By Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
In a recent blog post, Michael Weingrad, Associate Professor at Portland State University, asserts that the reason more American Jews don’t learn Hebrew is that they don’t want to. Weingrad argues that there is an “active pressure of the American Jewish psyche. American Jewish identity is based on feeling outside, on the threshold knocking at the door but never quite entering. Knocking at the door of Jewish identity, knocking at the door of American identity. To enter fully would be to lose one’s identity and become something different.” The reason that more American Jews don’t learn Hebrew, according to Weingrad, is that we have a psychological impediment that makes it unthinkable for most American Jews to do so.
I have spent significant time studying the research and thinking about teaching Hebrew language in the United States. I was not sure that I agreed with Weingrad’s thesis, so I asked a few educators at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School what they thought about this argument. Ortal Wikoff is an Upper School Hebrew language teacher and has been working closely with Hebrew at the Center on the school’s move to a proficiency model of language instruction. Ortal responded that she disagrees with the author. She believes the reason that Jews in America are not motivated to learn the language is two-fold: 1) they don’t see the benefit of learning Hebrew, and 2) it’s not a language offered in public schools. Unlike Spanish, Japanese, or Chinese, there is no clear professional or societal benefit to learning Hebrew for American Jews—and that doesn’t even get into the issue of American Jews having less of a connection with Judaism or Israel with each passing generation. In her experience, Ortal does not see self-doubt or the challenge of the language as the real obstacles. Many American Jews learn Chinese in high school, even though it’s a far more challenging language to learn than Hebrew, because they think there will be future benefits for them professionally. Spanish is a less difficult language to learn, but the same could be said for the American Jews who choose to learn Spanish over Hebrew—it has professional application and it’s a language that is spoken by a large number of people in the U.S.
Ortal says that CESJDS makes a point to convey the connection between Hebrew, Judaism, and Israel from the time of our student’s first academic exposure. The school constantly expresses to students how important it is to learn the language, to be connected to Israel, to strengthen our community, and to maintain and enhance the very important connection with our cultural heritage. If Hebrew’s worth were conveyed to the American Jewish community outside of a Jewish day school framework the same way it is expressed to our students, Ortal believes it would have a significant impact on the numbers of American Jews learning Hebrew.