Okay, so I already posted some theories of mine about the importance of Hebrew in Jewish identity and identification with the land, people, and state of Israel, but I think I need to hit the point home a little more and a little more clearly.
I wrote a paper for one of my courses this semester called "The DNA of Jewish Education: Modern Hebrew and Identity Formation" (<-- that's the Google doc). I don't expect anyone to go read the entire thing, but I want to highlight a few of my findings from my research. For those of you who don't believe that Modern Hebrew language literacy is key in Jewish identity formation and ultimately identification with Israel, I hope this information is compelling! Feel free to argue back any of the points made below or in the full paper. Mad props if you actually read the paper, too.
A thought to consider while reading: Had we decided to teach Yiddish in Hebrew and Day Schools, it likely would have stuck. Why? It was spoken at home; Modern Hebrew as not. But the Zionist lobby won out on this front and thus Modern Hebrew became the tour de force of the Talmud Torah and even made its way into public schools in the New York area (and is still offered as a foreign language in 36 U.S. public schools).
In Gilead Morahg's Language is Not Enough, he cites a 1989 University of Wisconsin survey of all 284 students in the university’s Modern Hebrew program that shows “very clearly” that most of the students chose to study Hebrew because, on one level or another, they were seeking an “authentic connection to their own culture and a more coherent sense of their own identity.” Ultimately, the survey showed, when asked students to indicate and rank the areas in which they anticipated using Hebrew later in life, the students ranked the following as the top three: (1) Travel to Israel; (2) Educating Your Children; and (3) Religious Services.
Students in many schools take French or Spanish for language requirements, and so Hebrew tends to fall into the pit of general language instruction. The missing piece, Gilead Morahg argues, is that for most students and teachers, Hebrew is presented as a foreign language, but that for most students and teachers of modern Hebrew, it is not the language of a foreign country but of a people of which they are a part. Morahg refers to this as the “suppression of the profound cultural connection between the Hebrew language and its Jewish learners,” and that this is what threatens to invalidate much of what goes on in the classroom. “It disorients and frustrates the teachers and it almost invariably disappoints the students,” Morahg says.
A people has traditions, a shared history, memory, and, most importantly, a common language. “A group speaking the same language different from that of other groups in the same or neighboring location, and identifying with the same language as a symbol of this social unit,” one scholar says, “has basic advantages for maintaining its own existence as a distinct community." Thus, without a common language, cultural and structural assimilationist tendencies become stronger. When groups are faced with rapid assimilation, Elana Shohamy argues, groups tend to use the device of language to recreate their identity, which is what we call subtractive learning in the language acquisition.
Elana Shohamy cites a 1996 Imber-Bailey study that examined the hypothesis that children acquiring an ancestor language develop an ethnic identification that differs from those not acquiring it. The study concluded that bilinguals perceived themselves as part of a community using “we” more frequently than monolinguals, not to mention that bilinguals tend to have a more positive evaluation of their culture.
If parents and educators can begin looking at the Hebrew language as Waxman does, as “symbolic communication” and as Hayim Nachum Bialik and Ahad Haam did, as a “repository for a culture’s cherished attitudes and values,” perhaps headway can be made.
Identity, Morahg argues, is a mode of action: Who you are is not a function of what you know but of what you do. The ability to communicate using the Hebrew language, then, is probably the “most powerful means of enhancing and expressing a personal sense of Jewish identity.” In this way, Hebrew language functions in an entirely different way than most other aspects of a Jewish studies curriculum, because language is more than a form of knowledge, but a “behavior, a mode of personal and cultural action.”
Just as Jews cannot agree on a universally accepted definition of Jewish identity, so, too, it is unlikely that educators will ever agree on why we teach Hebrew, let alone how we should teach Hebrew. What is agreed upon is that Hebrew is critical to the social project of Jewish education in its formal and informal modes” and it is a “key component of transmitting Jewish religious and cultural identification.” Citing a Jewish educator, Sharon Avni accurately observes that “Hebrew is the DNA of Jewish education” -- it permeates all areas of study. But there are few external incentives for children to learn Hebrew.
Aside from the need for central institutions, realistic goals and outcomes, appropriate learning conditions, and a dedicated, passionate, and educated workforce, there are basic ways we can start to infuse Jewish education with the taste for Modern Hebrew. Educators must create classroom environments that encourage students to identify with the communal feelings they have during a Passover seder or when lighting Chanukah candles. Educators need to express the validity of Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people as a cultural construct, and not just a foreign language or rote of the Zionist dialogue. Only then will Jewish students become more engaged in their heritage language, Hebrew, and, one can only hope, in their own Jewish selves as well.