HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Returning Literature to the Hebrew Language Curriculum

by Yaron Peleg Issue: Hebrew Education
TOPICS : Hebrew Arts

Hebrew poetry and literature have been integral parts of the curriculum ever since Hebrew began to be taught as a modern language sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century. Indeed, for many years literature comprised almost the entire curriculum. It was not until the professionalization and standardization of the study of Hebrew in the second half of the twentieth century that its size in the curriculum began to shrink. Today, literature competes with a rich variety of cultural sources that threaten it even more. Films and various Internet sources, including Youtube, have pushed the study of literature to the margins of Hebrew studies. There seems little need to even mention poetry, which has all but disappeared from the Hebrew classroom, save for rare cases where the brevity of the form remains one of its only virtues. One feels thankful for Etgar Keret, whose poem-size short stories have recently bolstered the retreating forces of literature from Hebrew pedagogy. But that is an exception that proves the rule.

Hebrew literary texts provide far richer cultural references than electronic media because they span a far greater time period and include an almost infinite spectrum of subjects and genres.

Some of the reasons for this decline have to do with general cultural trends; poetry has all but vanished from the artistic discourse everywhere. Once the crucible of modern Hebrew, where many of the modern language’s innovations took place, this form of art has become marginal today. And poets are not the only ones who have been deprived of the prophetic role they had for the last two hundred years. In the last few decades, authors seem to share a similar fate that increasingly relegates them to the margins of cultural importance. With the growing spread of a visual, multi-sensory culture, literary texts suffer by comparison. Bloggers are the poets of today and filmmakers are our novelists.

The question whether this is good or bad is moot, of course. It is what it is. What we do with this reality and how we deal with it in the classroom is more germane. While almost all teachers of Hebrew today incorporate electronic media into their courses, I would like to make the case here for a return to a more text-based curriculum or at least for an increase in the proportion of poetry and literature as part of it. My professional interests notwithstanding, this is not a nostalgic call. My argument is based on what I believe to be sound pedagogical reasoning that includes the use of language, the history of language, cultural exposure, and rhetorical skills. While most of these aspects of language teaching can certainly be augmented by electronic media, literary texts provide both teachers and students with a much more structured and controlled environment on the one hand, a broader and deeper access into the culture of the language, on the other, and as a result, greater opportunities to exercise a variety of rhetorical skills that require advanced reasoning.

Let me start with an example from my own experience, and davka from my use of electronic media. In the last few years, I have been using the Israeli TV drama A Touch Away (מרחק נגיעה) for a third-year Hebrew conversation class. Since the class focuses on developing speaking skills, I want the course materials to include “authentic” spoken Hebrew. While students love the show and are very excited to watch it, in reality, they are not able to understand it without subtitles. This clearly takes away from the effectiveness of the visual aid. I try to compensate for it by giving students vocabulary lists and dubbing exercises, but in fact, these are all forced drills that are superficially contextualized in the material and remain outside of the actual television drama. The same difficulties arise during the discussion about the show and the important issues it raises, all related to the general problem of using films and other authentic materials in lower levels. In summary: the TV show is marginally effective as a language-teaching tool, although it certainly acquainted students with contemporary Israeli culture and encouraged them to continue their Hebrew studies—important goals in and of themselves.

With the growing spread of a visual, multi-sensory culture, literary texts suffer by comparison. Bloggers are the poets of today and filmmakers are our novelists.

Again, I am not arguing against the use of films and other electronic sources in class. On the contrary. But I think it is important to remember their limited use as an actual language teaching tool. Far more effective, I think, is the use of poetry and literature, even in lower level classes, to enrich expression (lexically and syntactically) and expand cultural horizons and sophistication. The idea is not to replace formal grammatical instruction with belle lettres, but to add a necessary and layered cultural dimension to it in increasing quantities commensurate with proficiency. Hebrew literary texts provide far richer cultural references than electronic media because they span a far greater time period and include an almost infinite spectrum of subjects and genres. And since they are fixed on the page, written and not fleetingly spoken as language in films, they are much more accessible, regardless of their level of difficulty.

I would like to give another example from my own experience, this time from a fourth-year Hebrew class, in which I specifically addresses the pedagogical aspects I mentioned before of language, history, culture and rhetoric. As this is an advanced language class, the proportion of literature in it is obviously greater than that in lower classes. Still, I make sure to diversify the literary offerings beyond the more obvious categories of author, genre, subject, and style to that of time period or history as well. I want to expose students to different “Hebrews” in order to give them an idea about its exceptional development in the past century and expose them to the culture of the language itself. Thus, some of the works I assigned this past semester included Yaacov Steinberg’s classic short story “The Blind Woman” (1920s, “העיוורת”), Y. H. Brenner’s “The Offence” (1910s, “עוולה”), Binyamin Tammuz’s “The Swimming Contest” (1960s, “תחרות שחייה”), and Koby Marenko’s “Emendation” (2010, “תיקון חצות”). These selections, as can immediately be seen, encapsulate Hebrew and its culture in a unique way that I don’t think can be conveyed as readily and as neatly by other means. Steinberg conveys shtetl life and echoes of a maskilic Hebrew (a flowery style predominant in the 19th century). Brenner conveys the early Yishuv period and the first attempts at inventing a native vernacular. Tammuz conveys the shift from pre-Independence to later times in his more modern-standard Hebrew. And Marenko conveys the contemporary search for meaning in his twenty-first century “Israelese.”

This is a very demanding lineup of works that naturally reflects my own interests. But I give it here as a suggestive example of the unique role literature can and should play in the Hebrew language curriculum to access both the language and its culture in ways that cannot be achieved otherwise.

Some practical advice: when considering augmenting the syllabus with literary selections, it is important, of course, that you choose them yourself and select poems and excerpts from works you like well. I seldom rule out works because their language level seems too high for the students—although I don’t usually include excerpts by Mendele, Bialik or Agnon in first or second year Hebrew, unless they are very short sentences with an exceptional message or beauty. In such cases, I might actually ask students to memorize the phrase or sentence by heart. Indeed, my chief criterion for selection is usually the transcendent worth of the excerpt. Very often, teachers choose children songs and other excerpts because of their simplicity. But I think that if we include a work of great worth, students will inevitably see it and appreciate it much more than a pedestrian story. And cutting an excerpt short can usually compensate for its difficulty. ♦

Dr. Yaron Peleg teaches Hebrew literature and Israeli film and culture at George Washington University; he is the co-author of Brandeis Modern Hebrew and is currently co-developing the second volume of that textbook. He can be reached at ypeleg@gwu.edu.

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