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December 22, 2014 | 30th Kislev 5775

The Sacred Tongue

February 4, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Ispent a wonderful afternoon and evening this week with a lively group of teachers from Jewish communities all over Argentina, here for a two-week training institute. We toured the excavations at Zippori, stopping at various points along the way to study passages from the Talmud, Midrash, and Josephus that shed light on the amazing findings there. Later, at their hotel, we discussed the uses of a site like Zippori in the curricula of their various schools. Their knowledge was impressive, and their enthusiasm and interest, even when they were so tired they could hardly stand, were remarkable. But the aspect of the encounter that made the strongest impression on me was their ability to function in Hebrew. The study and the discussion flowed, at a very high intellectual level, with no hesitation and no translation and no “dumbing down” to allow for a limited linguistic level. These were teachers from various levels, many of them from outlying towns, many of them graduates themselves of supplementary schools, not day schools. They were not former Israelis.

This experience raised two issues for me:

a) If the Argentinians can teach Hebrew so effectively (a phenomenon that has been commented on for years), even in supplementary schools, why have we in North America always found Hebrew to be such a frustrating challenge, and why have our results always been so disappointing? Is it that they are more motivated, that Hebrew is more central to their Jewish identity? Is it that they feel more “outsiders” to the surrounding culture, so they need a stronger internal cultural framework? Is it that North Americans in general don’t take foreign languages seriously - perhaps out of pride, perhaps out of provincialism? Whatever the case, the example of Argentina proves that modern, reasonably assimilated, middle-class, liberal Diaspora Jews really can learn Hebrew, and should perhaps lead us to question our assumption that it cannot be done.

b) It reminded me how important Hebrew is as a symbol and instrument of Jewish identity. Jews of different communities and different movements are often deeply divided by ideological and belief issues, by patterns of behavior - to the point where we wonder just what it is that makes us “one.” It occurs to me that one element of our identity that is above, or outside these divisions, that links us with the accumulated literary tradition of Judaism, and that links Jews of different lands and cultures - is the Hebrew language. In an age of increasing fragmentation, perhaps it has the potential to convert unity from a fund-raising slogan to an existential reality. Look how it provided such a rich opportunity for me and the Argentinian teachers, who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to communicate, not to mention to discuss classical texts. I often wonder whether we haven’t made a mistake in the North American Jewish community by deciding (as I once firmly believed) that there is too much other more value-laden and more interesting content to cover in our limited instructional time, so we should not get involved in the doomed, frustrating effort to teach spoken Hebrew.

For me, when people ask why I made aliya, one of my answers is that I love to speak Hebrew. Even if I still feel tongue-tied in an argument or a sensitive situation, I feel an ongoing sense of accomplishment as my Hebrew improves over the years; I love hearing it spoken well; I cringe at the Americanization of colloquial Hebrew in Israel; I get great pleasure out of recognizing fragments of biblical and rabbinic passages in everyday conversation; I enjoy being baffled when my children discuss their army experiences in a jargon made up entirely of acronyms; I thrill at being able to appreciate Hebrew theater, even if I sometimes feel a little silly sitting through a Hebrew translation of an American comedy. There is no question that Hebrew is a major element in my Jewish identity, perhaps the most significant of the non-religious pieces of it; it is certainly central to my feeling of Israeliness.


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