Hebrew Illiteracy In Jewish Life

Rabbi Gil Student writes: You might recall an opinion piece last February by Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster about the problems he found teaching Bible in Yeshiva University of some students having difficulty reading and understanding Hebrew (link). R. Shalom Z. Berger wrote a guest post on this blog in response to Dr. Aster (link). Dr. Aster has since taught a remedial course in Hebrew literacy and developed an entire program to deal with the problem. His write-up can found here in PDF (link). It can also be found in the archives of the LookJed e-mail list of Jewish educators, followed by an interesting discussion of educators, many of whom disagree with Dr. Aster’s approach (link).

A number of the objections include fond recollections of "Ivrit Be-Ivrit" (teaching Jewish subjects in Hebrew – Modern Hebrew transliteration intentional). I wonder, though, whether the teaching of Hebrew language skills was at the expense of religious inspiration (what educators call "affective"). Was the drop-out rate from religious observance significantly higher then? I think so. Maybe if less time had been spent on Hebrew language skills and more on religious inspiration, like we do now, more people would have remained in the fold.

ANON POSTS: Yes, and it was clearly a big mistake because so many people went OTD. Even nowadays the drop out rate is far too high. I expect that in the future we wont waste time studying too much of anything, it will just be Aish Hatorah seminars all day long. Got to have that inspiration.

S WRITES: I think it’s a bit odd (or, revealing?) to blame Hebrew instruction for sucking out inspiration. Maybe Orthodoxy didn’t thrive then because it was hard to wear a kippah? Maybe most rabbeim were separated by a vast cultural chasm from their talmidim? Maybe Israel hadn’t yet gotten its groove back? Could building language skills really have been the culprit? Maybe it will turn out that trying to teach Tosafos turned off today’s drop-outs. Maybe a little Tsenarena in the Artscroll translation will really solidify Orthodoxy’s future in America.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: Gil, on what are you basing your allegation that there was a large amount of dropouts from Orthodoxy from among those who learned Ivrit b’Ivrit? There was a large amount of dropouts from Orthodoxy, period, and most kids went to public school. The cause was quite simple- many Orthodox Jews were simply not observant. (These were emphatically *not* those sending their kids to Ivrit b’Ivrit schools; indeed, what Jewish education these kids would have received would often have been in Yiddish.) A move to the suburbs in the 1950’s meant the chance to ditch it all in favor of the glitzy new Conservative movement; zehu. Indeed, your assertion is rather bizzare.

Ben Bayit, I didn’t want to bring up the idea that theoretically, Orthodox Jews should believe that knowledge of Hebrew will be essential for all in the near future, and that we should prepare for that as much as possible. Says someone whose spending five days a week in ulpan and wishes he had a stronger Hebrew background before.

HK POSTS: Hebrew language is quite unique, especially when compared to other near-east languages. We often find people writing about how they fell in love with the language, which caused them to fall in love with the religion. There’s a book called The Unknown Sanctuary, written by a Aime Palliere, and he devotes a whole section in which he explains the beauty of Hebrew and how it was the language which drew him to Judaism.

Don’t kid yourself by thinking that one less mussar speech in yeshiva day school is what caused someone to drop-out.

As easily as you make your assumption, and it is nothing more than an assumption, it can also be said that such student had a better knowledge of Hebrew, which created a deeper connection to the liturgy, and were more inspired by it than other students.

MDJ POSTS: Given that the notion that children can only learn one language is a bizarrely and uniquely american one, I find it difficult to believe that trying to get our children to learn hebrew is the cause of anything negative. Of course there will be those with language processign issues who have trouble learning a second language, but this cannot be the motivation behind a general educational system.

DTC POSTS: A few years ago, R. Eliyahu Teitz wrote an article for the JEC monthly newspaper.

His question was simple: what is the goal of teaching hebrew? Is the goal to enable students to be able to daven and learn torah, or is the goal to teach students how to speak like an Israeli?

He left the question open for debate (although it’s clear which side JEC follows) but it’s a question that really defines the hashkafa of the school, and by extension, the hashkafa of the parent body.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: DTC, what’s the difference? The former certainly follows from the latter, although the reverse isn’t true.

Seeing bilingual kids in Israel convinces me the problem isn’t insurmountable. Of course, the situation is quite different- parents speaking English, Hebrew from friends and school, meaning that the American kids will have to be taught their second language- but it isn’t impossible. Of course, the American will be literate and fluent in English while the Israeli will be in Hebrew, but simply speaking the other language is achievable.

That said, I have to say that the report here troubles me greatly. Of course, that Hebrew knowledge is weak is no news. I remember that years ago, after getting a degree or something from YU, Irving Kristol wrote an article in praise of the school saying, among other things, that the students can converse in Hebrew. I had no idea what he was talking about. And I remember sitting down in Hebrew 1 and marveling that the guy in front of me, back from a year or two in Israel, could say "I hope this is where I finally learn to speak Hebrew." (Of course, that’s not what happens in those classes.)

But there’s a subtle note in the report that troubles me even more- the entitlement of the students, for example, expecting to do no work and pass, and perhaps an attitude that limudei kodesh aren’t as important. I wonder, also, what on earth "learning disabled" individuals are doing in a university at all. (This is a society-wide issue, not just YU or Jews.)

As a proud IBC alum, I’m even more troubled, although I still claim that Hebrew is probably nearly as weak, if not just as much so, in YP and BMP. Let’s not forget that IBC started life as an Ivrit b’Ivrit school, and still theoretically is in parts. (YU certainly advertises it such, or did just a few years ago. My Gemara exams were given in Hebrew, as it happens.) And the roster of people who graduated the Ivrit b’Ivrit TI (the forerunner of EMC/IBC) is quite proud indeed.

RAFAEL POSTS: Rabbi Abenson, a well-known Montreal-based mechanech wrote a guest column for the Misphacha Mag. in last week’s edition. His focus is remedial work and upgrading of kriyah and Gemoroh-learning skills. He said that he once heard from a great man that the reason there is loss of love for Torah learning is that when the Rebbeim, who came from Europe after the war, taught their American students, they had trouble translating from Yiddish to English and so many inexactitudes and other errors crept into the language of the talmidim and affected how they learned. He pointed out examples where he asked a rebbi to translate a passage of Talmud and the translate was basically inexact and incorrect. Take a look at that article. Its an interesting read. Also, Rabbi Abenson is a "miracle-worker" and his work has made illiterate become literate in Hebrew and learning.

SW POSTS: I must respectfully disagree with you, R’ Gil. I don’t think you are even close on this one. First, as pointed out, children all over the world, with the notable exception of those in English speaking countries, routinely learn to be proficient in two or even three languages.

Second, Ivrit b’Ivrit is not a contradiction to inspiration any more than a class in Mishna Berurah or Social Studies would be. There can be a curriculum that both inspires and educates.

Third, I don’t see any correlation between Hebrew language skills and the OTD rate. To the contrary, I think that when a student is in High School and can’t begin to even read, much less understand, a Rashi without the help of the Saperstein edition, or is asked to serve as a shatz and breaks his teeth over chazaras hashatz in a way that is painful to listen to, THAT illiteracy is what is much more likely to get a child frustrated and turned off of religious Judaism.

Y. AHARON POSTS: That article by prof. Aster on his experience in teaching remedial torah reading to college age guys at YU is both important and shocking. I hope to show it to my wife, an outstanding morah in a day school who has taught the entire spectrum of classes (1-12), for her reaction.

At this point, I can only offer my own experience. I was always a good reader who possessed good, age-appropriate comprehension skills. Perhaps I should qualify that. My yeshiva studies were conducted almost entirely in yiddish, and my yiddish comprehension never quite matched that of my native tongue, English. Formal Hebrew grammar seemed to have been taught in my yeshiva only to fulfill the foreign language requirements of the NYS Board of Regents. In fact, my lowest Regents exam grade was in Hebrew. I still don’t possess a good formal knowledge of Hebrew grammar, and have, at best, only fair fluency in the spoken language. Such deficiencies haven’t significantly impacted by comprehension of the biblical language, however. Hence, I don’t agree with the idea that fluency in the language is essential to reading comprehension.

The turn off that many students have to Ivrit b’ivrit teaching is, I suspect, due less to the unwillingness to learn a new language than to the attitude of the teachers. If a teacher is rigid, unsympathetic, and has a poor understanding of American kids, then she will be unsuccessful as a teacher. My wife learned Ivrit grammar and fluency in a day school from a master teacher who was a mathematician by training. He treated the basic rules as axioms that accounted for a host of seemingly arbitrary rules of the language. Those lessons stuck. On the other hand, her teachers who taught Tanach as a dry academic subject were a turn-off. If a teacher doesn’t convey to students the significance and importance of what he teaches, then the students will be unlikely to have a better attitude.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in hebrew, Hirhurim and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.