May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Hebrew is the irreplaceable language of Jewish life and expression. It is at the core of Jewish values. Its existence is coterminous with that of the Jewish people, and the many layers of the language mirror the cultures in which Jews perpetuated Judaism. It was never merely a vehicle of communication, but part of the fabric and texture of Judaism. Words vibrate with religious meaning, moral values, and literary associations. Torah and Hebrew are inseparable. Hebrew literacy is the key to Judaism, to joining the unending dialectic between sacred texts, between Jews of different ages and eras, between God and Israel. To know Judaism only in translation is, to quote Bialik, akin to kissing the bride through the veil.

The revival of Hebrew in the last century-and-a-half is as singular a feat as the creation of the Jewish state. Hebrew has been wholly transformed from an unwieldy classical medium of liturgy and learning into a modern Western language fit for the sensibilities of contemporary society. Diaspora Jews can little afford to remain deaf to the sounds of Hebrew as they can ignore the fate of the Jewish state.

In a Jewish world of sundry and proliferating divisions, Hebrew must emerge as the common and unifying language of the Jewish people. The natural bonds of language and culture bind more firmly than those of abstruse ideological constructs.

Hebrew language and literacy has seriously declined as a result of American Jewry’s accelerating integration into American life. Jewish peoplehood is achieved by the transmission of our collective memory and culture, rooted in our common language, literature, and values. Lacking a common language means we also lack a common vocabulary, not only of words, but of values, norms, and ideals. This weakens and dilutes us as a people. Once, Yiddish served this purpose. Today, there are compelling national and ideological reasons to undertake a comprehensive program for the propagation of Hebrew.

Hebrew language should be a core value in our Jewish educational institutions. The sooner children become proficient in Hebrew, the easier it becomes for them to access the literary legacy of the Jewish people. Hebrew will become a portal to Jewish culture instead of a mere tool to study religious and devotional texts, or a vehicle to order a meal in an Israeli restaurant.

Language, while not the only indicator, can be a strong instrument in creating an identity. Language is a tool, a means that groups choose in order to create, enforce, and strengthen their identity. Language acquisition is directly linked to the use of cultural beliefs and practices. There is an intimate relationship between Hebrew language and Jewish culture and Jewish identity. Thus, teachers who teach in our schools must have full mastery of Hebrew as the language of texts, culture, and religion, as well as the ability to explain them in Hebrew. Why, with all the current English translations of TaNaKh and other Jewish literature, is the study of Hebrew essential? Because those who study the Torah in English are doomed, at best, to a poor reflection of the original’s majesty and thought; and at worst, to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Language is more than a vehicle for the communication of thoughts, it is the medium of thought. The Hebrew language, with its vocabulary, idioms, structures, and unique forms of expression embodies national, religious, and cultural values that are uniquely Jewish. To the extent that an individual internalizes the religious and national values of his/her people via its unique linguistic forms, s/he is more likely to see the worth through the lenses of those values and more likely to identify with its people. It also establishes a common bond with Jews in Israel and throughout the world.

We are in the business of creating educated Jews. The Hebrew language in all its variants from the Bible to the present—not just street Hebrew—is crucial to this endeavor. Hebrew is an essential tool for reading much of what Jewish culture has produced. But it is more than a tool. Without Hebrew there is no visceral, as distinct from intellectual, connection to Jewish creativity across time and space.

Examination of second-language research findings in the last 25 years, as well as brain research and second-language acquisition, has led us to draw three very important conclusions:

1. People who speak two languages have a distinct advantage. From an early age, bilingual people are better able to abstract information, they can deal with a level of abstraction very early, are often more successful in school.

2. The earlier the better. Children who start a second language at a young age are more successful in learning and internalizing the language than those that start later. (That is not to say by any means that those that start late are doomed). Hence, the best age to start learning a second language is between ages 3–5.

3. Immersion in the second language is the method that leads to best results in language acquisition.

Hebrew in America was an innovative program starting in Pre-K that was successfully implemented in many of our community’s day schools for several years. It was supported by grants from the federation, The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, The AviChai Foundation, and the Covenant Foundation. It included a Hebrew language summer day camp and intensive training for teachers. And there were different modules for non-native speakers. When the grants expired, however, the schools did not pick up the program, to the despair of the teachers. Children entering 1st grade were fluent in Hebrew. Kindergarteners were helping their older siblings with their homework. It is a tragedy that today’s day school graduate may not be able to access the treasures of our cultural heritage.

If we want Ivrit b’Ivrit, we shall have to insist on it. Principals must demand and then supervise its implementation as parents monitor its use. Schools should provide Ulpanot for teachers needing reinforcement of Hebrew language skills while, at the same time, banning English seforim from the classroom. Formal study of Hebrew grammar must be reinstated in the curriculum. Tests and homework should be written—and answered—in Hebrew. It may be unappealing to press a rebbe, especially when he is well liked, or to persevere with students, especially when they are frustrated and impatient, but for all this to be effective, administrators and educators must be insistent, persistent, consistent, and, if need be, unpopular. We need not apologize for wanting Ivrit b’Ivrit. We need not justify our claim that knowledge of Lashon hakodesh is part of the mastery of Torah. We need not make amends for our insistence that English translations of classical texts be left for those who did not benefit from a day school education. We need not defend our desire for our students to feel at home in our language, our texts, and our country. We need to put our principles back into action. Im tirtsu, ein zu aggada.

Dr. Wallace Greene developed the Hebrew in America program as well as the Halav UDvash pre-school Hebrew language text published by The Jewish Agency.

By Wallace Greene


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