Reviving American Jews’ Hebrew Literacy

Aug. 15 2022

Since talmudic times, familiarity with the Hebrew alphabet was considered the most basic building block of Jewish education. For many centuries, Jews across the globe wrote letters and kept records using a variety of languages written in the Hebrew alphabet, since they knew no other. Even in America, where there has never been an assumption that Jews could comprehend Hebrew, there has long been an expectation that Jewish children who attend synagogue and have a bar or bat mitzvah would acquire the ability to read the alphabet. Saul Rosenberg, based on his own experience as a bar mitzvah tutor along with numerous interviews, shares his observations on the disappointing realities:

Most of the b’ney mitzvah [I tutored] chanted their haftarah by rote, because they couldn’t read Hebrew and didn’t know the trop, the ancient Masoretic cantillation signs that follow the syntax of the even more ancient text. You could tell: the rote learners sounded like time-traveling tourists to ancient Israel, working from a well-thumbed Berlitz phrase-book—which, in a way, they were.

Now, it’s one thing not to teach trop. But teaching the text by rote seemed like telling an illiterate he would be declaiming the first ten pages of Huckleberry Finn in public in nine months and working to help him memorize it, rather than teach him to read.

Generally, in Anglophone countries, Hebrew-school students to the left of Modern Orthodox—essentially, Conservative, Reform, and their international counterparts—do not learn to read Hebrew accurately, let alone fluently, unless they go to Jewish day school. Even this exception does not hold everywhere: in England, most Jewish children go to state-funded Jewish schools and still don’t learn. Canada does somewhat better than elsewhere, perhaps because the country has a long tradition of bilingualism, and certainly because it has a far greater proportion of Jewish students in day school. This means the pool of non-readers is small and there are plenty of certified day-school teachers to teach Hebrew school—and, consequently, higher communal expectations. Based on preliminary inquiry, South Africa is a bit like Canada and Australia a bit like London.

Why is it that Hebrew schools are failing at even this most basic of tasks? Rosenberg points to several reasons, among them:

In my conversations [with rabbis and educators], I heard “supplementary school” nearly as often as “Hebrew school.” This is a nod to the fact that some schools focus their limited time on Jewish and Israeli culture, history, Bible stories—anything and everything other than Hebrew reading. They want to give kids positive Jewish experiences and so avoid rote teaching that might well alienate, the power of early experience being what it is.

I . . . think it is long past time we got over our allergy to rote learning. Repetitio est mater studiorum is an idea so deep in ancient Roman culture that I can’t track it to a source.

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Read more at Sapir

More about: American Jewry, Hebrew, Jewish education

How the Death of Mahsa Amini Changed Iran—and Its Western Apologists

Sept. 28 2022

On September 16, a twenty-two-year-old named Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing a hijab. Her death in custody three days later, evidently after being severely beaten, sparked waves of intense protests throughout the country. Since then, the Iranian authorities have killed dozens more in trying to quell the unrest. Nervana Mahmoud comments on how Amini’s death has been felt inside and outside of the Islamic Republic:

[I]n Western countries, the glamorizing of the hijab has been going on for decades. Even Playboy magazine published an article about the first “hijabi” news anchor in American TV history. Meanwhile, questioning the hijab’s authenticity and enforcement has been framed as “Islamophobia.” . . . But the death of Mahsa Amini has changed everything.

Commentators who downplayed the impact of enforced hijab have changed their tune. [Last week], CNN’s Christiane Amanpour declined an interview with the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s notorious morality police and senior officials for the violence carried out against protesters and for the death of Mahsa Amini.

The visual impact of the scenes in Iran has extended to the Arab world too. Arabic media outlets have felt the winds of change. The death of Mahsa Amini and the resulting protests in Iran are now top headlines, with Arab audiences watching daily as Iranian women from all age groups remove their hijabs and challenge the regime policy.

Iranian women are making history. They are teaching the world—including the Muslim world—about the glaring difference between opting to wear the hijab and being forced to wear it, whether by law or due to social pressure and mental bullying. Finally, non-hijabi women are not afraid to defy, proudly, their Islamist oppressors.

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Read more at Nervana

More about: Arab World, Iran, Women in Islam