Celebrating a Century of Yiddish at UW-Madison

Announcement for Yiddish course in The Cardinal, September 30, 1916This year marks the 100th anniversary of Yiddish instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. With its initial offering in the fall semester of 1916, UW–Madison became the first university in the country to offer Yiddish-language instruction.

An announcement for this pioneering course appeared that year in the September 9th edition of The Cardinal under the unfortunate headline, "Yiddish, Mawruss, You Can Now Learn in a University." Though the article relied heavily on ethnic Jewish stereotypes—substituting "Mawruss" for "Morris," for example—it suggested that UW–Madison's Yiddish course was the first such offering at a U.S. university, predating similar classes at Columbia University by nearly 30 years.

This first course in Yiddish was taught by Professor Louis Bernard Wolfenson (UW–Madison 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 semester. Deeply civic-minded, Professor Wolfenson helped found the Jewish Students' Association—the precursor for B'nai B'rith Hillel founded in 1924—and for years served on the Executive Committee of Madison's Jewish Welfare Board. He resigned his position in 1925, leaving academia to return to private scholarship and Jewish public service. 

Academic Yiddish at UW–Madison lay dormant nearly a half century until Professor Irving S. Saposnik's arrival at UW–Madison in 1966 sparked renewed interest in Yiddish and Jewish scholarship. Soon after joining the faculty Saposnik developed a course on American Jewish literature, which quickly became one of the most popular classes on campus. He left the university in 1972 for a position at Haifa University in Israel, but returned to Madison in 1983 as the executive director at Hillel. From 1983 until his retirement in 1999, Saposnik taught classes in Yiddish language and literature and launched a Yiddish film festival.

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 UW–Madison 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 himself 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, Mayrent also donated her collection of some 9,000 historic Yiddish and Jewish sound recordings to the university. 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, as Sherry Mayrent requested.

The collection forms both the basis and 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. Henry Sapoznik also regularly features recordings from the collection on local and national radio, including programming on WORT and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Sapoznik feels, “It is an honor to be a part of the continuity of Yiddish cultural at the UW Madison. 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.”

In our year-long celebration of the UW–Madison Yiddish centenary, the Mayrent Institute has an exciting slate of events scheduled for the spring including the upcoming Yiddish conversation circle, Der Shmues, on March 7 at 7pm in the historic University Club Building. Led by Mayrent Institute directory Henry Sapoznik and Professor of German and Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies director Mark Louden, this informal gathering promises to be a lively event fit for Yiddish speakers of all ages and abilities.

On April 14-15, the institute will host its World Records symposium featuring presentations and live performances of vernacular musics. Library of Congress Recorded Sound Program Manager Eugene DeAnna will serve as the keynote speaker for this year's event. Yiddish culture will be strongly represented with a presentation on the Thomas Lambert Yiddish cylinders by Henry Sapoznik and a performance of rural Polish-Yiddish music by renowned musicians Cookie Segelstein (fiddle) and Joshua Horowitz (accordion). The symposium is co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, Mills Music Library, and the School of Music.

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.