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Reviving Hebrew

There is much hand-wringing over Jewish continuity, but less attention paid to Jewish literacy. One factor that is especially neglected -- to our peril -- is the centrality of Hebrew language knowledge.
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There is much hand-wringing over Jewish continuity, but less attention is paid to cultivating serious Jewish literacy. One factor that is especially neglected -- to our peril -- is the centrality of Hebrew language knowledge.

I recently spoke with Greg Beiles, a vice-principal at the Toronto Heschel School, and the curriculum and training director at the Lola Stein Institute. About Hebrew, he is succinct: the future of the Jewish people depends on it.

Greg knows that language is a critical piece of transmitting collective identity. Whether through the Judaism as "civilization" idea that Mordecai Kaplan proposed or the sense of Jewish peoplehood that finds its expression in modern Israel, Hebrew serves as a communal anchor.

So many expressions of Hebrew culture, Greg explains, such as the poetry of Hayim Nachman Bialik and Yehuda Amichai, rely on wordplay with Judaic textual references. The reader of these modern Hebrew poets is propelled backward and forward through the centuries.

Outside of Israel, Hebrew knowledge has become sadly lacking. There is something troublesome about a people that doesn't understand the words in its own liturgy or in the homeland's national anthem; a people that can't understand the proceedings of an Israeli Knesset session and who can't translate a verse from Naomi Shemer's wildly popular "Jerusalem of Gold." Jewish parents typically assign a Hebrew name to their babies, but I would guess that most would not have known the meaning without the help of a dictionary.

As American-Israeli writer and translator Hillel Halkin has lamented, "A Jewish culture in translation is a culture that has lost its flavor."

At my childhood summer camp (Camp Massad in Manitoba) we instinctively understood what was at stake. The entire camp program -- every song, play, announcement, simulation, sports game and bedtime kiss -- was (and still is) conducted in Hebrew. There is something heady and intoxicating about speaking a language which links members of an ethnic group near and far, today and yesterday. And when the language is not your native one, there's a risk-taking element: there is less perhaps pressure to be as profound or as funny. Because of that, moments of wit and insight can spontaneously emerge. But when we did recite our morning prayers, chant a leisurely Shabbat service or sing Hebrew folk songs, the words rolled off our tongue. At Camp Massad, Hebrew was not a foreign language. It was our language.

Unfortunately, many parents are gradually devaluing Hebrew knowledge as a central pillar of their children's education. Parents are opting for fewer and fewer hours of Jewish education (if any Jewish schooling at all).

Part of how to get parental buy-in is to pitch Hebrew as an acquired cognitive skill like any second language. "And Hebrew's root structure makes it particularly analytical," Greg adds.

Think about the letter combination s, p/f, r. From playing with those letters, almost by magic, you can tease out the words book, author, library, story, tell, count and number. (Arabic is structured similarly, as if to remind us that our fates are intertwined.)

How can we increase Hebrew knowledge in our communities? At the most basic, all Hebrew and Judaic instruction at any Jewish school (day or supplementary) should be a Hebrew immersive experience: Ivrit b'ivrit.

The use of Hebrew should be maximized in Jewish preschools, JCC programs and all Jewish camps. Teens going on Israel trips could be offered the option of language class while there and certainly before going. Adults could get together to enjoy a Hebrew salon. Private donors and Federation planning arms might even consider rewarding programmatic Hebrew use through grants and allocations.

When my first child was 9 months old, I made the decision to speak only Hebrew to my children. More than six years later, it's been an exciting, though challenging, journey. While I sometimes wonder if using a second language is a barrier to intimacy, I also revel in what sometimes feels like our secret code.

Modern lore has it that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, didn't allow his son to be exposed to any other languages. Today, that sounds unduly doctrinaire; we now know that multilingualism -- not unilingualism -- is the key to language facility. But for his time, Ben Yehuda was a visionary. Who will be the 21st-century Hebrew visionaries within our communities?

At the Passover seder, we proclaimed avadim hayinu; ata b'nei horin. How much sweeter it is to sing about our past enslavement and our modern freedom in the language that binds us as a people (even if modern Hebrew says achshav rather than ata and herut rather than horin). The Hebrew chain is gleaming, calling out for its people to grasp it

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