Deciphering Yiddish Handwriting

The most daunting aspect of learning Yiddish for me is, unquestionably, the Hebrew alphabet in handwritten form. Reading another person’s handwriting in one’s own native language can be tough on its own, but the idiosyncrasies of penmanship in a foreign alphabet are, at times, impenetrable. However, what once seemed impossible now feels slightly (and I emphasize slightly) manageable.

The Naomi Prawar Kadar Fellowship is a rich intellectual community and a unique month-long opportunity to improve one’s Yiddish and learn more about Yiddish literature and culture. My experience in 2018 was precisely that—I made new friends, professional contacts, and grew as a scholar and Yiddishist. My 2021 experience was that and more thanks to Professor Eliezer Niborski, whose patient instruction helped me and a small group of peers decipher handwritten notes.

Working directly with historical documents (letters, diary entries), we analyzed handwriting samples until we could identify certain patterns and conventions employed by each author. A distinct curlicue here revealed a langer fey, while a sin in place of a shin betrayed an author’s Litvish dialect.

The most exciting (and challenging) primary source we examined was a journal entry written by S. An-Sky. His handwriting was elegant, though complex, and it gradually grew messier as he switched from pen to pencil to complete his entry. The humor of his writing propelled me through the thornier patches of his penmanship, and my reward was more than a conviction that I can decipher handwritten text, as I enjoyed a good laugh, too.

One week of a handwriting workshop is insufficient practice and exposure to feel truly confident. That said, it was nonetheless instrumental in proving to me that I can read handwritten Yiddish text, and with this new (modest) confidence, I feel empowered to tackle parts of my research project that I once regarded with dread.

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