July 20, 2019

All Jews Should Know Hebrew

“In 2013, the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of American Jews” focused Jewish attention on a range of concerns – especially declining communal organizational affiliation and religious practice, and a weakening commitment to Israel.

But one topic that generated much less attention was what language experts would call the socio-linguistic situation of Hebrew in America – namely, how Hebrew is viewed and used as a tool for communication and cultural identification within this large Jewish Diaspora community. According to the report, most American Jews see Yiddish as their heritage language, not Hebrew. In addition, while 60% of those who identified as “Jews by religion” claimed to know the Hebrew alphabet, compared to 24% of “Jews of no religion,” the survey said that, on average, only 13% of all Jews said they can understand all or most Hebrew words, while just 12% said that they can hold a conversation in Hebrew.

Before we consider congratulating ourselves on at least having this modicum of success, it is quite possible this small group consists almost entirely of the significant community of Israeli immigrants to the United States, estimated at half a million or more. This suggests that for almost all native-born American Jews, Hebrew is as foreign a language as Greek. If these statistics are an accurate description of Hebrew usage by American Jews, we must ask ourselves if there is a reason to change the situation and renew a collective push for Hebrew advocacy and literacy in this community.”

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