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Key to Yiddish

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Key to Yiddish

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Key to Yiddish
(Shlisl tsu Yidish)
Textbook for Beginners: A Cultural Voyage
By Miriam Hoffman
Paperback, Second Edition - CreateSpace, 2011
ISBN: 978-1461170020

Also available - the Hardcover first edition of the textbook.

Can be Ordered Directly from

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 14, 2012

There are a number of excellent Yiddish textbooks available for English-speaking students, and each has its own unique pedagogy and each is targeted to a specific audience. The book under examination here is Key to Yiddish, by Miriam Hoffman. She is a native speaker of Yiddish, a professor and lecturer at Columbia University, she is a renowned teacher of Yiddish, and an author who has written widely - in Yiddish and about Yiddish. The Key to Yiddish comes in at over six-hundred pages and it is geared toward students who are studying modern Yiddish in instructor lead courses at the college level, or in an intensive Yiddish program for motivated high school and adult students, such as the intensive six-week summer language programs offered at many schools. Key to Yiddish is not suitable for use by independent learners who are just beginning their study of Yiddish as it does not include an answer key and many of the lessons in the text would benefit from further exposition by a skilled Yiddish teacher. Hoffman originally developed and used the materials in this book in a classroom setting where she was available to explain any difficult or confusing points. Consequently, this text is best used with an instructor who can stand in for Hoffman and explain any confusing elements in the text. However, independent learners who have mastered the fundamentals of Yiddish will find that this book offers a plethora of readings, from folk tales and proverbs to letters and poems, which they can use to supplement their primary textbook. The exercises contained in this book will provide them with extra 'Yiddish' practice.

Key to Yiddish teaches modern Standard Yiddish. It begins with a brief overview of the Yiddish alphabet and then quickly moves onto the basic structure of Yiddish sentences. From this foundation, Hoffman soon has you reading short passages in Yiddish, building your Yiddish vocabulary, and learning the fundamentals of Yiddish grammar. Along the way she exposes students to a broad swatch of Yiddish culture and literature. In addition, the text is illustrated with an eclectic blend of illustrations and cartoons that enhance the readings in the text, and which serve as a starting ground for conversations - in Yiddish of course. The lessons at the beginning of the text are short, and followed by related exercises and short reading sections. As you get deeper into the text, the lessons become more complex and the readings much longer and more complete. In addition, the exercises provide ample opportunities to practice your reading, writing, and speaking skills. Throughout the lessons are interspersed with cultural and historical commentary, as well as such items as brief biographies of Yiddish writers, idiomatic expressions and sayings, information about the Jewish calendar, dialogues, and much more. This combination of lessons, exercises, diverse readings, and cultural forays makes Key to Yiddish a dynamic and fun book to use and study. Every day you'll get to try your hand at something a little different, so that you never get bored. From the very beginning you get to read and study 'real' Yiddish sentences, stories, poems, and songs, rather than made up words or text. This provides students with an authentic introduction to standard Yiddish. Most important, Hoffman's methodology in teaching Yiddish proves that Yiddish is a living and vibrant language - not an archaic relic to be taught and used only in an academic setting.

Granted, everything you read in this book might not be 100% grammatically correct - but such books are dull and don't teach you how 'real' people speak or write a language. By using real examples, from both secular and religious sources, Hoffman introduces you to the Yiddish spoken and used by everyday people, not just the Yiddish used in academic circles. Nonetheless, at the same time she manages to provide students with a firm grounding in the fundamental of Yiddish grammar and structure, thereby preparing them to take more advance Yiddish courses in an academic setting.

Yiddish is a language without borders. It is not a national language, yet it is spoken around the world, has a long and vibrant historical and cultural history, and it is used by both secular and religious Jews for just about everything from carrying on a conversation about the weather to writing plays and novels. Spoken by millions of people before the Holocaust, the use of Yiddish saw a drastic downturn after the war, but it never went out of use. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest about Yiddish and Yiddish culture. There is once again a vibrant community of Yiddish speakers around the world, and Yiddish is once again flowering in literary circles. As well, many colleges now offer Yiddish classes along side of French, Spanish, Hebrew, and other 'common' languages. Students and teachers are sure to find Key to Yiddish to be an excellent beginning Yiddish textbook. Due to the diverse range of readings contained in the text, it also makes an excellent supplemental text for use with other Yiddish language textbooks.

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