Jerusalem Journal: Once upon an ulpan

Mordechai Kamrat did more than design a system for language instruction; he imbued it with his concept of Zionism.

new olim (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
new olim
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Mitchell, Mila, Morasha, Beit Ha'am, Beit Hano'ar. The names trip off the tongue. But I confess that the mere recollection of one of those names still gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Four hours a day, five days a week for months, I sat there in a constant state of tension anticipating imminent humiliation. To be fair, my experience of ulpan was warped by "frozen tongue syndrome," an affliction that developed through years of language education in an English high school. There I gained some level of proficiency in French, Latin and German. Of course, in a good English school at that time one assumed that one would never have to open one's mouth and utter a word in any of those languages. I was also seriously hampered by a hearing impediment that certainly shows marked severity with increasing years: The indoor swimming pool effect, that peculiar echoey sound you hear in enclosed swimming pools that makes individual words merge into a blurred continuum. It has taken two years of nightly listening to the radio station Reshet Aleph for my brain to recognize Hebrew as a string of distinct words. The fact that I still understand less than 25 percent of them is irrelevant. I am now ready to return to ulpan. Although somewhat traumatized by my early experience, I recognize the immense value of the ulpan system, which has successfully aided the integration of the international influx into Israel since independence. It has aided assimilation not only through a common language, but also by instilling a sense of a common culture. What a joy then it was to discover that one of my work colleagues is the daughter of the founding father of this unique institution. Over plates of steaming canteen food at the Hebrew University, Dvora Kamrat gave me proud glimpses of an extraordinary man that she had known so briefly... he died when she was just 15 years old. Mordechai Kamrat arrived in British-controlled Palestine in 1936 at the age of 21. He already had PhDs in both psychology and linguistics from the University of Krakow, and while studying at university had attended yeshiva and received ordination as a rabbi. He left his home village of Skala, about 20 km. outside Krakow, where his ancestors had lived for about 300 years and where his father had been mayor. He was convinced that the rise of Nazi Germany did not bode well for Jews in Poland. Kamrat was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust. With no source of income, Kamrat began teaching Hebrew privately in Jerusalem and also studied archeology at the Hebrew University. "Having emerged from the shtetl, he swallowed the whole world," commented Dvora on her polymath father. He was a man with not only prodigious intellect and language skills but also an immense generosity of spirit. I found an especially warm description of him written in April 2003 by the distinguished New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders, who held professorial chairs in Oxford, Cambridge and Duke universities at various times: "In the fall of 1968, my beloved friend and teacher, Mordechai Kamrat, took me as a student again. Kamrat was one of the two most remarkable people I have ever known; the other was David Daube, with whom I had had numerous discussions in Oxford during 1962-63. Kamrat knew all languages. I once heard him converse in Danish, and once he and I watched a TV program from Cyprus and he translated, though he had never been in a Greek-speaking country. And he could teach anyone anything... he figured out how to teach Hebrew to immigrants from anywhere. He taught me modern Hebrew and rabbinics in the same way, inductively, with drill." (Note: David Daube was professor of law in Oxford. He was a world authority on Roman and Biblical law, whom I had the privilege of meeting on several occasions before he moved in 1970 to California to escape the damp Oxford climate which was exacerbating his chest problems. He was a man of profound wisdom and great kindness. He died in 1999 at the age of 90.) Kamrat was fueled with Zionist spirit when he arrived in Israel and soon joined the Hagana, where as a commander in the War of Independence he found himself in charge of troops who came straight off boats and onto the battlefield. Here he was forced to translate military orders into a panoply of languages. It was this experience that made him realize that special schools would be needed in the new state to provide intensive immersion in the language and also a common cultural experience. In cooperation with the newly formed Ministry of Education, and with the support and invaluable contribution of colleagues such as educator Nahum Levin, Kamrat set up Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem. Here he established the first ulpan in the world, a model not only for the 220 ulpanim that now exist in Israel, but also for the methods used in the revival of Catalan, and the foundation of the Welsh Ulpan, or Wlpan in Welsh spelling. His daughter clearly remembers the man in green jeans who repeatedly visited from Wales and followed her father around, learning Hebrew in the process. Mr. Green Jeans, as she knew him, then transplanted the whole ulpan concept to Wales where the Welsh Nationalists were determined to stem the decline of the Welsh language. As in Israel, they set up intensive courses for instructing teachers. They integrated culture into the syllabus and rigorously taught grammatical structures in an atmosphere of total immersion. But Kamrat did more than design a system for language instruction; he imbued it with his concept of Zionism, one that excluded political bias and respected the separation of religion and state. His was a Zionism grounded in "respect for the other" - what he recognized as a fundamental tenet of Judaism. It was these principles that he also weaved through the curriculum he established in the "Sunday school" system he set up in New York City in 1958-60. It is this system that countless children throughout the United States have passed through, gaining their first introduction to the Bible and Hebrew. In Israel, since the founding of the state, over 1.25 million immigrants have shared and been shaped by the ulpan experience - a remarkable tribute to the vision and commitment of Mordechai Kamrat. And the truth is I can't wait to get back into ulpan and continue my journey of becoming more fully integrated into my homeland.