Every year I lie to the parents of my students. It happens like clockwork each fall in the middle of September during Parent-Teacher Conferences. Every year I meet with about 20 sets of Chicago-area parents from my level one course for Modern Hebrew and there is always a handful from that loving, well-to-do and well-intentioned group of mothers and fathers that ask me the same set of questions.
“After four years in Hebrew, will my son be able to write in cursive and read without vowels?”
I answer truthfully: “He’ll be able to do that in a month.”
“When will they be able to write compositions and essays?”
Again I am straightforward with the concerned parent. “In about a year.”
“But by her senior year, will my daughter be able to understand Israelis in Hebrew?”
“Of course,” I exclaim. And it’s true – she’ll just have to focus a bit harder than when listening in English.
“Mr. Morrel, after four years of Hebrew in high school, will my kid be fluent?”
As always, I am completely honest. I have no reason to fool anyone into taking the course. The students should study with me because that’s what they want. So I explain that they’ll communicate in Hebrew “okay.” They won’t trick anyone into thinking they’re native speakers and they’ll probably make grammar mistakes even after they graduate. Unless they live in the actual foreign country for a period of time, I continue, they’ll never fully be able to communicate in the target language. This is the case for them all – Hebrew, French, Spanish – it doesn’t matter.
I tell this to the parents and I am being honest with them. And still, I am lying right to their faces.
You see, while I directly answer all their questions, placating their worries that they made the right decision by enrolling their child into Modern Hebrew and entrusting me with a portion of their son or daughter’s education for the next four years, I don’t tell them that they’re missing the most important question. I lie to them by omitting that it’s not always about how the children can communicate in Hebrew, but rather, how Hebrew can communicate to the children.
In the United States today, there is a growing concern within the Jewish community that our children are losing touch with their roots and sense of identity. We see this through unprecedented levels of assimilation among other things. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary; this can simply be a reflection of how open and accepting America is as a nation. Furthermore, the massive lack of interest throughout Judaism’s youth in the US will not be fixed by forcing our sons and daughters to live a certain lifestyle and to shun them if they don’t. That would only further marginalize them. Rather, it’s about education. Specifically, using education as a tool to connect to the younger generation.
Now I don’t teach Judaism. But, I do teacher Modern Hebrew in a public high school and naturally we discuss matters concerning the State of Israel. In Spanish, the students learn Spanish and Latin American culture during specific units. I notice that those are some of the most popular topics among Spanish language pupils at my school. In French, the kids have the opportunity to indulge in French film, food and music in addition to the dialect. The goes for all languages offered to high-schoolers. It’s not only about the youngsters connecting to people in the target language. There’s also the idea of students using the language as a vehicle to learn about the history, culture, beauty and complexities of spoken Hebrew, French, Spanish, etc.
In my case, much of that history, culture, beauty and complexity is an important part of who my students are. When they’re forced to identify with their heritage, especially when it’s over 3,000 years-old, they resist. But in the form of a living, vibrant and exciting language, they can always find at least one thing, one real and tangible thing to hold onto. With Hebrew and Israeli culture, they can take off and identify with something they wouldn’t have realized existed before. I never mention these ideas in our Parent-Teacher Conferences every fall and for that, I feel as though I’m lying.
I had a student study Hebrew with me for three years. He came back to visit me after his freshman year of college and when I asked him how his Hebrew was he said he’d forgotten almost all of it. But then his face lit up and he stayed on the topic of my class. “The only thing I remember from class,” he told me, “is when we studied the Idan Raichel Project. Our Hillel offered a two-day course on his music and we met one of the musicians from the album!” I said that was awesome but he wasn’t done. He told me that he was going on Birthright that summer and was extending his trip an extra week so he could see Idan Raichel in concert in Ramat Gan.
When it comes using the language as a vehicle to connecting with culture, it’s not about convincing my students to love Israel as I do or to even agree with the Israeli government. Their political positions don’t matter when identifying with their heritage. You can be a religious Zionist or a reader of the left-wing daily Haaretz and find something you like. The background of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew culture is that vast. I had an incredibly motivated senior who just graduated. His father was Jewish but beyond that, he really had no connection to the religion or culture. In high school he got involved with peace and co-existence groups between Israelis and Palestinians. He told me he was adamantly opposed to Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. However, that didn’t reflect what learning the language did to his view on Israeli culture. You see, he used the music of Arik Einstein to sharpen his Hebrew and I suggested he broaden his musical tastes to other artists such as Idan Yaniv, Eyal Golan and Zohar Argov. He fell in love with them. Into the summer we would still discuss Israeli music over e-mail and he plans to continue learning Hebrew in college. Politically he may be what Israelis refer to as a “peacenik”, but so what? To some degree, he shows an interest in his background that never existed before.
I want to share one final anecdote. I had a young girl begin my course two years ago. She had a Bat-Mitzvah but hated Sunday school. In fact, she only enrolled in the class when she was promised that Hebrew at our school would be nothing resembling the synagogue atmosphere she grew to detest. Immediately she fell in love with the Hebrew language YouTube videos we studied and the movies we watched. She was also a huge fan of our field trips – one to the Chicago Israeli Film Festival and another to an Israeli restaurant. This past semester, she studied in Israel and now tells me she wants to make Aliyah. You can call this what you want. I don’t consider it a victory for “hasbarah” or a young girl that “we saved” from assimilation. It’s not about that. That’s not my goal and it shouldn’t be the goal of the parents when signing their son or daughter up for Hebrew. It’s about learning Modern Hebrew. There is also the cultural component. It’s about offering her, and all my students, another way of looking at their background.
At the end of the day, the children should study whatever language they want in high school. They are going to be there for four years and they might as well enjoy it. If a youngster at the age of 14 is into noir-French films, I would recommend he or she does French. They’ll be able to hone their interest and build on it even more through the language. If a boy wants to explore his interest in Mexican-American relations, he absolutely should take Spanish. It’s a timely topic and the language will be a perfect vehicle for him to communicate with all things related to it. Obviously after four years in French or Spanish the linguistic skills will be much better. Will they be fluent? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s not the best barometer to measure how worthwhile the course was. There is so much more to get out of taking a language in high school.
So I think this fall I am going to stop lying to my students’ parents. When the group of loving, well-to-do and well-intentioned Chicago area parents ask me:
“After four years in Hebrew, will my son be able to write in cursive and read without vowels?” I’ll answer truthfully. When they want to know, “when will they be able to write compositions and essays,” I’ll be straightforward with the concerned parent.
If they wonder if, “By her senior year, will my daughter be able to understand Israelis in Hebrew,” I will exclaim that of course she will. She’ll just have to focus a bit harder when listening in English. And if they ask me if they’ll be fluent by graduation I’ll tell them the truth. But this time, I will also explain how the lessons they will remember one, two, three, ten years later won’t show how well they communicate in Hebrew. The best lessons will show how well Hebrew communicates in them. Communicates in ways they may not have thought of before or even thought to embrace. And then maybe, they will use those lessons to communicate with the world when they become loving, well-to-do and well-intentioned Chicago-area parents.