Reflections on Jewish day schools’ Hebrew classes

January 23, 2014

Hebrew workbooks

While attending the 2014 Ravsak/Pardes Jewish Day School Leadership conference last weekend, I met a vendor that was selling Hebrew books. She said that the business is getting more difficult to sustain, as Jewish day schools are becoming more religious.

More religious means less of a focus on Hebrew, she said.

I don’t know how accurate she was, as I have not done any research into this issue. I have no idea if Jewish day schools are focusing less on Hebrew these days. If they are, I suspect it is because they see it as not being all that useful to the needs of the 21st century student living in the United States.

But, if it is true that Jewish days schools are planning to deemphasize Hebrew, it would be a shame, whatever the reason for it is. I remember well the Jewish textbooks from my day schools days, paper-covered, hole-punched collections of exercises, on vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension and more known as Keshet. I hated Keshet. I really did. The workbook’s contents were mundane, difficult to focus on and pointless seeming.

Today, I am grateful for Keshet. I can speak Hebrew conversationally, provided the conversation goes at a slow pace, I can read pretty well as long as there are vowels, and, best of all, I can write. I am proud of my ability to write cursive, without vowels. When I write, I feel like I have a second language under my belt. I feel good about myself. I feel cultured.

Without my Hebrew textbooks, annoying as they were, I wouldn’t have that today.

Hebrew songs: For the classroom or for the campfire?

During the conference, I also spoke with a head of a major Jewish day school who said that they are transforming the way the school teaches Judaic studies. An integration of the Judaic studies with the general studies will give the students a more sophisticated readiness to take on the real world, the head of school said. It’s not just going be teaching songs.

I disagree with his thinking. The songs I learned in Hebrew class are the only thing that, years later, have stuck with me. They are my fondest memory of Hebrew class. Jumbo jet l’europa, aviron Gadol. I used to love singing that. I still do.

Davi, melech yisrael, that was another song I loved. There’s something about singing in Hebrew that’s different than singing American songs. The complex, Arabic-sounding pronunciation of the words, coupled with the cheesy, simple melodies, produces, even in the amateur vocalist like me, a feeling of joy.

Now, one could argue that the campfire is the more appropriate place for singing than the classroom. I wouldn’t know. Sadly, I never attended Jewish summer camp.

What I do know is that it would be a shame if Hebrew classes began to leave out time for songs.

Hebrew instructorsGenerally speaking, there were two kinds of Hebrew teachers in day schools. There was the woman in her forties or her fifties who was the mom of one of your friends, and there was the black-haired beauty in her late twenties who recently got out of the I.D.F. Neither of these kind liked me very much.

But, I liked them, for different reasons—the former for their un-jaded commitment to their vocation, and the latter for their take-no-crap attitude. In hindsight, their personalities in the classroom provided insight into the mindset of the contemporary Israeli, which, without them, I, as someone who did not travel to Israel until my first year of college, would have known nothing about.

In close, I don’t know what Jewish day schools’ head of schools attitudes are toward Hebrew these days. The reflections above are just that, reflections, based on casual conversations I had during last weekend’s conference. But, given that the person who hated Hebrew class when he was a student at day school is the same person who wrote those words above, I hope they provide heads of school with some food for thought: be cautious when deciding which parts of the curriculum to do away with, as you just never know what is going to leave a lasting impression on your students.

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