn about other people and cultures, to help me widen my worldview and explore more about humanity,” said Lin Rong, a 24-year-old doctoral student in space physics.
Lin said learning Yiddish has made him think more about the dialect he grew up speaking with his parents in Fujian province.
“I think there is something to learn from Yiddish,” he said. “We need to work on preserving the sounds and words of our dialects.”
In a recent class, Huang performed a classic Yiddish song, “Oyfn Pripecheck,” for his classmates. The song is about a rabbi that teaches Yiddish to children.
Even though he's just learning the language, he said the song evokes a strong mix of emotions for him.
“The melody is sad but I can get some hope inside it,” he said. “You have to learn the language because you have to remember the history, to remember the culture, not to forget it.”
His teacher, Yang, said that learning Yiddish offers a way to combine the present with the past, and, in a way, to bring people a little bit closer.
“It’s now not about space but about time,” she said. “To make the world also smaller, a kleyne velt, a ‘small world.’”
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