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Hebrew and Jewish Peoplehood


This past week I was invited along with leaders of universities, college campus programs, Israel trips, camps and other educational programs to participate in a discussion on elevating the status of Hebrew language in the North American Jewish community.

Over the years, it has been pointed out that North American Jews, more so Americans, do not have the same level of Hebrew proficiency as do Jews in other countries. Some opine that this is because English is the lingua franca across the globe. Others believe that Hebrew language proficiency is not essential for participating in Jewish life in North America.

Leon Wieseltier has called it a "scandal" that American Jews are, to his understanding, "the first great community in the history of [the Jewish people] that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language."

During the discussion on challenges that needed to be overcome for more American Jews to become proficient in Hebrew, the group kept returning to the need to articulate "why" it is essential to learn Hebrew. I believe this is just as much the case in day schools, where we see a commitment to Hebrew, as it is among the broader Jewish community.

Recently, Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer published a study commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation on the teaching of Hebrew language in day schools. One finding of their work is that there is an urgent need to make a clear, eloquent and multi-faceted case to students, parents and teachers for why day school students need to develop fluency in classical and modern Hebrew.

So here is my rationale for why students, and American Jews overall, should develop proficiency in Hebrew.

Hebrew is the essential connective thread to Jewish Civilization, Jewish peoplehood, Israel and its people, and to most Jewish literature. Hebrew provides a sense of belonging and familial connection, and offers access to the historical references and meanings conveyed in classical Jewish ideas, texts, constructs, and memories. Hebrew competency is an essential element in understanding modern Israel and its people and culture.

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry, wrote over a century ago that "reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil." With apologies for his gendered analogy, Bialik was expressing that every language conveys feelings, nuances, and the affective domain that are unique to itself. Only the Hebrew language links us to the past, present, and future of the Jewish people, and to a specific land. No other language – and Jews have spoken many Jewish languages throughout our history – bonds us to the soul of our history, textual tradition, people, and the land of Israel than Hebrew does.

There are very compelling educational reasons for teaching Hebrew that relate to 21st century learning skills and brain research, but these arguments can be made for other languages as well. At the end of the day, Hebrew alone holds the potential to cement the union between Jews around the world with each other and our heritage, no matter our geography or our theological outlook.

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