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The Importance of Learning ‘Ivrit’ (Hebrew)

“Shalom Yeladim!”

This is how teachers greet their students. In Ivrit (Hebrew), we say “Hello” with the word “Shalom”. It means “hello” and it also means “peace.” Imagine how many times a day we wish each other “peace!” And we are hardly aware of doing it.

Down the hall, we hear a teacher saying “Kol Hakavod” to a student on a job well done. Literally, “Kol Hakavod” means “total respect.” That is different from a “job well done.” What I love about Hebrew is the built-in connection — the mutual respect that is created by achieving a stated goal. When we think about Ivrit in this way, we realize that language has a deep impact on the way we think, describe and feel about the world.

I believe that Ivrit is much more than just a language. It is a language that, in so many ways, speaks to all of us even if we cannot speak it. While it belongs to a linguistic family, inherent in Ivrit is much more than the language. It is a culture; it is a value; it is an attitude; it is a people.  

In a recent Hebrew survey, our students were asked why they thought it is important to learn Hebrew. One of the students answered: “It connects us to Jewish people all over the world and keeps the language of our people alive.” I don’t think I could have given a more concise or meaningful answer to this question!

At Bialik, Ivrit exists in the walls, the halls, in our identity, culture, values and, most deeply, in our students.

“Be’ivrit be’vakasha.” Ivrit be’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew) is the way Hebrew is taught at Bialik.

According to Rabbi Sacks:

“The single most important social institution is the place where we hand our values to the next generation — where we tell our children where we’ve come from, what ideals we fought for, and what we learned on the way. Schools are where we make children our partners in the long and open-ended task of making a more gracious world.”

Part of Rabbi Sacks’ “open-ended task of making a more gracious world” is the importance of the Hebrew language. Here are some of the reasons why:

Language helps define identity

Language is indelibly linked to identity. The way we think, communicate and recount stories are related to our identity. Recently, we saw this so clearly with the group of Bialik Grade 8 students who began participating in a virtual reality program with students from Europe, North America, Israel, Australia. As Jewish students, they met in a virtual online space where they discussed the meaning of their Jewish identity. How did they connect with each other? They used the common vehicle of Hebrew.

Language reflects culture

According to the authors, Gioura, Brannon and Deal, the choice of language is a statement about how we see ourselves. Language is not simply a formal tool used to communicate ideas or practices; it is part of the very content of the cultural beliefs and practices that we are communicating. As we see with the example of our greeting — Shalom, Peace — the texture of a language, the syntax and grammatical form, as well as the varied vocabulary and phrasing combine to present a particular worldview.

As we attach ourselves to the Hebrew language, we attach ourselves to a “way of looking at things” that is both unique and different from that of other cultures.

Our Jewish stories

The connection between language and culture focuses on adding cultural content to communicative language instruction largely by studying literature. I am sometimes asked why we do not separate Hebrew from Jewish studies? For me, there is one very clear and compelling reason: because 67% of communicative Hebrew roots flow from biblical roots. In order for our students to understand the nuances of the language, we have to work to understand the nuances of the stories told in that language.  

Language is a gift

Imagine for a moment, the kind of gift we are giving our students by giving them the gift of Hebrew beyond those basics and extending their personal and global narrative.

We are giving them the gift of connectivity; the gift of belonging; the gift of tradition, the gift of values and culture.  

Embedded in Hebrew is the fabric of who we are as a people; within it are reflections of our history and our future; woven through it are our understandings of values, ethics and traditions. We share such a rich and diverse narrative, and through the study of Ivrit, we unleash that world to our children.

 

Kathy Friedman
Director of Jewish Studies

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