American Jewry must reclaim Hebrew

A key component that unifies a people or nation is a common language. The Jewish people are no exception; the Hebrew language is an essential element of what constitutes the Jewish nation.

Hebrew often is the only common language in the room — the lingua franca — when Jews from different parts of the globe get together (native English-speaking Jews aside, for the most part). Conversely, the lack of a unifying language creates a great gulf between people. It leads to misunderstandings and frustrations on both sides and ultimately lessens the fraternal bond.

So for the sake of the Jewish future, the American Jewish community needs to reclaim Hebrew.

Hebrew is more than simply a medium of communication. It is our heritage. It’s a Semitic language that has its roots in the Middle East, thus linking the Jewish people to the region. It’s the liturgical language of Judaism, thus connecting the Jewish people to their faith. And it’s the biblical language, thus binding the Jewish people to their history.

Unfortunately, however, Hebrew is lost on the American Jewish community as a whole. Leon Wieseltier of the The New Republic writes, “The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew, or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered.”

Indeed, many Jews are averse to learning Hebrew. They are turned off when they hear it spoken or see it written in the public domain because they see it as elitist and exclusionary. This could simply be a result of not being accustomed to seeing a second language in public. Yet many societies around the world are bilingual, even trilingual.

The issue of Hebrew in the American Jewish orbit may cut to a far deeper question: If one’s American-ness is paramount to an American and speaking English is the “American thing to do,” then is promoting another language, by definition, un-American? By promoting Hebrew, does the Jewish community run the risk of undermining all it has done to achieve its place in general society, or is the American Jewish community finally secure enough to freely embrace its own heritage?

For those who are scared of Hebrew or its elevated status outside of Israel, they need not fear; Hebrew is not going to replace English as the everyday language of the Jewish community in North America anytime soon. It could, however, be the bulwark against assimilation.

So how do we go about promoting Hebrew? Many will be relieved to learn that it doesn’t simply translate into mandatory, universal ulpan. It means appropriately encouraging Hebrew in a variety of formal and informal settings, supporting Hebrew literature, film and the like and generally taking pride in the unique place Hebrew should hold within all of our communal institutions, synagogues and schools. And yes, speaking Hebrew would help.

The time has come for a serious discussion of the place Hebrew should occupy in the Jewish world and how we can best leverage Hebrew as a common and unifying force. Bringing Hebrew to the Jews of North America will be no small task but nothing compared to the miraculous revival of Hebrew itself.

Ari Rudolph is a planning executive for the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People.

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