More than 30 students gathered for the first Yiddish class at Peking University in Beijing – and, according to its instructor, the first Yiddish class ever taught in China.
On the evening of September 7, registrants and listeners in disciplines ranging from psychology, space physics, engineering, law and mathematics, learned the alef-beys and the popular Yiddish song about his apprenticeship, “Afn Prepetshik. Their instructor was Yang Meng, one of the few Chinese scholars fluent in the language. She is also the first we know to perform a Chinese-Yiddish song.
Yang learned Yiddish as part of her doctorate. research on Jewish exile in Shanghai during the Holocaust. “Among scholars of Jewish studies, I happened to know that there was no Mainland Chinese who spoke Yiddish at the time,” Yang said, “I thought why not give it a try!
I spoke with Yang via email about the course of the class, the state of Jewish studies in China, and why Chinese students might find common ground with the Yiddish language and culture.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
In your opinion, how famous is Yiddish in China? Is it distinct from the awareness of other modes of Jewish culture and languages?
The overwhelming majority of Chinese have no idea of Yiddish. Even at Peking University, the so-called Chinese Harvard, very few students or faculties have heard of Yiddish. Some students came to my Yiddish course because they were once my students in my course “Jewish Civilization in a Global Context”.
Most Chinese have very little knowledge of Judaism because it is not taught in schools or universities. Of over 200 students in my last semester’s Jewish civilization course, only five of them knew the word “Holocaust,” although they all knew about this tragic event. Very few have heard of Shabbat, let alone Yiddish.
From reading an article in the journal of Yiddish studies In the geveb, I learned that there was also a Jewish studies program at Nanjing University. What is the state of the field of Jewish studies in China as a whole? And has that changed since you started?
Very few universities or academic institutions in China have Jewish studies programs, e.g. Nanjing University, Shandong University, Henan University, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, ‘Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, etc. Other universities only have one or two scholars doing related studies. research or teaching. As in the city of Beijing, where there are almost 100 universities or colleges, my course in Jewish civilization is the only course in Jewish civilization open to the whole university.
Do you have people to speak Yiddish with in China? Apart from your class?
The only Yiddish-speaking couple I know of in Beijing is the rabbi and his wife. So I try to make the students understand that Yiddish is a key to Jewish culture. It was the Jewish language in the prewar Jewish world, it was the language that influenced American English and the culture that impacted American society after the war, it was the language that Holocaust survivors and the Orthodox community around the world speak today.
Is there anything about Yiddish – either as a language or in the culture or stories surrounding it – that you think Chinese students are likely to recognize in their own backgrounds and culture?
As Shanghainese is my mother tongue, I have more feelings for different languages/dialects. Today, Shanghainese also faces a situation similar to that of Yiddish and even worse, because there was no such rich literature in Shanghainese as in Yiddish. Shanghainese has its unique flavor and it shouldn’t just go away. There are already efforts to revive Shanghainese in Shanghai, for example, Shanghainese classes in Shanghai schools. Students from all parts of China have dialects from their hometown (their shtetl), and they could feel the meaning of a local language which is closely related to its people.
Last semester I organized two screenings: “Menashe” and “Unorthodox” and guided Chinese students to understand language and culture in movies. This semester, I plan to screen films by Woody Allen and the “Shtisel” series.
Do you think you will also have the chance to teach Yiddish next semester?
Next semester, I will be leading a seminar on “Jewish Literature and Art in the World”. I would like to open more about Jewish studies, but it is not easy to be approved. I tried, fought, insisted, persisted. My colleague Professor Zhao Baisheng wrote a very favorable letter for my Yiddish course and finally my Yiddish course was approved after repeated failures. I am very grateful to Kehillat Beijing and Kehillat Shanghai. The two Jewish communities in China have offered me a lot of help and support in my teaching and I firmly believe that it is very important to promote Jewish studies in China and to allow Chinese and Jewish civilizations to know each other.