Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, 1635. The painting depicts a narrative from the book of Daniel, and–as Michael Weingrad says–“a group of people made anxious by Hebrew writing, which they can’t interpret.”

By Michael Weingrad

Dara Horn asks, “Why don’t more American Jews learn Hebrew?” Her answer: “The reason American Jews don’t learn Hebrew is because they think they can’t.”

She believes that this failure stems from a lack of confidence. Even Horn, who tells us in this recent article that she grew up familiar with Hebrew words and that she was one of those rare, truly engaged students in the supplemental Hebrew schooling of her youth, was convinced that she “could never actually learn Hebrew” as a real language. In her mind, fluent Hebrew was something only Israelis or Orthodox Jews were capable of achieving. And so, even though she spent her teens and twenties reading Hebrew literature, it wasn’t until the age of 32 (a number which, by a lovely coincidence, is rendered in Hebrew by the word for “heart”) that she dared plunge directly, at an international writers conference in Israel, into the world of spoken Hebrew without the perpetual crutch of English translation.

It’s an inspiring story, but I respectfully suggest that she’s wrong about her premise. It’s not that American Jews think they can’t learn Hebrew, but that they actively won’t. After all, American Jews are hardly known for their lack of confidence, certainly when it comes to intellectual pursuits. We are surrounded by American Jews who learn languages and expect their children to learn languages: Spanish, Mandarin, JavaScript. And, as Horn notes, we now live with apps and iPads and streaming video on demand. A language is easier to learn and enjoy than at any time in human history.

The stubborn American Jewish refusal–even by many Jews who are active in Jewish life, and who mouth Hebrew words as sounds week after week in synagogue–to treat Hebrew as a language that can be learned, spoken, and used is nothing short of bizarre.

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