My remarks largely pertain to teaching undergraduate survey courses in modern Jewish history or courses on modern Jewish culture, loosely defined. We live and work at an unprecedented moment in the history of pedagogy with respect to the sheer quantity and range of nontextual resources available to us. To take full advantage of this opportunity, we must first reconceptualize the classroom. Instead of merely conceiving of it as a venue where we lecture or lead discussions over written texts, it would help enormously to consider the classroom as a venue that also caters to sensory experience.
Nontextual sources can be especially helpful in our increasingly diverse classrooms, where larger numbers of non-Jewish students now take our courses, most of whom have never heard the sound of any Jewish languages or Jewish music. Indeed, this observation applies to an expanding number of Jewish students as well. If any of our students has heard a Jewish language, it is, understandably, Hebrew. But how many American college students have ever even heard non-Israeli forms of Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino? I don’t think it matters that they are unable to understand these languages; letting them just sample the sounds, rhythms, and cadences makes for a good beginning. By showing films (many of which are subtitled so students won’t be completely unaware of what is going on) or using well-chosen sound bites, students cannot but begin to develop a deeper appreciation of Jewish cultures. If, for example, they were to see Unzere kinder, the extraordinary 1951 Yiddish feature film about post-Holocaust memory that was made in Poland, starring the great comedy team of Dzigan and Shumacher; hear Bialik’s “Be-‘ir ha-haregah” recited in Ashkenazic Hebrew; watch interviews with Ladino speakers; listen to Ladino music or to recordings of the greatest operatic ḥazzanut, a tradition very few synagogues around the world have been able to maintain; or make use of websites such as that of the National Sound Archives of the Jewish National and University Library that allow one to compare and contrast widely differing versions of the same song, students will be made aware of the vast range of Jewish musical styles and their classroom experiences will be deeply enriched.
These are just a few examples of what using sound can achieve from a pedagogic standpoint. Of course, none of these resources is intended to replace textual sources, but rather to supplement and enhance them. Jewish culture in its religious and secular forms is one of the greatest of print cultures, but early on, “Hear, O Israel” was the command, testament to the fact that listening, sound, and audible recitation and proclamation are fundamental elements of the culture as well.
Bialik’s “Be-‘ir ha-haregah” recited in Ashkenazic Hebrew:
Interview with Ladino speaker: