HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Making the Most of Hebrew Primary Sources: Five Projects

by Tal Grinfas-David Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Pedagogy

Ask a student or a teacher why Hebrew language instruction is important; most will give you two reasons: (a) to better connect to, and understand, Biblical and Jewish texts, and (b) to better communicate when they travel to Israel. But how many students would venture to say that Hebrew allows us to explore Zionism, pioneering, state-building and Jewish national identity?

One of the most important enduring understandings educators can impart to students is that Hebrew is not static, it has changed and shifted over time, served multiple purposes, and mirrored the fate of the Jewish people over centuries. For example, when Jews were autonomous in their homeland, the language flourished, and when Jews were exiled to live as (often persecuted) minorities in other lands, the language suffered. The last century saw the successful revival of Hebrew language as Jews returned to the Land of Israel, sought to regain autonomy, and ultimately achieved sovereignty. However, this paradigm no longer aptly describes Hebrew’s status.

Despite the successes of the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, Hebrew has been eroding due to internal and external forces. Widespread grammatical and lexical errors made by Israelis in the vernacular, and an increasingly challenged Israeli education system, are creating a generation of native Hebrew speakers who do not have command of the ancient liturgical or modern literary sources. Further exacerbating the issue, the last two decades saw a large influx of non-Hebrew speaking immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia. But perhaps most significantly, the impact of the Internet, rapid global technology change, and the central role of English in these, have led to the common phenomenon of speaking Hebrew interlaced with English vocabulary. If the language is to persevere and flourish, it will be because of the intentional efforts of the Jewish people, both inside and outside the Land of Israel.

How can the trend be reversed? Empower students to take ownership of the language, its history and its fate. Seeing is believing; it is far more powerful for a student to say “I saw the document with my own two eyes” than to say “because my Hebrew teacher told me so.” In fact, the more schools engage the community in learning from primary sources, the more they impart critical perspectives of historical context. Advocacy training has been proven to be less effective than desired, leaving students wary of political agendas and unarmed with deep historical understandings. Hence, school leaders would be wise to make the most of the limited frontal time educators have with students, by limiting advocacy courses designed to counter college campus rhetoric while expanding and amplifying modern Jewish history lessons. To that end, this article provides five suggested primary sources (available at www.israeled.org) and corresponding research-based activities that foster an appreciation for the dynamic history of Hebrew in modern times and challenge students to critically examine their roles and responsibilities as Hebrew language learners.

Let History Unfold

Primary sources reveal that Hebrew revival in the 1880s was a grassroots movement, strongly supported by many of the early pioneers, contrary to the mythology of Eliezer Ben Yehuda as the sole reviver of Hebrew. Have students read an 1886 diary excerpt from David Shuv, the principal of the school in Rosh Pina, describing his challenges as he attempted to utilize Hebrew immersion techniques (“Ivrit beIvrit”). Shuv’s conviction and determination, despite parent opposition and lack of textbooks, is reflective of the early Zionist pioneering values and spirit. Students could write their own journal entries as though they were students in Rosh Pina in the 1880s, describing their lifestyle, schooling and aspirations, as well as their thoughts about Shuv’s then unconventional approach to Hebrew instruction.

Utilize Various Genres

Have students read the letter of protest written by senior students of Hebrew schools in Eretz Yisrael to the Board of Directors of the Technion (1913). In the letter, students express their outrage that the language of instruction was not to be Hebrew, but rather German. They wrote: “We…protest against those who dare to break away from the Hebrew language in our land and those who shake the very foundation of our young culture—the result of massive nationalistic work. No other language in the world can replace the Hebrew language in our convictions and in our consciousness.” Ask students to compare this formal letter and Principal Shuv’s diary entry, and analyze how both genres demonstrate a commitment to language revival as a Jewish national ethos. Students could write a formal letter to the school board describing their ideal Hebrew language policy. Alternatively, students could examine Hebrew Passover Hagadot written by Kibbutzim in the 1930s as another genre. Have students explore how those pioneers utilized ancient and modern Hebrew texts with their own creative writing to express the similarities between the story of Exodus and their experiences of leaving the Galut and resettling the land. Students could then create their own Hagadah passages, in which they express the challenges they perceive as now facing the Jewish nation and how they intend to overcome these.

Differentiate Instruction and Assessment

From the 1930s to the 1950s, several Zionist organizations produced posters encouraging immigrants to enroll in Ulpan and learn Hebrew, which was vital to their successful absorption in the new economy (see http://www.zionistposters.org/). Have students analyze the posters by asking guiding questions about how the imagery, symbolism, words and colors on the posters support the message directed toward the target audience. Students could create their own Zionist posters promoting Hebrew language learning for that era, thus addressing the styles of visual/artistic learners. Create a rubric for evaluating student-made posters and consider employing peer evaluation for such project-based tasks. Students could display their work and rationale as an exhibition for other community members to enjoy.

Meet Students Where They Are

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Hebrew Language Academy has been responsible for introducing new words into the language. However, it is having a difficult time keeping pace with rapid technological advancement over the last two decades. While many new words have been generated, most Israelis do not know or employ them, preferring to use the English terminology. Ask students to learn five Hebrew words generated in the last year, to examine their etymology (see HLA website http://hebrew-terms.huji.ac.il/), and to present these to the class. Ask students how technology has changed their lives over the last five years, and what effect it is having on Hebrew. Have students debate whether Hebrew speakers should learn these new words or continue using the English terminology.

Involve the Community

Technology isn’t the only force eroding Hebrew today. Over one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and over 100,000 from Ethiopia, few of whom spoke Hebrew prior to arriving, are changing Israel’s demographics and its language. Recognizing the impact of globalization, Israel’s Minister of Education enacted a new policy, stipulating that every day, K-12th grade classes begin with five minutes of Hebrew language instruction. Have students read Israeli newspaper articles and op-eds about this policy (for example, see http://www.jpost.com/Features/MagazineFeatures/Article.aspx?id=166669). Invite parents and community members to a panel discussion on Hebrew language erosion and revival, and the role individuals/schools can assume in these processes. Celebrate what your students have learned with the community in a festive evening of Israeli dance to Hebrew songs where student works are on display. Cultivate book clubs for staff, parents and students to read Israeli literature and other primary source materials.


There are vital lessons to be learned from our nation’s past, specifically about Jews’ ability to view challenges as opportunities for growth and adaptability. This can be seen in a plethora of primary source materials, all of which are easily accessible online. This article highlighted the determination of a principal to revive Hebrew through immersion, the steadfastness of students to maintain graduate studies in Hebrew, the yearning of kibbutz members to be free and safe in their homeland, the creativity and efficacy of Jewish organizations in absorbing new immigrants, the declining influence of the Hebrew Language Academy, and the present endeavors of the minister of education to reverse Hebrew erosion. The article also demonstrated how multiple genres of primary sources, including diaries, letters, Haggadot, posters, HLA publications and news articles, can illuminate modern Jewish history and culture. There are many more worthy sources and genres to explore with students. It now falls to educators and publishers alike to become inspired to design meaningful and rich learning experiences around these Hebrew sources.

The task is not without its challenges. First, identifying and locating suitable primary sources requires an investment of time, which unfortunately is a rare commodity for teachers. Second, translations for learners who cannot access the document in Hebrew must reflect nuance, tone and context. Third, educators should possess sufficient background knowledge and skills to make these primary sources come alive in the classroom. These challenges are not insurmountable; educational leaders should be ready to critically examine textbooks for their incorporation of primary sources before their adoption, hire skilled educators who are bilingual and bicultural, and allot funds toward teacher professional development. National organizations, such as the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel (ISMI) and the Center for Israel Education (CIE), are already working to house such primary sources, their translations, pedagogical materials and background information in one searchable online repository, to help educators and schools become more effective.

Analyzing primary source materials promotes critical thinking skills across disciplines, sheds light on Jewish history, solidifies the centrality of Hebrew to Jewish national identity, and encourages students to take ownership of the future shifts of the language. Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are inextricably connected through common history, texts, values, practices and more; with over half of the world Jewish population living outside of Israel, the future of Hebrew will depend upon how vested these learners and educators are in preserving it, developing it, and cherishing it. ♦

Dr. Tal Grinfas-David is the Senior Educational Research Associate for Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel; she writes curriculum and provides professional development for educators nationwide at the Center for Israel Education. She can be reached at tgrinfa@emory.edu.

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Hebrew Education

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