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.
An announcement for the accredited course appeared in the Sept. 9 edition of The Cardinal under the unfortunate headline, “Yiddish, Mawruss, You Can Now Learn in a University.” Though the article relied heavily on broad vaudeville Jewish stereotypes — substituting “Mawruss” for “Morris,” for example — it proudly suggested that Wisconsin’s Yiddish course was the first such offering at a U.S. university. History has proved them right: the course predated similar courses at New York’s City College and Columbia University by nearly 30 years.
This first course was taught by Wisconsin native Professor Lewis Bernard Wolfenson (1882-1945). A member of the UW Class of 1901 in the department of Semitics and Hellenistic Greek, 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, Wolfenson helped found the Jewish Students Association in 1922 (the immediate pre-cursor – and possible model – for the soon to be launched Hillel program) 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, Saposnik regularly led courses on Yiddish language and literature starting in 1983 and continuing until his death in 2003. 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 pianist 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.
Sapoznik returned to Wisconsin in 2006 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 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 Mayrent’s request.
The Institute plans several keynote events over the coming year to celebrate its centenary of Yiddish.
- A new website will be launched this fall featuring 78s, photos, sheet music, song translations, etc., all with curatorial essays by Henry Sapoznik. The first iteration of the site will feature commercial Yiddish sound recordings from 1916, the year of Wolfenson’s first classes.
- In November the Institute will host a one-day conference dedicated to the work and legacy of Wolfenson, with papers about Wolfenson’s life, the state of Yiddish when he founded the program and the future of his Yiddish studies at the UW.
- This fall Grammy award winning label Archeophone will reissue “Attractive Hebrews” a collection of the long lost 1901 Lambert company Yiddish recordings, the world’s oldest Jewish cylinder recordings. The 19 selections will be accompanied by a 55-page book about the songs, their composers, performers and their mysterious provenance written by Henry Sapoznik. The release will be celebrated with a lecture and concert of selected songs from the new anthology.