Can Berkeley become the next center for Yiddish studies?

By Alec Burko, Lecturer, UC Berkeley Department of German and Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies

When it comes to the best universities in the country, one usually speaks of the Ivy League schools on the East Coast. But among the top-ranked universities in the world, you will also find Berkeley. According to the “Academic Ranking of World Universities” (ARWU), Berkeley ranks fifth; according to the US News ranking, it is fourth. 

Both for hard and soft sciences Berkeley is a global center. On campus, there are special parking spots reserved for Nobel laureates. 110 professors there have been Nobel laureates – more than at any other university except for Harvard and Cambridge. These are mostly physicists and chemists, but also not a few physiologists and economists. There was also one literature laureate: the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who taught for 18 years in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Miłosz was from Vilnius and a friend to the Jews, having helped save Jews during the Second World War. The State of Israel recognized him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. 

Berkeley also has a controversial history. The new film “Oppenheimer,” about the Jewish physicist who led the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bombs, was partially filmed on the Berkeley campus. There the physicists discovered the element plutonium, which they used for the atomic bomb – the tragically famous attack that destroyed Nagasaki. 

In the 1960s, the campus became a center of student protests against the Vietnam War. Since then, Berkeley has had a reputation for activism and radicalism, which plays a role in the American public’s imagination to this day. This reputation probably helps attract students from various backgrounds, especially for the humanities. 

In fact, today’s Berkeley students and professors don’t have much time for activism, because they are busy working: studying, researching, writing. Anyone who slacks off is thrown out. Most students (though not all) are ambitious and serious young people who were the best students in their high schools. Many are children of immigrants who have instilled in them the hope for a better life. Not a few students already know from the beginning that they want to become microbiologists, computer engineers, marketing consultants, and the like. Everything they do must have a purpose. 

For a number of talented students, one purpose has become Yiddish. For many years, Professor Chana Kronfeld taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature, while Dr. Yael Chaver primarily taught Yiddish language courses. Together, they trained several generations of younger researchers, who now hold academic positions around the world. Both have recently retired, and several new faculty members have arrived. 

This spring, Professor Roni Masel, an expert in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, began teaching. In the linguistics department, Professor Isaac Bleaman has been teaching for four years; he is one of the best researchers in Yiddish linguistics in the world. For the time being, Masel and Bleaman are very busy teaching general courses, rather than their specialization, but the number of classes on Yiddish and Yiddish literature will grow in the future. 

In fall 2021, I started working as a Yiddish lecturer at Berkeley. Because the number of students is not very large, I have had the opportunity to get to know them better. The first year, I was lucky that a new graduate student in Slavic languages, Misha Lerner, wanted to learn Yiddish. He is an expert in Russian literature but also interested in Yiddish literature. As his name suggests, he is a serious and committed Yiddish student who will continue his studies in the YIVO summer program for the second time. Several other graduate students have also studied Yiddish with Dr. Yael Chaver. I especially want to mention Nathan Herschel Levine, who studies Ancient Greek literature, primarily the poet Homer, but also finds time for many other interests. The group is so smart and knowledgeable that I learn from them as much as they learn from me. 

Indeed, because there are currently few students in the Yiddish classes, I am grateful to the people who make these courses possible; primarily, the chair of the German Department, Professor Karen Feldman, and the faculty director of the Center for Jewish Studies, Professor John Efron

I hope that more students and young Yiddishists will come to Berkeley and benefit from the Yiddish experts here. With such a strong faculty, one should expect to hear Yiddish on the streets. But for now, quality is more important for me than quantity.