The Language of the Hebrewman

This is an example of how it feels to know a language – to “just get” expressions, nuances, meaning. To know a language is to belong to the community of those who know it and to have access to the community’s culture, its values, and its humor. Secret languages are universally used by children to exclude outsiders (often adults) and to create a cozy “in” group. That is why knowing a language is a way to be at home – to share understanding. Knowing Hebrew is a way to be at home in Jewish culture.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1922. Conversely, when you push past the limits of your language, you expand the horizons of your world. If you know Hebrew, you can say and understand the word “davka” – a concept impossible to express in a single English word. You can relish new Israeli words like tidluk (filling your gas tank) or taklitor (CD) because you know Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. You can smile delightedly when you encounter “ein ladavar sof” in the Mishna, because you learned the expression just the other day and people are still using it!

I am not claiming that you must know Hebrew to be Jewishly engaged nor is the opposite necessarily true, that Hebrew knowledge de facto ensures Jewish engagement. But I am asserting that when you do know Hebrew your opportunities for deep Jewish engagement grow – via the vibrant intellectual community of Jewish thinkers, both modern and ancient, text-based or text-message-based; via reading an Israeli newspaper, or, more importantly, writing a letter to the editor in Hebrew. Students who know Hebrew are able to become active participants in and contributors to the growth of Jewish culture.

How can we bring Hebrew into our schools? In contrast to the precipitating pets above, the key to Hebrew in the school is that it be meaningful, authentic, and necessary. People learn and internalize knowledge they need – knowledge that makes a difference in their lives. It is not enough for students to memorize lists of Hebrew vocabulary words, or to know how to order a meal or ask directions to the central bus station. A small phrase book will suffice for that. Students must find that they need Hebrew to say things they can’t express fully in English, or to get through a day of school or even to get a good grade in an important subject. We all know that when something is matters, you learn it. That’s why immigrants famously know many languages – the languages they needed to survive.

To foster meaningful communication, the students must be involved in meaningful Hebrew communication daily. We must make plain by our daily school routines and standards that we value Hebrew or students will know we are asking them to “do as we say, not as we do.” We cannot simply tell students that “Hebrew is important and useful”; educational integrity demands that we demonstrate its importance and usefulness daily. Important school announcements should be made in Hebrew, Hebrew songs and plays should be part of the school culture, Jewish Studies teachers should be teaching in Hebrew, and all conversation in Jewish Studies and Hebrew classes should be in Hebrew. A school-wide commitment to Hebrew brings unparalleled Judaic richness to the school without entering the “too Jewish/not Jewish enough” fray.

The classic concern about this approach is that the students will not understand. More pointedly – and poignantly- educators say “When we get to the important part we switch to English so the kids won’t miss the important content.” This viewpoint creates a cycle of Hebrew ignorance; - students don’t know Hebrew, so important things are not discussed in Hebrew; important things are not discussed in Hebrew, so the students don’t learn Hebrew.

Breaking this cycle is very difficult, but it CAN be done. We must talk about important things in Hebrew – or the kids will understand that there is no real reason to learn Hebrew! Naturally, it would be best to start off with Hebrew in the preschool and early elementary years - but it is not too late even in high school. There must be a plan for introducing active Hebrew in the school; the level of Hebrew (i.e. vocabulary, syntax, length and complexity of sentences) should be appropriate and manageable to the majority of the students. Profound ideas can be discussed in easy Hebrew – but the teacher must be attentive to the level of Hebrew being used. If Hebrew is used, matter-of-factly, in the public discourse of the school (announcements, graduation speeches) as well as in classrooms, hallways, and offices, then the school and its students have become part of Hebrew and Jewish culture and community. A Hebrew-speaking school is a school with a Jewish consciousness.

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” (American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, 1897-1941)

Hebrew, in particular, allows us to think Jewish thoughts in authentic ways, to encounter age-old Jewish dilemmas, to capture Jewish cultural ideas in communal shorthand, to explore Jewish ideas independently. What better entrée to Jewish culture can we offer our students?

Naomi Stillman is the Associate Director of NETA in Newton Centre, MA. Naomi can be reached at
Naomi Stillman
Too Jewish? Not Jewish Enough?
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2007