Thursday, March 1, 2012

RE-IMAGINE Hebrew

Hebrew is not a subject to be taught.

As long as educators think Hebrew is a subject to be covered, we’ll be repeating Joel and Ethan Coen’s images of “Hebrew School” in the movie A Serious Man. Sit in rows and repeat. Repeat. Now zone-out. Repeat. The one word remembered: sheket. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iggyFPls4w)

Dancing an aleph, drawing a bet or singing a zayin are just methodologies for Hebrew as a subject to be taught—only now with a creative twist. Hebrew prayer, conversation or values...it really doesn’t matter. All those words are Greek without a living context. As my friend, Dr. Kathy Hirsh Pasek says, “Learning a language without context is like memorizing words for the SATs…quickly forgotten and without meaning.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiCzoTs1AdE)

If a congregation commits to “Prayer Hebrew” …then children need to be nurtured to be prayerful. Hebrew for a spiritual journey, connecting life’s essential questions to the words and chants of our people, is very different from learning a list of Hebrew prayers. Hebrew can be a language to call out, to hear anew and to connect. A child only learns that language when given practice and permission to have a private and communal prayer life. A child can learn the language of spiritual connection when in relationship with adults and teens who make Hebrew a portal to calm, joy and understanding. A community that values and models a vibrant prayer life signals to a child this is worthy of your mastery.

Replace conjugating verbs and checking off Hebrew prayers “learned” with having a child explore Hebrew prayer within a community that uses the siddur as a roadmap to a life with meaning and purpose. Then Hebrew is not a subject to be taught. It is a Hebrew that is lived. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25-NUZ215kg)

If a congregation commits to “Values Hebrew”…then children need to be nurtured to become active menschen. Hebrew for a journey of mending the world, connecting life’s essential questions to the values and stories of our people, is very different from learning a list of Hebrew terms. Hebrew can be a language to call out, to hear anew and to connect. A child only learns that language when given practice and permission to experiment with private and communal daily Torah living. A child can learn the language of Jewish values when in relationship with adults and teens who make Jewish values a portal to calm, joy and understanding. A community that values and models a life guided by Torah for daily living signals to a child this is worthy of your mastery.

Replace defining Hebrew terms and yearly Mitzvah Days with situating a child's exploration of Torah within a community that uses middot and mitzvot as a roadmap for a life with meaning and purpose. Then Hebrew is not a subject to be taught. It is Hebrew that is lived. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyQ--mGCjV4&feature=channel)

If a congregation commits to “Conversational Hebrew”…then children need to be in active relationships with Jews in their local community, the US, Israel and around the world who speak the same language of friendship, culture and inquiry. Hebrew for a journey of belonging to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, connecting life’s essential question to our people and to our land, is very different from learning a handful of Hebrew expressions. Hebrew can be a language to call out, to hear anew and to connect. A child only learns that language when give practice and permission to explore and construct their own relationships with the land and the people. A child can learn this language, when in relationship with adults and teens who make Conversational Hebrew a portal for calm, joy and understanding. A community that values and models a life connected to the land and people of Israel signals to a child that this is worthy of your mastery.

Replace memorizing ma shlomcha, and making maps of Israel with ice-cream with situating a child's use of spoken Hebrew within a community that explores the triumphs and challenges of modern Israeli and Jewish experience as a source of a life with meaning and purpose. Then Hebrew is not a subject taught. It is a Hebrew that is lived. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0hd_pmmc5E).

Prayer, values and conversational Hebrew do not have to be experienced as separate domains. The connections among them are easily apparent. Regardless of the choices a congregation makes, ensuring that the language is lived, not taught, is the essential ingredient.

Hebrew is a portal, a sign post and a roadmap to a life well lived guided by Judaism. As educational leaders we should be asking:

· What life journey do we commit to nurturing in our learners? How can Hebrew support that life journey now and in the future?

· What kind of Jewish living does our community embody? How does Hebrew enable our children to be nurtured in this community?

If we do that, then we’ll have the last laugh. The Coen Brothers’ movie will be ancient, not modern, Jewish history.

(this post first appeared on The Hebrew Project website)