The University of Illinois at Chicago is considered one of the five most diverse campuses in the United States. We have no racial majority and are designated by the Department of Education as a Minority- Serving, Hispanic-Serving, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–Serving Institution. Our most recent "Entering Student Survey" revealed that: English is not the first language for about a third of our students (sixty-two different languages were named as first); we have no religious majority; and Jewish students make up only 0.8 percent of the entering class.
The introductory course that I have taught most frequently is Introduction to Yiddish Culture and Literature, a general education course with no prerequisites. The most difficult and uncomfortable idea for students in this course is that Jewish identity can be defined not only in religious terms but also as a national, cultural, ethnic, or racial identity, or various combinations of these, depending on the historical or cultural context, or simply on who is doing the defining. In this particular course, where students learned about Yiddishist and anti- Yiddish Zionists, Diaspora nationalists, Bundists, and contemporary Haredi Jews, among others, becoming comfortable with the complexity of Jewish identity and the fact that some understandings of Jewish identity might challenge their contemporary (generally liberal) American sensibilities was imperative.
The diversity of students participating in my course and their willingness to talk about their own experiences opened up possibilities to consider different understandings of Jewishness and also ways in which their own identities were contingent, "messy," contradictory, or difficult to define. The fact that the majority of students who take the course are not Jewish allowed us to consider connections or comparisons that might have been missed or less meaningful in more homogenous groups. The following are just a few examples. In one class, an Assyrian student volunteered that Assyrians were like pre-Israel Yiddish-speaking Jews—a stateless people/nation, who speak a language that is not the official language of any country. An African American student told us that she had been so engrossed in the Memoirs of Glikl of Hameln that she missed her stop on the bus—because the way that Glikl talked reminded her so much of her deeply religious (Christian) Afro-Caribbean grandmother. Two Jain students could speak of the practical challenges of strict dietary laws. When we read a story about a newly married woman who resisted the expectation to cover her hair, Muslim women in my class weighed in on how religious women could embrace a tradition that seemed misogynistic to others while at the same time considering themselves to be feminists. When we read The Dybbuk, I shared a recent New York Times article about reports of a talking carp in a Hasidic community, who claimed to be the troubled soul of a recently deceased community elder. When a few students started to laugh, a Catholic Latino student reminded his peers that Christians who believed in the Resurrection and in other miracles were similarly called on to accept the supernatural.
Elizabeth Loentz teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Let Me Continue to Speak the Truth: Bertha Pappenheim as Author and Activist (Hebrew Union College Press, 2007); and she is currently writing a second book, The Meaning of Yiddish in 20th-Century Germany. Prior to her doctoral studies, she taught unaccompanied refugee minors in Hallbergmoos, Germany.