HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

What I Learned in Hebrew Class: An Olah Chadasha Reflects

by Ms. Jennifer Bayer Issue: Teaching Hebrew
TOPICS : Hebrew

Everyone has a personal version of “the story.” It could be that you asked to go to the “beit shimush,” only to be met with a blank stare, instead of directions to the ladies room. Perhaps you needed a blood test and after 15 years of living in Israel, you asked for a “mivchan dam” instead of a “bedikat dam.” My personal favorite belongs to a friend who was arguing heatedly over a contract, a “khozeh.” He was infuriated at the mirth that his protests inspired – until he realized that he was, in fact, arguing over a “khazeh,” a chest or more accurately, a breast.

My personal favorite belongs to a friend who was arguing heatedly over a contract, a “khozeh.” He was infuriated at the mirth that his protests inspired – until he realized that he was, in fact, arguing over a “khazeh,” a chest or more accurately, a breast.

Did my day school Hebrew language education of the seventies and eighties adequately prepare me for a life in Israel? It depends on the day. Some days, it just flows: I can make my basic needs known, I can express my feelings, and I have a basic grammatical structure to carry me through any vocabulary snafus. Some days I am struck dumb. I can barely negotiate the car inspection or am tongue-tied in the restaurant, to say nothing of being an advocate in parent-teacher conferences for my child.

After five consecutive years of living in Israel and two previous student years, I have come to realize a basic truth about my day school language education. Like all Jewish education, it works well for the developmental stage that one is at. If one drops out of Jewish education at twelve or thirteen, one is left with a pre-adolescent’s view of Judaism. As a consequence, my language studies served me fairly well on my first year living in Israel as an eighteen year old. At thirty-eight, however, I often encounter more complex situations, and feel the need to express more subtly-nuanced emotions. I require several sets of vocabularies for my varied roles: one for the pediatrician, one for the teacher and the PTA, yet another for professional situations. For those situations, I have almost had to re-learn Hebrew and expand my vocabulary to include words which express my current concerns and responsibilities.

From my own experiences teaching in elementary day schools, I can retroactively assume that the goals of my exposure to and acquisition of Hebrew language during K-12 day school education, focused on preparing me to be able to independently approach and decipher Jewish texts and prayers. It provided me with a basic platform and introduction to Zionism, Israel and Jewish history. By these standards, my education was spectacularly successful. I am an active, affiliated Jew who has herself gone into Jewish education. Did it prepare me to be a fully functional adult in Israeli society? Not really. But to be fair, I’m not sure my teachers at the time could have projected my current needs, nor do I think I would have understood what they would be with the sophistication that I use today.

Ideally, it would be best if day schools could project some of vocabulary of functional adult Israeli life into their curriculum. By these I simply mean words and phrases that we teach our children in English as they grow, but omit in Hebrew class, perhaps because of lack of context. Some of them are words which spring from traditional texts, but have been reinterpreted in Modern Hebrew. To give a few examples, which I have learned in the past five years: words for texture (mirkam) and shapes (malben, meshulash) and “evening news”, words such as lehitdarder (to deteriorate), le’altar (immediately) and almoni (anonymous). It would have boosted my confidence to know when to use certain virtual synonyms such as lehachlif and leshanot, which are both roughly translated in English into “to change” and which fruits and plants have gar’inim, which have gal’inim and which have khartzanim, all words for pits.

I was lucky enough to be the recipient of enough Hebrew language competence that I didn’t have to attend ulpan in order to function minimally in Israeli life. Would it have been better if I did? Certainly. Would it have been even better had those quotidian concerns that ulpan prepares one for so well been addressed in elementary and high school? Yes again. The attempt to make Hebrew language relevant and conform to the needs of modern Israeli life is not only on target, but of vital importance.

I applaud those asking the questions about whether Hebrew language instruction prepares American Jews to begin to speak the same language as Jews in Israel, with all the metaphorical implications intended. We are a global people, with Hebrew language providing the meeting point not just for Americans and Israelis, but if fact, all Jews who meet in Israel and abroad.

Ms. Jennifer Bayer teaches art at the American International School in Jerusalem and at Machon Gold, a one-year post-high school program for women from outside of Israel. She can be reached at gamulka@zahav.net.il

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