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After 50 years, Rebecca Levine bids ‘zei gezunt’ to her students
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After 50 years, Rebecca Levine bids ‘zei gezunt’ to her students

Yiddish teacher injected fun and warmth in local classes

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

To say that Rivke Levine loves Yiddish is like saying Tevye the Milkman loves to converse with God. 

Levine has been sharing her love and knowledge of the mamaloshen with students in New Jersey for five decades. 

Her bond with the language is rooted in her early childhood, when she spoke Yiddish with her Bubbe, who lived with Levine’s family in Brooklyn. 

She particularly remembers that when she went to folkshul, Yiddish cultural school, on Friday afternoons, her Bubbe would ask, “Vau geystu?” “Where are you going?” — because she was observant and knew that in the winter, her granddaughter might not make it home before Shabbat.

But if the weather was bad, the teacher would often give Levine a candy bar for attending, she recalled, and so she went through the snow and cold. Of course, her Bubbe knew exactly where she was going, and would smile when she asked the question, Levine said as she sat drinking tea with a visitor in her Rockaway kitchen on a recent morning.

Since 1964, Levine’s been teaching the language in local classes to students who have become like extended family. 

Now that she is 85, Levine has decided to retire — but she’s worried about her students. “I feel like I’m abandoning them,” she said with a sigh. Some have been studying with her for 20 years or more. 

And though a charge of abandonment may be a bit extreme, it’s clear that her students will miss their teacher. “You never felt like you were in a class, but in her home,” said Sonia Kaplan of Parsippany, who started studying with Levine in the 1990s. Like many of her students, Kaplan noted how much fun Levine always injected into her classes, using a variety of materials along with songs, popular expressions, and Yiddish literature. Kaplan acknowledged how much she learned — “I don’t think on my own I would have been able to sit down and read [Isaac Bashevis] Singer,” she said — but it was Levine’s warmth that kept everyone coming. “We became friends,” said Kaplan. “She supported us and we supported each other. We were really interested in one another.” 

“This is more than teaching a class for Rivke,” said Sid Shaievitz of Livingston, who’s been her student for at least 20 years. “This is her heart and soul.” 

In a wide-ranging conversation, Levine offered her reflections on why she has always felt the need to teach, the future of Yiddish, her evolving pedagogy, and, of course, memories of her Bubbe.

Levine said that she has always felt obliged to teach. Her parents escaped Nazi Europe but her mother lost three married sisters, their husbands, and their children, and her father lost two married sisters. The Holocaust hangs heavy on her. “I have a responsibility. I can only express it with Yiddish. It is the language of the family I lost,” she said.

Her deep love for the language is also evident as she shares her experience attending Yidstock: The Festival of New Jewish Music at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., in July. She described college participants in the Yiddish summer program (sponsored by David and Sylvia Steiner of West Orange) who work the festival in addition to taking classes. “They speak a pure Yiddish. It puts me to shame,” Levine said. “But it was delicious! These kids speak as if they were born speaking Yiddish.” And she called such proficiency “promising” for the future of the language.

“Yiddish isn’t dead; it’s only sick,” she quipped, quoting Singer, who made the diagnosis when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.

She also points as a sign for hope to the many universities across the United States where Yiddish is taught, while acknowledging the irony that it’s also being taught in Poland and at the University of Vilnius, where nearly all the Jews were murdered. “It grizhes [gnaws at] me,” she said. 

Her classes included reading stories and playing games and singing songs, but the education also continued outside of class, through the outings every December to the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York and summer reunions in private homes. 

Now, one more gathering will take place on Sunday, Sept. 24, a retirement party for Levine to be held at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany from 1 to 3 p.m. And anyone who has ever taken one of her classes is invited.

Many of her students are her contemporaries, particularly in the advanced classes. (Beginners’ classes attract a younger crowd, students often in their 20s and 30s.) The older students were often native speakers. 

Shaievitz said that before finding Levine’s class, “I had no one to speak with.” Yiddish was his native tongue, but he needed more than just conversation. “I could read and write and had rudimentary speaking ability. But it was ‘kikh’ Yiddish,” he said, literally meaning “kitchen Yiddish,” or basic language skills a child might possess. Now, after studying with Levine, he can read Sholem Aleichem. “That’s like the difference between ‘Dick and Jane’ versus James Joyce,” he said.

Studying with Levine also gave him the confidence (and the ability) to translate a yizkor book from Felshtin, his mother’s hometown in Ukraine. “It’s because of Rivke that I even thought about undertaking the translation,” he said. And that in turn led to the creation of the Felshtin Society, comprised of people around the world who could trace their roots to the village. “It was all an unforeseen consequence of going to Rivke’s Yiddish class,” he said.

Levine, who earned a BA from Brooklyn College, began her career as a Yiddish educator in 1964 at the Suburban Jewish School in West Orange (now the Jewish Cultural School and Society in Montclair), where she sent her own three children and served first as teacher and then as principal, from 1974 to 1985. She went on to teach adult education classes at synagogues throughout the Greater MetroWest area, at the William Margulies Senior Center at JCC MetroWest’s Cooperman JCC in West Orange, and at Lester Senior Housing on the Aidekman campus. Through the Jewish Education Association and later its successor organization, the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life — now a department of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest — she taught at both at the Cooperman JCC and at the Aidekman campus. 

For 25 years Levine also ran the Yiddish Vinkl. Founded by Mel and Sherry Gold, formerly of West Orange, it was a self-supporting Yiddish cultural society that met mostly at the West Orange JCC but occasionally on the Whippany campus. It came to an end nearly 10 years ago. 

Levine’s own teaching has evolved. Where she once insisted on her students’ learning to read and write — because “if you tell someone you are studying Yiddish and they show you something in Yiddish and you can’t read it….” she trails off, her point obvious. But a recent student convinced her it would be OK to teach just the spoken language, because that is really what that woman was interested in. “I’m interested in transmitting a love for the language,” Levine offered.

She shows off the table runner embroidered by her Bubbe when Levine was a little girl. “I can remember her counting the pattern to herself — ‘Eyns, tsvey, dray’ [one, two, three]. I was doing my homework, and I would say, ‘Bubbe, shhh.’ And she would say OK. And then she’d whisper, and pretty soon, I could hear it again, ‘Eyns, tsvey, dray.’” The finished work sits on Levine’s dining room table. She puts her hand on the cloth and says it again to herself, “Eyns, tsvey, dray.” 

If she is disappointed that her own children don’t speak Yiddish, she laughs and points out that they all speak fluent Hebrew. While many people in her and her children’s generation remember parents speaking Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to understand, her children now do that in reverse — in Hebrew. 

She does enjoy being called “shviger” by her daughter-in law. She explains that when her son got married, his wife wasn’t sure what to call her. She settled on “shviger” — Yiddish for mother-in-law — to Levine’s obvious delight; it’s what her father called her Bubbe.

Who will teach Yiddish, now that she is retiring? It’s a question she can’t answer.

“But I have to go out on a high,” she said.

Her students are “happy that she’ll be taking time for herself,” according to Shaievitz. But Mildred Feldstein of Whippany, 90, who has been with Levine for 11 years acknowledged, “There will be a lot of tears.” Kaplan offered her own goodbye to Levine this way: “A dank aoyf ales.” [Thanks for everything.]

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