The story of a book, its journey and the people it enlightened

By Stephen Schulman

Some time ago, an interesting book came into my possession. English Home Teacher: Practical Lessons in English by Alexander Harkavy had reached me via a circuitous route and with an interesting history. My wife Yona‘s family: her father Meir and mother Tsila together with her mother’s mother and a brother, all Holocaust survivors, had come to Israel in 1949 while the eldest sister remained in Russia. Meir’s entire nuclear family had not survived. A few years later, her uncle and grandmother left for the United States to join her other uncle, also a Holocaust survivor, living there. In 1956, her aunt, Gesia, succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union and spent some years in the States staying with her brothers helping to look after their young children before finally settling in Israel and bringing the book with her.

Man of Words. The Russia-born writer, lexicographer and linguist Alexander Harkevy who after the antisemitic pogroms of 1880 in Russia, joined the Jewish Am Olam (Eternal People) back-to-the-land movement. Unlike Bilu, which directed its activities towards Palestine, Am Olam saw a Jewish future in the United States. In 1882 he emigrated to the US but rather than fulfilling back-to-the-land aspirations, he gravitated to the written word.

Aunt Gesia was fluent in Yiddish, Polish and Russian but the pressing need was to learn English. Caring for her nephews and nieces left little time for formal study. It was then that she acquired the English Home Teacher: Practical Lessons in English. A New Method for Home Instruction: that had been expressly written for Yiddish speakers to learn English.

The book’s author Alexander Harkavy was a most noteworthy gentleman, both talented and industrious. Born in 1863 in Novogrodek, Belorussia, the grandson of the town rabbi, he showed an early interest in languages acquiring knowledge of Hebrew, Russian, Syriac, German and Yiddish. Moving to Vilna at the age of fifteen, he wrote his first work in Yiddish and three years later after the pogroms of 1881, immigrated to the United States.

Beginnings in Belorussia. The town of Nowogródek in Belorussia where Alexander Harkavy was born in 1863. (Photo Shtetl Routes Teatr NN.PL)

Harkavy’s love of Yiddish together with his gift for languages soon crystallized into a vocation. Before making New York his permanent home in 1890, he had led a peripatetic life alternating between Europe and North America helping to found a Yiddish newspaper and a periodical. Once settled in the Big Apple, his literary output was prodigious. With many Jews from Eastern Europe arriving and not having time or opportunity to formally learn the new language, he published Der Englishe Learer (The English Teacher) 1891 and Der Englisher Brivnshteler (The English Letter Writer) 1892 in the “English self taught” genre expressly written for Yiddish speakers and that became immensely popular.

Posing with Peers. Representing the American organization HIAS during a visit to Europe in 1920, Alexander Harkavy (seated, center) posing at a table with fellow representatives from Jewish communal organisations

His talents were not confined to textbooks and in his prolific career, Harkavy translated Don Quixote into Yiddish, revised the King James English Bible, translated it into Yiddish for a dual language version and compiled and contributed to many Yiddish anthologies and publications. Amongst his many other activities, he taught U.S. history and politics for the New York Board of Education and Yiddish literature and grammar at the Teacher’s Seminary in New York. However, his lasting contributions were in lexicography where he compiled Yiddish-English and English-Yiddish dictionaries and the crowning achievement: the Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary (1925) that played an important role in educating East European Jewish immigrants and is in use today.

Yidden Gems. It is partly due to Harkavy’s work that Yiddish today is regarded as a language. His Yiddish dictionaries show that its vocabulary is as ample as that of the average modern language, and that, if lacking in technical terms, it is richer in idiomatic and characteristic expressions.

The English Home Teacher: Practical Lessons in English first published in 1921 and reprinted in 1929 is both a fascinating and enigmatic book. The 272 pages contain 50 lessons each of which commences with a short passage in English, each word accompanied by its translation and a pronunciation guide. It is then followed by a grammatical exposition very often having no connection to the passage itself. Naturally, all the explanations and pronunciations are in Yiddish in Hebrew script.  

To put it mildly: didactically, the book is no great shakes. In fact, it would make the eyebrows of a modern and trained English teacher curl! There is no logically graded structure and progression, no revision or reinforcement. In the very first lesson, the neophyte English learner is served a heady brew of past simple active and passive and present perfect tenses plus comparison of adjectives! Moreover, as the pronunciation guide for each English word in the text is written in Yiddish, it would have been interesting to hear someone’s first attempts at enunciation. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that this book was written over a century ago when the science of language teaching had barely emerged from its swaddling clothes.

After four decades in the USA, Harkavy was well versed in the contemporary culture, fluent and well read in the vernacular. With his home in New York, he was thoroughly conversant with the current trends of American society. Moreover, he was also on intimate terms with the immigrant experience of his co-religionists and knew full well the basic English required in order to survive and make a living in this new and daunting land.

Well-traveled Book. Expressly written for Yiddish speakers to learn English, Alexander Harkavy’s ‘English Home Teacher’ found its way into the writer’s wife’s family and finally ended up in Israel.

Logic dictates that the English be modern, the passages be relevant and the vocabulary be practical and utilitarian to enable the user to interact and communicate with his/her surroundings. Therefore, it is most puzzling to read the contents of the introductory reading passage in each lesson where the writer has chosen to take the opposite tack. The majority of them are anecdotal, often piquant and pithy with a moral attached whilst others are homiletic. Furthermore, their contents are mainly drawn from early Victorian England with the corresponding vocabulary. It demands a great stretch of the imagination see how archaic terms such as: “a droll fellow, to dine, a duke, an incision, the latter, a witty idler, a tankard, a draught, taken counsel, took lodging, a roguish companion, whereupon” etc. etc. could be put to daily use or even understood in the Bronx.

What were Harkavy’s motives in choosing the texts?

Was he trying to show off and impress his readers with his erudition and grasp of English? This doesn’t seem likely as he was well known and highly regarded in the community and his learned reputation went before him.

Harkavy, having grown up in the world of Talmud studies, was familiar with the tradition of exegesis, wit, pilpulim (hair splitting argumentation and debating) and knew that many new immigrants from Eastern Europe had a similar background. Possibly, he chose the reading passages to appeal to their tastes for most of them are witty, humorous and thought provoking. The introductory passage to the third lesson begins:

A lunatic in an insane asylum was asked how he came there, and he answered: “The world said I was mad, I said the world was mad and they outvoted me.”

Much food for thought!

The English Home Teacher: Practical Lessons in English was first published in 1921, a year that boded ill for the millions of Jews wishing to flee the persecution, pogroms and mass murders of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states and seek a haven on safe shores. There had been a shift in American public opinion and sympathy for all those displaced and stateless had become a fear of being swamped by a wave of impoverished immigrants, feeble in body that would cause the growth of slums, expose workers to cut throat wage competition and endanger American standards of living. That same year, with the passing of the Emergency Quota Act, the United States had declared a moratorium on its immigration policies and had begun to drastically restrict the number of newcomers with Australia, Canada, South Africa and other countries following suit.

Food for Thought. The first lesson in Harkavy’s book – first published in 1921 – is about eating dinner.

With his finger on the pulse, Harkavy was no doubt painfully aware that the Jewish newcomers from Eastern Europe fitted the popular and biased stereotype of the unskilled and indigent immigrant with his/her broken or non-existent English. Maybe he felt that his book offering reading passages on a ‘high level’ would enable its students to acquire a more sophisticated vocabulary with better communication skills to dispel this negative image, ease integration and aid their entry into the work market.

In the archives of ANU (the Museum of the Jewish People) situated on the campus of the Tel Aviv University, there is a film of his visit to Novogrodek in the early 1930’s. The atmosphere was festive for here was a native son who had made good in the Goldene Medina returning as a celebrity to pay his respects to his birthplace. The feted guest was escorted around town and proudly shown the Jewish institutions: the mikveh (ritual bath), the synagogue, the yeshiva and the Talmud Torah with the little children studying diligently at their tables.

Covers a lot of Ground. The cover of Harkavy’s book that must have prepared so many Yiddish speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe to the USA.

The film is bittersweet and very sad and serves as yet another testimony to Jewish presence wiped out during the Holocaust. In 1941, the German army occupied the town and the 10,000 Jewish inhabitants – men, women and children – who comprised half of the town’s population, were ultimately murdered with the assistance of local collaborators. Harkavy was spared the agony of hearing this terrible news.

He had passed away in New York in 1939.

About the writer:

Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.

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