I remember the Hebrew classes of my youth very clearly. I had an incredible (if not intimidating) teacher, who drilled us with homework, tests, and in-class assignments. Her objective was to teach us to read the prayers in Hebrew. She taught me well and I definitely learned how to read Hebrew… but I don’t think I ever learned WHAT I was reading.
I know I’m not alone in this experience, and it left me frustrated until I had the opportunity to live in Israel on the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program. It was there that I started learning what Jewish catchphrases, such as תיקון עולם – tikkun olam (repairing the world) and גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים – gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), mean and how they fit into my life.
I recently participated in a webinar series about theories of teaching Hebrew. Rabbi Nicki Greninger framed the way we teach Hebrew this way: Think about how you learn English — by the time you learn to phonetically read, you have the vocabulary to make sense of what you’re reading. When you first sound out “cat,” you know exactly what a cat is. We increase difficultly with teaching Hebrew by focusing on phonetic reading skills without giving our students the context of a vocabulary.
This year, I invite you to join me in “speaking Jewish,” by interspersing Hebrew, Yiddish, or even Ladino into your vocabulary. For example, Noah and I like learning different expressions used when someone sneezes (we’ve got Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, and Tunisian Arabic from his grandmother) and incorporating those into our rotation. Incorporating Jewish vocabulary is also fun when cooking or preparing for various holidays.
Through PTS Youth Education programs, we’ll be incorporating Jewish vocabulary throughout our program, most notably with a new enrichment rotation called “Hebrew through Movement.” Hebrew through Movement teaches vocabulary by tapping into the ways children learn naturally: through moving and doing, through songs, and through the creation of a safe and fun environment.
This isn’t just about learning Modern Hebrew for a future trip to Israel. Learning Jewish vocabulary that is connected to our everyday lives also gives us a different way to access and understand our prayers and sacred texts. For example, did you know that the Hebrew word for a photograph, צִלוּם – tzilum, is related to בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים – b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), the concept of equality that we learn from our Creation story in Genesis? Pretty cool!
I love this connection because it makes me think about individuals as “snapshots of God,” and pushes me to look for the holiness in everyone. I look forward to learning with you this year as we “speak Jewish” together!