In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens' blacksmith, Joe Gargery, declares himself "oncommon fond of reading." Of course he is illiterate, but he gets great pleasure from recognizing the letters of his name, J and O. "Why, here's a J," said Joe, "and a O equal to anythink! Here's a J and a O, Pip, and a J-O, Joe."
A bit of language is a powerful thing. It can make what was confusing understandable, what was foreign familiar. This is a lesson we can apply in Hebrew school.
Educators have long sought ways to engage children in Judaism, but too often have failed to recognize the power of Hebrew (ivrit) in achieving these goals. While most Hebrew school students recognize the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, can chant tefilah, and--after many hours of repetition--can read their Torah portion and Haftarah backwards and forwards, how much do they understand?
These days, Hebrew school texts are beginning to address the desire for meaningful Hebrew learning. The Hebrew component of the UAHC's new CHAI: Learning for Jewish Life curriculum, entitled Mitkadem (Hebrew for "making progress"), treats Hebrew as a living language to be spoken at home and in the synagogue. But most synagogue religious schools continue to emphasize "prayerbook Hebrew," teaching the words by rote as they appear in the prayers. Students confront complex words like "v'ahavta," "b'veytecha," and "uv'lechtecha vaderech" long before being introduced to the simple words such as "ohev" (love), "bayit" (house), and "holech" (walk), which are constructed from the same roots. Many students never learn the meaning of these words, and few experience them in the context of everyday language.
I've asked many teachers and religious school directors why we don't teach more Hebrew language. The answer is always the same: "time." Meeting once or twice a week, they say, there's no time for "conversational" Hebrew. But what they are really saying is that we have no time for teaching comprehension.
Isn't it time to change our approach, to use our time differently? Teaching Hebrew as a beautiful, logical, modern, living language could bring a new relevance and excitement to our children's religious education.
Somehow, I came out of a Reform temple with a solid knowledge of the Hebrew language. I've forgotten a great deal, and I'll be the first to admit that there are a lot of gaps in my Jewish education, but I also enjoy a precious possession that my children haven't been given: Hebrew literacy. While I'm probably less adept at chanting tefilah than most religious school students, whenever I'm faced with an unfamiliar text, I can peel off prefixes ("ha," "h'," "l'") and suffixes ("im," "cha," "nu"), and often find a familiar root. My basic vocabulary allows me to grasp the meaning of a Torah portion, a newspaper article, or a passage in the haggadah.
Teaching our children these Hebrew roots shouldn't be difficult. Imagine starting with two simple words: "ohev" (love) and "ani" (I). Students could have the chance to use these words in ways which are meaningful to them. Boys might say, "Ani ohev chocolate." Girls might say, "Ani ohevet pizza." In the next lesson, two more words--"bayit" (house) or "ha-bayit" (the house), and "gadol" (big)--could be added, allowing students to construct sentences entirely in Hebrew: "Ani gadol." "Habayit gadol." (There is no verb "to be" in Hebrew.) As a result, our children would not only be able to speak some "conversational" Hebrew, they would begin to understand the meaning of the tefilah they recite. For example, the root of v'ahavta is "alef-hei-vav" (love), and later in the prayer we say "b'veytecha," meaning "in your house" (bayit). Imagine how much more meaningful and joyful the experience of tefilah would be for our children if these words were already part of their world.
Our Torah commands us to "teach these words to our children." This means that we not only teach the vocabulary of Jewish belief but Hebrew itself--which lies at the core of our religious understanding.
Diana Harmon Asher is a member of Scarsdale Synagogue/Tremont Temple in Scarsdale, New York.
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