Rachel Simon, Senior Librarian and specialist for Middle Eastern languages in the Library, has just published “Teach Yourself Arabic — In Yiddish!” in the most recent MELA Notes: The Journal of the Middle Eastern Librarians Association. [For full text of the illustrated article see: sitemaker.umich.edu/melanotes/files/melanotes82complete1.pdf.] She details the fascinating story of Getzl (George) Zelikovitz (1863-1926), a linguistic prodigy born in Lithuania, educated at the Sorbonne, and served as an interpreter under Lord Kitchener in the Sudan. He settled in the United States in 1887. He remained in the US until his death, working chiefly as a journalist for the Yiddish press in New York and prolifically publishing fiction, poetry and works of scholarship. In 1918, he separately published in Yiddish an instruction book for learning Arabic — certainly a first of its kind and surely the sort of publication that could only come out of melting pot America.
According to Dr. Simon, “The introduction [of Arabish-Idisher Lehrer] explains the purpose and method of the book. Its goal is to teach colloquial Palestinian Arabic—namely, not literary Arabic—to Jewish Legionaries, settlers [kolonisten], merchants, tourists, learned people [maskilim], laborers in Palestine, and maybe even Hebrew teachers abroad. This aim and the target population dictated the method, structure, and style of the book: a practical teaching aid in Yiddish, so that following a short study period the student would be able to talk with Arabs.” (p. 4-5)
She concludes: “The book does make the student somewhat aware of Arab customs, but it reflects more Jewish and Western views and issues. Although it was intended to serve as a guide for Jews as to how to reach out to Arabs, it is more reflective of Western Jews, their beliefs, customs, and modes of expression.” (p. 14-15)