Adios, Spanish! Hebrew Gets Hot on Campus

By Rachel Zuckerman

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Stephen Black wanted to study Hebrew in high school. But despite the sizable Jewish community in his New Jersey hometown, Black’s public school didn’t offer Hebrew classes, so he settled for Spanish instead. Then, last fall, when he enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University, Black had the chance at last to study Hebrew, and he jumped at it.

“I want to travel around Israel next summer and see some relatives,” he said. “Being able to study [Hebrew] in college will be useful.”

Miri Kubovy, the professor who teaches Black’s modern Hebrew course, said that the number of students taking her class at Harvard is growing each year. Some students see it as a way to fulfill their foreign-language requirement, while others are preparing for future careers in Middle East diplomacy. Still others, like Black, are taking Hebrew solely for their personal edification, she said.

The climbing enrollment in Kubovy’s class is no anomaly. Despite the rising tide of anti-Israel rhetoric that has swept American college campuses in recent years, Hebrew classes are drawing more students than ever.

According to a study released in late 2003 conducted by the Modern Language Association, which examined enrollments in foreign-language courses at American colleges, there have been large increases in the number of students signing up for classes in both modern and biblical Hebrew. The study — “Foreign Language Enrollments in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2002” — revealed a 59% increase since 1998 (the last time the study was conducted) in the number of students studying biblical Hebrew: 14,469, up from 9,099. The number studying modern Hebrew rose 28% over the same period, to 8,619 students from 6,734.

Based on a survey with a 99% response rate, the study offers a snapshot of trends in foreign-language enrollments at 2,780 two- and four-year institutions. Biblical Hebrew was one of three languages that showed the largest percentage increases since the last survey — along with Arabic and American Sign Language.

Although the percentage increases are larger in biblical Hebrew than in modern Hebrew, clearly students see the value in studying the language spoken today in Israel.

Eli Solomon’s schedule is pretty full as a

first-year law student at Harvard, but he manages to find time to take Kubovy’s modern Hebrew class both for personal enjoyment and to add to his credentials for his future career.

“If I become a lawyer and have an Israeli client, I’d like to be able to communicate with him,” said Solomon, whose father is Israeli and who was fluent as a child but lost most of his proficiency growing up in Texas. “If I don’t relearn Hebrew, I think it would be a big mistake.”

Kubovy said that her students have many different reasons for enrolling. “I have many Jewish students each year who study the language to learn more about their culture or who have Israeli parents,” she said. “But I also have many students who are not Jewish and are divinity and comparative literature majors.”

The Modern Language Association’s executive director, Rosemary Feal, pointed out that while many students of Hebrew — biblical Hebrew in particular — plan on attending rabbinical school down the line, some students are more secular; there are also growing numbers of non-Jews who study it.

“What I understand from talking to professors from the Jewish studies association is that there is a dramatic increase in students studying biblical Hebrew because of an increased interest in spiritual matters, even for students who don’t have a largely religious background,” Feal said. “A lot of students are interested in religion but would like to connect to spirituality in an academic way by studying biblical Hebrew.”

Ishwaran Mudliar, who teaches an elementary Hebrew Bible class at Johns Hopkins University, points to the diversity of his students in his class. This past semester Mudliar had six students, only two of whom were Jewish. Of the two Jews, one was preparing for rabbinical school while the other took the class to better understand services at his Reform synagogue. Of the four non-Jews, two took it as part of the language requirement for the Near Eastern studies department, one is a religion major at a nearby college, and one is working toward a Ph.D. in New Testament.

Mudliar attributes the increase in biblical Hebrew enrollment to a rise in evangelical Christian activities nationwide and the rise in modern Hebrew to the current political climate in the Middle East.

“The modern political situation in that area makes people want to study the languages to understand things that have been going on for a long time in places like Israel and Iraq,” said Mudliar, who is also a doctoral candidate working on his dissertation in Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Philology. “If people understand Hebrew, they can understand and relate to what the sources are saying. You can do that in translation, but some want to take it further and go to the original source.”

Whatever exactly motivates students to study Hebrew, the rising numbers point to a larger cultural trend, Feal said: “The world is getting smaller. Students are aware of international tensions as well as possibilities that open up when they learn something.”

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