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Mira Sucharov


We desperately need a good hard dose of Hebrew

by Mira Sucharov, May 16, 2011 updated with editor's note May 26, 2011

[Editor's note: We published this article  below written by Mira Sucharov last week before it was in Ha'aretz this week. Let me state at the outset  that  I labelled it "Editor's Pick", not only because  I agree with it wholeheartedly, but I think it is a very important issue and one which will be essential to the survival of  Jewish communities such as Winnipeg. Like Mira, when my children were born I spoke to them at home in Hebrew because I understood that the Hebrew language would be necessary to connect them to Israel, where almost half of the  Jewish people in the world now live (and if anything I am concerned that I have not been diligent enough over the last couple of years in speaking to them in Hebrew as much as I used to).

Language opens up worlds and in Israel  when my children  want to speak to a Russian Israeli or an Israeli child from France--Hebrew is their only common language. My own belief is that the level of Hebrew language skills in our community has deteriorated over the last 25 plus years. From what I have seen and experienced  gaduates from our Jewish school system have Hebrew skills that are at a level which is lower than those who graduated with me from Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate in 1982. 

There is an easy way to measure this. Every  student who goes to study at the one year program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (or Tel Aviv University, etc.)  must take a Hebrew placement exam to determine their level of Hebrew. When I went to the  Hebrew University one year program in 1986, my Hebrew level  was a level "Daled" with those who were stronger than I being placed in a  level "Hey." (I later upgraded my Hebrew to take Bar examinations to be admitted to the Israeli Bar in 1996.)

 From my understanding today, strong students who enter the Hebrew University one year program are being placed in level "Gimel' or "Daled" (if lucky) and some are being placed in level "Bet" (a low level that not one of my peers ever  placed in). On the whole, I think our system has deteriorated  in regards to Hebrew language, and I fear that there may also have been a deterioration in the  Brock Corydon Hebrew Bilinguial program in the last decade, as well.

Unless we make real efforts to change that trend, my own view is it will be an impediment to survival for our community. In my view every Hebrew teacher in a school system [Shore elementary,Gray Academy or the Hebrew Bilingual Program in public schools]  should have to take the Hebrew placement test of the Hebrew University and unless they get a "Pator" meaning that they have reached the highest level of Hebrew possible, then they ought to have to take remedial courses over the summers until they obtain that level. The summer courses could be taught here  in Winnipeg by a teacher in the system that has a "Pator" level, or alternatively we could send  some teachers to study to upgrade their Hebrew at institutions in Israel over the summers.

If funding is needed to accomplish this goal, we ought to begin as a community to budget for it. 

We used to teach "Ivrit B'Ivrit,' something that is not always followed today,and it is time to raise the bar.

I am not afraid to go on the record on this one, because I sincerely believe it will be essential to ensuring the survival of our community. Bravo to Mira Sucharov for taking the intiative to tackle this subject.]   


by Mira Sucharov


There is much hand-wringing over Jewish continuity, but less attention is paid to cultivating serious Jewish literacy. One factor that is especially neglected -- at our peril -- is the centrality of Hebrew language knowledge.

In Toronto recently, I had dinner with Greg Beiles, a vice-principal at the Toronto Heschel School, and the curriculum and training director at the Lola Stein Institute. About Hebrew, he is succinct: the future of the Jewish people depends on it.

Greg knows that language is a critical piece of transmitting collective identity. Whether through the Judaism as “civilization” idea that Mordecai Kaplan proposed, or the sense of Jewish peoplehood that finds its expression in modern Israel, Hebrew serves as a communal anchor.

So many expressions of Hebrew culture, Greg explains, such as the poetry of Hayim Nachman Bialik and Yehuda Amichai, rely on wordplay with Judaic textual references.  The reader of these modern Hebrew poets is propelled backwards and forwards through the centuries.

Outside of Israel, Hebrew knowledge has become sadly lacking. There is something troublesome about a people that doesn’t understand the words in its own liturgy, or in the homeland’s national anthem; a people that can’t understand the proceedings of an Israeli Knesset session and who can’t translate a verse from Naomi Shemer’s wildly popular “Jerusalem of Gold.” Jewish parents typically assign a Hebrew name to their babies, but I would guess that most would not have known the meaning without the help of a dictionary.

As American-Israeli writer and translator Hillel Halkin has lamented, “A Jewish culture in translation is a culture that has lost its flavor.”

At my childhood summer camp (Camp Massad in Winnipeg Beach) we instinctively understood what was at stake. The entire camp program -- every song, play, announcement, simulation, sports game, and bedtime kiss -- was (and still is) conducted in Hebrew. There is something heady and intoxicating about speaking a language which links members of an ethnic group near and far, today and yesterday. And when the language is not your native one, there’s a risk-taking element: there is less perhaps pressure to be as profound or as funny. Because of that, moments of wit and insight can spontaneously emerge. But when we did recite our morning prayers, chant a leisurely Shabbat service, or sing Hebrew folk songs, the words rolled off our tongue. At Camp Massad, Hebrew was not a foreign language. It was our language.

Unfortunately, many parents are gradually devaluing Hebrew knowledge as a central pillar of their children’s education. Parents are opting for fewer and fewer hours of Jewish education (if any Jewish schooling at all).

Part of how to get parental buy-in is to pitch Hebrew as an acquired cognitive skill like any second language. “And Hebrew’s root structure makes it particularly analytical,” Greg adds.

Think about the letter combination s, p/f, r. From playing with those letters, almost by magic, you can tease out the words book, author, library, story, tell, count and number. (Arabic is structured similarly, as if to remind us that our fates are intertwined.)

How can we increase Hebrew knowledge in our communities? At the most basic, all Hebrew and Judaic instruction at any Jewish school (day or supplementary) should be a Hebrew

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