Hebrew: A Bridge for Jewish Communities Worldwide and the Key to Jewish Identity

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It was not so long ago that Jewish communities around the world were all able to read the Bible in its original language, a skill connecting a nation spread across the world in the diaspora. However, since the early 19th century something has begun to change. Translations of the Bible to English and other languages have become far more widespread as Jews formed large new communities post WWII. Also, the Hebrew language itself underwent a phenomenal revival thanks to the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the modern Zionist movement, and the creation of the State of Israel, and became a thriving spoken language.

Unfortunately, I would argue that these two parallel developments in the Hebrew language contributed to a certain extent to the drifting apart of the Jewish people, instead of bringing them closer together. In Israel, we witness a community of Jewish people who use Hebrew daily, where Hebrew literature is created, and where the language is alive and constantly developing. In the Jewish communities overseas, however, and at least according to my observation of North America’s communities, not only is there a struggle and even resistance to keep up with modern Hebrew, but even the understanding of the old language is disappearing as more and more holiday services in synagogues read prayers and texts in English.

It is well known that a shared language can serve a bridge to mutual understanding. Each one of us who ever needed an interpreter when visiting another country or reading a foreign text knows how challenging it can be to fully grasp someone else’s words. To be lost in translation is a very real experience as meaning, significance, and nuance can easily be altered. With clear communication being tricky enough even when done in the same language, it is not a surprise that the lack of shared language can cause a disconnect, and not only between people to themselves, but also within one’s identity. Can a Jewish American reading a translated speech of an Israeli politician, or a translated Hebrew book truly understand all the cultural references? Can a Canadian Jewish teenager really connect to the meaning of a prayer or the Israeli national anthem without understanding the depth of the original words?

I know of Jewish parents who enthusiastically send their kids to learn Spanish, French, or Chinese, but pass on investing in any significant Hebrew studies beyond the Bar/Bat Mitzvah requirements. I wonder why it is no longer a priority for many to familiarize the next generation with the language of our ancestors, a language that more than half of the Jewish population worldwide in Israel speaks daily. Yet, even if a family decides to make it a priority, the prospective options of where to learn Hebrew outside of Israel are not great. As too many Hebrew-school graduates who after several years of attending can only remember how to ask for a break or order a falafel, it is clear something significant needs to be changed.

Of a major importance is realizing why learning Hebrew is personally and nationally meaningful for all Jewish people and our future generations. Understanding words at its core and origin is key to understanding a culture, religion, ideas. The diaspora communities need to be willing to experience Hebrew and immerse themselves in its studies, devote the time and energy to acquire the language and catch up. It is not an impossible task, and the attitude to Hebrew should not be as to a “foreign” language, but as to “our” language that was forgotten and neglected for several decades. The convenience of translation is not worth the lost meaning of old texts, and missing out on the new literature and day-to-day culture developed since the language’s revival.

Another change must be in the form of Hebrew studies accessibility and depth of instruction. There should be more programs available in communities outside of Israel, more skilled native Hebrew speaking teachers who would undergo professional training, with updated and relevant materials to study with. Instead of using outdated grammar books, why not adopt the many new language instructions techniques, such as Hebrew emersion, usage of modern texts, pairing of a non-speaker with a native speaker for practice, etc. Recently, several new initiatives pushing for the study of Hebrew were born from places such as the Department of Hebrew Language and Culture of the World Zionist Organization, or from the Ofek Hub of the Israeli American Council. These are wonderful and very welcomed development, yet a lot of work still lays ahead for the Jewish nation worldwide to avoid an internal Tower of Babel.

In June, Israel celebrates its annual “Hebrew Book Week” and I encourage everyone who wishes to study Hebrew to use this opportunity and make a small step towards learning the language.  Little actions such as signing up for a virtual class, deciding to devote 30 minutes a week to study flash cards with new words, or attempting to read a text in Hebrew are all wonderful options. We must cherish and maintain the one tool that can serve as a connecting bridge for Jewish communities worldwide and the key to Jewish identity, which is the beautiful Hebrew language.

About the Author
Valeria Chazin is the co-founder and board of directors chair of Students Supporting Israel. She is a speaker on topics of Israel and Zionism, and an activist in the Jewish community.
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