Not your typical Hebrew teacher

Never could I have imagined my two research interests – international borders and Hebrew language teaching – converging like this.

February 18, 2016 10:02
3 minute read.
Israel Druse

The Druse Hebrew teacher border patrol: from left, Kamal, Nimer and Emad. (photo credit: WILLIAM F.S. MILES)


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Did you go to Hebrew school? Do you remember your Hebrew teachers? Most of mine on Long Island were either frumpy moms with spare time or college girls working to pay expenses. Three times a week after regular school I saw them, up to my bar mitzva. They knew how to teach the aleph-bet and to yell sheket be’vakasha (“Please be quiet!”).

But when I came to the Upper Galilee four months ago to study the teaching of Hebrew as a second language in Druse schools, I met another kind of Hebrew teacher entirely: the real pro.

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Mind you, linguistics and language teaching are not my specialty. Usually I study borders. I’m a political scientist, and what turns me on even more than languages are the lines that separate one nation from another: boundaries, frontiers, partitions, demilitarized zones, that kind of territorial thing.

As it happens, the Druse village where I have taken up residence is within eyeshot of Lebanon. For this research project, though, I have been spending more time in kita alef (first grade level) than along the blue line (the UN demarcation between the Jewish state and the Lebanese republic).

On my very last night in Israel, it all comes together: I get a phone call from my friend, Nimer Shanan, the Hebrew teacher for kitot gimel, daled and vav (third, fourth and sixth-grade levels).

Nimer, for all his good humor, is a stickler when it comes to grammar. When learning the Hebrew vowels, did your teacher introduce you to the dagesh? Mine didn’t. It’s a silent dot that floats next to the middle of a consonant.

Moreover, I learn from Nimer, there is a hard dagesh and a soft dagesh. Just don’t get Nimer started on it, please.

He’s explained it to me several times already, and I’ll never catch on.

Did I mention that Nimer’s first language is Arabic? Anyway, Nimer wants to know if he can drop by with a couple of friends.

Betah, I tell him. “Sure.”

Nimer doesn’t tell me he’s coming over with friends and colleagues Kamal and Emad. To my American ears, Emad’s last name – Hosein – inconveniently evokes that of the Iraqi dictator against whom we [the United States] twice went to war: once to protect the sovereign borders of Kuwait and then again over phantom chemical weapons. Gentle Emad teaches kita vav and is also the principal of the village school named after a Druse sheikh who fought the occupying French in Lebanon. Emad doesn’t look it, but he’s a grandpa now. His main preoccupation in life is Maya, his granddaughter.

Kamal teaches Hebrew to kita gimel and kita heh. He is a chain smoker with beautiful blackboard script in the holy language of the Jewish people. His first name reminds me of Egypt’s sworn enemy of Israel in the 1960s, Gamal Nasser.

To the last I paradoxically confuse Emad’s last name – Heradin – with haredim, the word for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Did I mention that all three elementary school Hebrew teachers are male university graduates whose mother tongue is Arabic? I’ve never seen the three of them before like this: clambering out of a Border Patrol squad car, they sport olive green military fatigues. Having aged out of the reserves, they are now volunteers with the border police. Once a month, from 8 p.m. until 2 in the morning, they patrol the roads that run parallel and right up to the nearby border, beyond which Hezbollah is quietly hunkering down. When their shift is over, the regular army takes over.

Never could I have imagined my two research interests – international borders and Hebrew language teaching – converging like this. But now, erev (the day before) my departure from the Holy Land – on Christmas Eve, no less – it all comes together: the Druse Hebrew teacher border patrol.

The writer is author of "Zion in the Desert" and of "Scars of Partition". He spent the semester in the Upper Galilee thanks to an Israel Institute research grant and a Northeastern University sabbatical leave. He is a professor of political science and former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies.

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