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Taking Hebrew Seriously

In his delightful essay in today’s special education section, Michael Wex describes how he — a renowned Yiddishist — is often questioned as to why he sends his daughter to a Hebrew-speaking day school in New York. His answer: “My daughter and her fellow students are learning something that might look and sound just like the official language of a state on the other side of the world, but is really a great deal more: It’s a key — the only real key — to who they are, who their forebears were, how and where they lived, and how and why they died.”

Sadly, in America, too few Jews appreciate how essential that key is to communal survival. Hebrew literacy rates are abysmally low. The 2007 National Survey of American Jews found that only 28% claim to understand a simple Hebrew sentence. There is a generational uptick — younger Jews are more likely to understand that sentence than their grandparents. But that is mostly due to the growth of day school enrollment, and that is mostly concentrated in Orthodox communities.

Among day school alumni, 80% can pass this test. In the larger, mostly non-Orthodox Jewish world, only one-third of those who attended after-school Hebrew education can read the language they supposedly were taught. And among the Sunday school-only crowd — 18%. Why call it Hebrew school when its graduates are illiterate? And while we’re asking, how come 20% of day school alumni can’t read a simple Hebrew sentence?

Educators have finally begun to address this situation. “Fifteen years ago, nobody was talking about the fact that Jews were not literate in Hebrew,” says Donald Sylvan, president of the Jewish Educational Service of North America. ”Now people are trying to get serious about Hebrew language.”

But demand is also growing, especially among Jews in their 20s who return from Birthright Israel all aglow, eager to learn Hebrew, only to find that once they leave a university environment, there are few options they can access or afford.

Language acquisition is a hard slog, requiring steady commitment and a relinquishment of ego — it’s difficult to stumble around a foreign tongue sounding like a three-year-old (unless, of course, you are three years old.) But for decades, ulpans in Israel have mastered this challenge, teaching Hebrew to students of all ages and backgrounds.

We know how to do this. What’s needed is a communal recognition of the costs of Hebrew illiteracy. “The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language,” wrote Leon Wieseltier in 2008. “Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America; but most of it will certainly disappear.”

Wieseltier closed his essay with an embarrassing tale about the then-exiled president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in New York for a meeting with Jewish leaders. Since he knew Hebrew, Aristide began to address them in what he thought was their tongue — that is, until they asked him to switch to English because they couldn’t understand.

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