An Introduction to One of Our Teachers - Ruth Gerlock
By Alan Scheer
April 27, 2022
On April 24th, the Committee for Yiddish will start its third semester of Yiddish courses for the current year. In total there are seven courses on offer: Beginner Yiddish, Beginner-Plus Yiddish, Intermediate Yiddish, Advanced Yiddish, Yiddish Theatre workshop, and the Yiddish Reading Circle (Leyenkrayz). Another Yiddish course is being offered for the first time at the Miles Nadal JCC. This class is at the intermediate level and is called Learning Yiddish Through Folktales and Children’s Books. All of the courses will be taught via zoom.
I recently spoke with Ruth Gerlock who is the teacher of the first three levels of Yiddish language instruction. A child of European parents who emigrated to Toronto after the war, Ruth’s parents passed on their love for Yiddish to their children. Yiddish was the first language Ruth learned in her home and she continued to speak Yiddish to her parents throughout their lives. She says her parents had a very strong feeling of wanting to keep their beloved language alive, and not allow the horrific decimation of most of the people in the world who spoke Yiddish be forgotten.
Ruth is clearly a very experienced teacher and, in our conversation, she spoke with great passion about her classes. She said that her classes are more than just language classes for the people who participate in group learning. The students become a very tight community of learners and many students continue to take her classes term after term. Ruth constantly adds new content to her classes. For her returning students, joining once a week with classmates old and new, is like a return to a wonderful, friendly home.
It is a testament to Ruth’s great teaching that with the advent of teaching on Zoom, students now participate from all around the world. This has been greatly facilitated by the outreach efforts of The Committee for Yiddish. Recently Ruth had students from Italy, Germany, France, Israel, Yellowknife, Vancouver, Newfoundland, and numerous from the United States, including states which are known to have their own very strong local classes. According to Ruth, it is now difficult to say whether most of the students come from the Toronto area, because there are also a fair number of students who participate from smaller cities in the province such as Kingston, Ottawa, and Peterborough.
Ruth adapts the curriculum so that all of her students eventually feel comfortable and free to participate. In the Beginner class, knowledge of the alef beys (the Hebrew alphabet) is not required, but Ruth encourages her students to learn it as quickly as possible so they can begin reading. For the first level of classes Ruth writes her work in both Hebrew characters and transliteration to assist students who are not familiar with the Hebrew alphabet. However, by the next level the material is only written in Yiddish.
One of the first questions Ruth always asks her class is, “Why are you taking Yiddish at this point in your life?” Her students respond that they heard their parents talking to one another when they didn’t want the children to understand, or that their parents spoke to their grandparents in Yiddish and they were always interested in learning what was being discussed. The students who participate range from teenagers to students who are retired and even in their eighties. It’s interesting because it’s hard to imagine that many teenagers today are born to parents who continue to speak Yiddish at home. This says something about the increased interest in the Yiddish language and the desire for people to speak and read it.
The difference between the three classes Ruth teaches is the increased complexity of the work that is taught. Students in Beginner Yiddish quickly learn how to communicate about themselves, their families, and their environment (the weather, the class, their home). As students progress, the topics for discussion get broader. The same is true for reading and understanding text. Ruth creates her own reading material for each of her classes as she wants the material to be relevant to the students who are in the class. Each level involves speaking, listening (including playing Yiddish songs and music) and reading. In each level the reading is progressively advanced. As the students move forward, they examine poetry and, in the higher levels, short stories.
Ruth’s philosophy of teaching is that the best way to teach grammar is in the context of the work being read. In the Beginner class students can expect over the course of eight weeks to begin to feel comfortable speaking and writing in the present tense. By the intermediate level Ruth hopes her students can read and write in three tenses, understand noun endings and the cases. The advantage of teaching via Zoom is that there is always the opportunity for break-out rooms where students can practise the skills they are learning in the class. The largest class of the three has always been the intermediate class. The class has become so large that the Committee has asked Ruth to teach two sections of the class in one day.
For Ruth the greatest joy of teaching Yiddish is helping students connect to their Yiddish roots, and that the community she is building is keeping Yiddish alive and well. Ruth believes that our parents and grandparents would be very proud to know this. She feels it’s wonderful to have people come back to Yiddish who may have studied it in their childhoods or are studying it for the first time. Many students are also very curious about their culture, and they feel that studying Yiddish is a way to learn more about the culture they grew up in.
Overall, Ruth hopes that her students have lots of fun in her classes. Teaching Yiddish is not just the teaching of a language. It’s bringing students closer to Yiddishkayt. She often talks to her classes about the great literature that has been written in Yiddish and gives a history of the language that not everyone may be aware of anymore.
One can sense immediately the passion and the love she has for Yiddish and the excitement she shares in working with her students. The fact that they become a tight group is proof that she is an exceptional teacher. If it isn’t possible for you to study this spring with one of these courses offered by the Committee for Yiddish, there will be a new semester of courses offered after the high holidays in the fall.