Skip Navigation
September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

New Jews I

December 7, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

For the past year or so, we have been carrying on an on-again off-again conversation among our educational staff on the question of how to empower teachers to engage in value-issues in the classroom. This began because of our discomfort at our role as "value contractors" for the local public school: they hire us (and various other outside contractors -- this is a big business) to provide workshops, field days, and other creative activities designed to inject discussion of value issues (e.g., social justice, personal morality, democracy?) into the curriculum. These programs generally take place as special events in the school schedule, with the teachers serving at best as onlookers and disciplinarians. The more we do this, the more we feel that the system is somehow distorted, and that something crucial is missing.

Anyway, the other day we were discussion the problem one more time, and noticed that one of us, R., who spends half of his time at Makom ba-Galil as a Galilee Fellow, and half as a [creative, dedicated, knowledgeable] teacher in a nearby high school, was unusually quiet. Ultimately, we found out why: he had received a written reprimand from his principal for deviating from the official geography curriculum, by introducing enrichment materials to his ninth grade class.

It's been a long way down: In 1903, at the first conference of the Federation of Teachers, the revolutionary enthusiasm of the teachers was palpable. They saw themselves as the vanguard of the cultural revolution, the creators of the New Jews, who would in turn build the New Jewish Society, laying the groundwork for the Jewish State. Disciples of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who dedicated his life to modernizing and revitalizing the Hebrew language, these teachers created vocabulary as they went, wrote what soon came to be perceived as "traditional" folk-songs, designed holiday observances from scratch, and saw themselves as entrusted with the daunting and inspiring mission of changing the very nature of Jewish identity.

In 1913, when it was announced that at the newly founded Technion engineering and technical college, the language of instruction would be German, "the language war" broke out -- a war whose heavy artillery consisted of strikes and demonstrations by teachers and education students. Not only were there no Hebrew textbooks -- there were not even Hebrew words for many of the terms in the disciplines to be taught. Nevertheless, when the dust settled, the Technion opened in Hebrew.

It is somewhat of an exaggeration to say that the teachers of Palestine in the first third or so of the 20th century created Israeli culture. But only somewhat. They fought the parents, they fought the bureaucracy, they lacked material resources, they lacked books and supplies and curriculum. They even, it must be said, lacked a clear vision of just what the New Jew and the New Jewish Society were supposed to look like. The Eastern European immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were "Americanized" by the public school. That was certainly a remarkable phenomenon, whereby masses of immigrants, in passing through the public school, absorbed and were absorbed into American culture. How much more remarkable it is that in Israel, the schools did this even as they were creating the new culture as they went along. It's not that the teachers were reading one page ahead of the class -- they were inventing the words with which to write the book one page ahead of the class.

It is really rather amazing that from these humble beginnings, in just a few decades, arose the rich and variegated Hebrew culture that we take for granted in Israel today.


Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved