We are between two big moments on the Jewish calendar, Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).
During the Passover seder, we wish for next year in Jerusalem. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, we marvel at the amazing spectacle that is the modern Jewish state. Passover is a religious holiday celebrating the Jewish people’s redemption and freedom from bondage and from foreign oppression. Yom Ha’atzmaut is a national holiday that also celebrates the Jewish people’s redemption from foreign oppression and freedom in its own land.
Want another link between these two holidays, one that will enhance the celebration of both? Hebrew.
Hebrew is the Jewish people’s religious language and its national language. To understand Hebrew is to be permanently linked to the Jewish past, present and future.
Problem is, few American Jews know Hebrew and fewer still recognize that this ignorance is a problem.
In his essay “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” Leon Wieseltier argues, “the assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language … is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin.”
How thin? Try to imagine expressing an original Jewish thought on marriage, love, God, children, nation, law, food, history or the environment without having access to any foundational Jewish texts? Every single one is in Hebrew. The Torah, the Talmud, the liturgy, Psalms, the megillot and the Prophets are all in Hebrew.
Of course everything has been translated, but that means you are at the mercy of the translator’s interpretation. Interpretation and questioning may be a Jewish pastime, but every Jew’s interpretation is supposed to be his own. Like our relationship to God, so should our relationship to our texts be personal and direct. No intermediary, please.
But as David Hazony recently wrote in the Forward, it isn’t just for religious reasons that American Jews ought to know Hebrew. It is for cultural reasons as well.
“The time is coming very soon — if it has not already arrived — when one will not be able to fully participate in Jewish cultural life without knowing Hebrew,” Hazony declares.
He can make such an assertion because the seat of Jewish culture today comes out of the Jewish homeland — in Israel, in Hebrew.
Hebrew films are so good and varied, news of film festival prizes has become commonplace. Israeli television programs are so vibrant and universal they are getting stolen and brought to America for viewing on our television screens every night of the week. Hebrew hip-hop, novels and plays are what really go on in Israel today, not the political arguments that are all most American Jews want to talk about.
“Footnote,” the Israeli film nominated for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars, will play in Pittsburgh soon. How many of us will be able to enjoy it without reading the subtitles? How much better do we understand a movie when we know the language being spoken rather than reading the translation?
Hazony argues that understanding Israeli culture is key to being able to comment on Israeli policies, and there is no way to understand Israeli culture, he says, without understanding Hebrew.
Jewish day schools certainly realize the importance of Hebrew. Each in its own way chooses how much and how to incorporate the language into its curriculum. Afternoon schools also have Hebrew in their curricula as do many Jewish summer camps.
But agreeing that Hebrew is important by including it in a curriculum is a far cry from making Hebrew language fluency the central goal of all Jewish education, both for children and adults.
Perhaps in this time between Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut we can recognize the need for Hebrew and make a commitment for a new year. As we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” so should we declare “Next Year in Hebrew.”