Thursday, June 30, 2005

Yehudi, daber Ivrit....

The issue of the dramatic drop in the number of Diaspora Jews who can speak Hebrew properly has been getting some attention recently.
The Jerusalem Post ran a shortish piece on the problem last week. As Leon Wieselthier put it,

Though it's possible to read Jewish texts in translation, "every translation is also a conversion," that changes the text, he said. "There never was a great Jewry that believed it could transmit Judaism in translation."
Other than Artscroll Jewry, that is...
Now Sallai Meridor, who just retired as chairman of the Jewish Agency, brings it up as one of the pressing problems of world Jewry in an interview with Ha'aretz:

Another strategic goal of Meridor's - the fostering of the knowledge of Hebrew throughout the Jewish world - is not going that well. But he has a few ideas up his sleeve that perhaps his successor - Ra'anana Mayor Ze'ev Bielski - will be able to realize: "We have to build upon the 25 percent of Jewish youth worldwide who are enrolled in Jewish schools, at least the elementary school age children, who learn Hebrew. We have to understand why they do not stay with the language, and how this can be changed."
As for the rest, he raises a few ideas for cultivating Hebrew as an elitist brand: "Perhaps the establishment of institutions like the British Council, which would confer a prestigious cultural status on Hebrew; perhaps the study of a basic dictionary with a few hundred words, via Internet, that would earn the successful student a membership certificate in a `Hebrew Speakers' Club'; or maybe the key is cultivating Hebrew as a secret language spoken by young people to keep secrets from their parents."
The problem of teaching our kids Hebrew must be seen in the context of the decline of language teaching, full stop. Second languages are not getting the attention they used to, thanks mostly to the increasing supremacy of English. Nor is grammar -- English grammar -- getting the emphasis it used to, making it harder to teach a language like Hebrew effectively. And when it comes to modern Hebrew, many of the schools which you would expect to have cultivated it most are opposed to teaching it on ideological grounds.
Altogether, this means that day schools, the arena where Ivrit should be taught most successfully, are just not doing it properly. I will never forget going to a Seder with another family where everyone took turns reading from the Haggadah -- and being absolutely shocked when it became clear that the other kids (well, in their early 20s...), who had all been through 12 years of day school, were struggling to read the text. Unfortunately, this is not unusual. And there is frankly no point even discussing 'the others,' as the Ha'aretz journalist puts it, until the day schools take the lead on this.
Hopefully, as more and more people see this as an issue, and the level of Jewish education continues to rise, there will be more hope for Hebrew.

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