With the High Holidays, as well as the new school year, upon us, I’d like to take the opportunity to offer a single wish for Jewish community life in Ottawa. It’s quite specific and straightforward but, I believe, far-reaching.
I hope and wish that our community’s supplementary school teachers would speak Hebrew to the students. In other words, I’d like to see us put the Hebrew back in Hebrew school.
Having experienced more than one supplementary school via my own kids, this column is not meant to impugn any particular school, but rather is meant to capture a troubling dynamic I’ve witnessed in more than one place, and with more than one teacher.
For example, seldom have I heard the teachers say the simplest of Hebrew phrases – such as “boker tov (good morning)” – to the kids when greeting them. As I picked up my kids recently, I puzzled over why the teacher was asking the students to put the chairs on the tables in English when Hebrew would work beautifully for a simple command involving two common nouns.
Some months ago, I approached one school director about my concern, citing the city’s very successful French immersion program as a model. (Recall that, until recently in Ottawa, kindergarten classes were only a couple of hours per day, showing that even direct application of spoken French in a limited time can have profound results.) The director’s response was that, for French immersion schools, French is akin to a religion. Here, on the other hand, the director explained, “We are in the business of teaching kids how to be Jews.”
I’ve been mulling over the distinction since then. Is Hebrew language acquisition conceptually distinct from “teaching kids to be Jews”?
Now, admittedly, I’m one of the more passionate Hebrew-philes there is, having elected to speak only Hebrew to my kids since they were infants. I realize not everyone shares my obsession for Hebrew and Israeli sitcoms, music and news.
I decided to tackle that director’s implication. I started by thinking about the one Hebrew word that virtually everyone living in a North American city knows. By dint of the craze around Christmas, probably the first Hebrew word children learn – even before shalom, ima or Shabbat – is Chanukah.
Now, most everyone knows that Chanukah is the name of the Jewish holiday commemorating the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian-Greeks. But, how many of us actually know the literal meaning of the word? Here’s a further challenge: I would wager that knowing the literal meaning of the word “Chanukah” provides key links to three seemingly unrelated things: a) better recall of the meaning of the holiday; b) an understanding of the causes of the First Intifada; and c) a deeper conceptualization of the entire relationship between Jewish identity and education.
So, here goes. Chanukah is the Hebrew word for dedication or inauguration. Knowing this would help kids remember that central to the holiday was the rededication of the Second Temple, and would render intelligible the chanukat hamizbayach phrase in the popular holiday song whose Hebrew words often register in kids’ minds as gibberish, unless they are schooled in the language.
Chanukat bayit is also the Hebrew phrase for housewarming. A bit of modern Israeli political history reveals that Ariel Sharon’s provocative Muslim Quarter housewarming party in December 1987, during Chanukah, is understood by many political observers to have helped fuel the first Palestinian Intifada. (Perhaps his housewarming party was meant to be a word play on the festival of lights, falling as it was at the same time. Perhaps not, but it also serves as a useful memory mnemonic for students of Israeli politics.)
Finally, all Hebrew words derive from a three letter root. The root of Chanukah is the same as the root for chinuch (education) and for chanich (camper, initiate). In other words, in a beautiful piece of poetic connection, understanding Hebrew can be seen to be an early step of being initiated into the Jewish people in a meaningful way. In any event, the idea of education in Jewish life – whether formal, through school, or informal, through camps and youth groups – is meant to remind kids they are joining something much larger than themselves. And that can only be helped by being regularly exposed to the rich and eternally clever language of our people.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.