Why Don’t American Jews Speak Hebrew?

Lori Sagarin, my friend, muse and the Educational Director at my temple,  was among the first to encourage me to pursue my vision for transforming Modern Hebrew instruction.  Recently Lori sent me a fascinating article (by James Loeffler) from Tablet Magazine entitled,  “Should American Jews Speak Hebrew?”

While I encourage everyone to read the article closely and ponder his/her own connection to Ivrit – as an Israeli, or member of the Diaspora, or as an interested second language acquirer or ‘other,’ I do have, (surprise, surprise!) some issues with Loeffler’s assumptions.

I believe the author conveniently ignores or glosses over our earnest, ongoing but failed attempts to realize American Jewry’s Hebrew language aspiration, albeit fueled by all the same yearning Loeffler describes.
Many of those Birthright kids at Ben Gurion airport did go to Hebrew school or Jewish day school – invested their Hebrew seat time – their parents nodding and writing annual checks, respectful of our crucial link to Israel & Judaism via Ivrit.
I completely disagree that the American diaspora willingly or intentionally shuns or avoids acquiring Hebrew in favor of monolingualism.  Ivrit was and is a priority for many affiliated Jews; though in my Hebrew Project experience, a sense of absolute futility about attaining any practical Hebrew proficiency has set in….
I think about my 90-yr old friend, Sarkeh in Ben Shemen.  Before she came to Israel from Poland as a WWII refugee, she grew up in a trilingual household – Polish, Yiddish and Modern Hebrew.  I just discussed this with her last summer!  She was privy to a comprehensible partially-Hebrew environment as a child.  She came to Israel with real skills!!  Contrast her experience with my own parents, who used a lot of Yiddish with us growing up.  They had hardly any conversational Hebrew to share, so they couldn’t; but like Sarkeh’s parents, they would have if they could!!
Under the right conditions, Hebrew begets Hebrew.  Jews who want to acquire Hebrew, like anyone who wants to acquire another tongue, need only get what language acquisition requires:  a flood of compelling, comprehensible, contextualized input over the long haul.  Just like in any World Language classroom, from Armenian to Zulu, understanding messages is the driver of acquisition (SLA in a nutshell), so we know what we must do.
That Modern Hebrew proficiency never took root in the US diaspora is less a function of will or desire, and more a result of misguided instruction and a near absence of the basic ingredients that drive acquisition:  ongoing Hebrew communication –  meaning-focused quality messaging that is understood by the listener/reader in the target language.
Longing (a.k.a. ‘motivation’) won’t get us there; nor hollow grammar drills & vocab lists, nor peppering our English with Hebrew lifecycle words and phrases.
But as talkers, readers & thinkers, we have what we need to turn this ship around, and I’m here to help.
That’s my research-supported take.  As always, I welcome your comments!



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