University of Chicago College student Eyshe Beirich has received a 2022 Beinecke Scholarship, a prestigious honor which will help him further his study of Yiddish language, literature and culture.
A third-year in the College majoring in Germanic Studies and Jewish Studies, Beirich intends to pursue a Ph.D. in Yiddish Studies—extending an academic path that began two years ago as a journey of familial discovery.
“Like many people my age who come to Yiddish, it began as a way to try and connect to a family language and as a way of identifying where I came from—it developed into my biggest passion and is now the locus that my life revolves around,” said Beirich. “Over the last two years, Yiddish has become my most central companion, hobby and relief.”
First awarded in 1975, the Beinecke Scholarship enables students of exceptional scholarly promise to pursue graduate study in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The scholarship will provide him with $34,000, most of which will be awarded during his graduate studies. From approximately 135 universities who are invited to submit a nomination, Beirich is one 16 students to be selected. It is the third year in a row that a student nominated by the University of Chicago has won the award.
A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, Beirich decided to start teaching himself Yiddish as a first-year student in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic began to alter everyday life. He has spoken it every day since.
Yiddish had previously been spoken in his family three generations ago, when they lived in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, a town in what is now Ukraine.
By autumn quarter of his second year, he was taking “Yiddish for Beginners,” taught by Jessica Kirzane, assistant instructional professor in Yiddish in the Department of Germanic Studies. As Beirich’s first formal Yiddish instructor, Kirzane became his academic mentor and the person he considers the most instrumental in supporting his studies and interests at UChicago.
“Dr. Kirzane is a brilliant, compassionate, and inspiring scholar and mentor who holds the Yiddish program on her shoulders,” he said. “She has an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject and, even before she knew me well, was always willing to take the time to share her knowledge and passion for Yiddish with me. I am so grateful for her.”
Kirzane said that Beirich approaches his study of Yiddish language, literature and culture with urgent questions and a thirst to learn.
“It has been an extraordinary privilege to work with Eyshe and learn from him and to see him grow in his ability not only to speak, read, and write in Yiddish but to use Yiddish as a medium of inquiry,” Kirzane said. “All of the work he has produced in his coursework with me has been innovative, provocative, and exciting, and already of a caliber I would expect at the graduate level.”
Beirich’s research focuses on a contentious issue in Yiddish literary and cultural history, namely, the history of Orientalism and Orientalist discourses in Yiddish literature produced in Palestine, America, and Europe.
The concentration within his major, Comparative Germanics, was brand new as of 2019 when he enrolled in the College, and allows students to combine the study of German with another language taught in the department (in his case, Yiddish), as well as both languages’ respective works of literature. In 2023, Beirich will become the first person to graduate from the College with this concentration.
When Beirich first began reading Yiddish literature, he engaged with topics ranging from poetry, culture and colonialism to Marxism and Jewish religious texts. But within the texts he read, he also found what he describes as racist and chauvinistic content. This discovery led him to focus his studies on analyzing how racialization functions within Yiddish literature, with a critical eye.
He said he hopes to take the conclusions and ideas that arise from his graduate-level research and apply them to some of the most pressing issues that involve the Yiddish world and beyond, such as white supremacy, colonialism and antisemitism.
Currently, he pursues these subjects as an editorial intern at In geveb: a Journal of Yiddish Studies, and as a research assistant for Devin Naar, a professor at the University of Washington.
“While reconnecting with Yiddish, I was confronted with the question of how Yiddish literature was involved in histories of racism against Jews, but also racism from Jews. What would this mean, to engage with these works more critically?” Beirich said. “I became fascinated with trying to better understand what might happen if criticism and research into these works proved productive for understanding historical trends of racialization and colonialism, instead of treating their problematic content as something to hide or excuse.”
The award will provide him with significant financial support to pursue his dreams of becoming a professor or a writer. Whichever path he chooses, his lifelong goal is to teach others Yiddish and work towards building a global Yiddish community.
“I could not be more humbled and grateful and appreciative, especially of all the professors, mentors, and friends who believed in me and supported my ideas,” he said. “Beinecke is an award that gives me an exhilarating amount of confidence and hope for my future—things I really need to continue to grow and learn.”
The College Center for Research and Fellowships (CCRF) facilitates the annual Beinecke Scholarship nomination process. Once nominated, Beirich received extensive support from the CCRF Fellowships team, which supports undergraduates and recent College alumni through highly competitive national and international fellowships.
—A version of this story is published on the University of Chicago College website.