Celebrating a Century of Yiddish at UW-Madison

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Yiddish instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With its initial offering in the fall semester of 1916, Wisconsin became the first university in the country to offer Yiddish-language instruction.

Cardinal9-30-1916p10An announcement for this pioneering course appeared in the September 9 edition of The Cardinal under the unfortunate headline, “Yiddish, Mawruss, You Can Now Learn in a University.” Though the article relied heavily on Yiddish linguistic stereotypes —substituting “Mawruss” for “Morris,” for example — it suggested that Wisconsin’s Yiddish course was the first such offering at a U.S. university, predating similar classes at Columbia University by nearly thirty years.

This first course was taught by Professor Louis Bernard Wolfenson (UW Class of 1901) in the Department of Semitics and Hellenistic Greek. Professor Wolfenson, best known for his 1911 publication that presented a radical reinterpretation of the Book of Ruth, gathered together seven students for this groundbreaking course on Yiddish language. Deeply civic minded, Professor Wolfenson helped found the Jewish Students Association in 1922 and for years served on the Executive Committee of Madison’s Jewish Welfare Board. He resigned his position at Wisconsin in 1924, leaving academia to return to private scholarship and Jewish public service.

Professor Irving S. Saposnik’s arrival at Wisconsin in 1966 sparked renewed interest in Yiddish scholarship. While his early courses focused on American Jewish literature, some of the first courses on the subject offered at a U.S. university, Professor Saposnik regularly led courses on Yiddish language and literature starting in 1983 and continuing until his death in 2003. Professor Saposnik also served as executive director of Hillel and held appointments at Haifa and Tel Aviv universities during his lifetime.

Interest in Yiddish music and culture received new life in 2003 with the appointment of jazz musician Ben Sidran as Artist-in-Residence at the Arts Institute. Sidran invited Henry Sapoznik (no relation to Irving Saposnik) and his ensemble, The Youngers of Zion, to perform as part of a semester-long focus on Jewish music in the United States.

Mr. Sapoznik returned to Wisconsin in 2009 as an Artist-in-Residence, giving lectures, concerts, and other programs focusing on Yiddish and American popular culture. His programs elicited a strong response from students and community members, leading to the founding of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture in 2010 with Mr. Sapoznik as its director.

The Mayrent Institute, founded with a donation by educator and record collector Sherry Mayrent, has become a leading center of Yiddish cultural literacy. To further the institute’s mission of making Yiddish culture accessible to the general public, Ms. Mayrent also donated her collection of some 9,000 historic Yiddish and Jewish sound recordings. The Mayrent Collection of Yiddish Recordings, housed at Mills Music Library, is being digitized and made available for free online streaming through the university’s Digital Collections Center, per Ms. Mayrent’s request.

The collection forms the catalyst for the popular and scholarly programs sponsored by the Mayrent Institute, including the Sound Salon lecture and concert series, symposia such as World Records and Viskonsin! Tales from Yiddish Wisconsin, and numerous guest lectures held on campus. Mr. Sapoznik regularly features recordings from the collection on local and national radio, including programming on WORT and WPR.

“It is an honor to be a part of the continuity of Yiddish cultural at the UW Madison,” said Mayrent Director Henry Sapoznik. “The founding of Yiddish on campus in 1916 was followed a half century later with Irving Saposnik’s work and then a half century again with the founding of the Mayrent Institute. My imagination reels wondering what the next half century will bring.”

Part of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Culture, the Mayrent Institute is proud to continue the University of Wisconsin’s legacy as an innovative leader for Yiddish scholarship and instruction.

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