American Jews should learn Hebrew

Hebrew may be our last resort to revive ourselves as one people.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2013, the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of American Jews” focused Jewish attention on a range of concerns – especially declining communal organizational affiliation and religious practice, and a weakening commitment to Israel.
But one topic that generated much less attention was what language experts would call the socio-linguistic situation of Hebrew in America – namely, how Hebrew is viewed and used as a tool for communication and cultural identification within this large Jewish Diaspora community. According to the report, most American Jews see Yiddish as their heritage language, not Hebrew. In addition, while 60% of those who identified as “Jews by religion” claimed to know the Hebrew alphabet, compared to 24% of “Jews of no religion,” the survey said that, on average, only 13% of all Jews said they can understand all or most Hebrew words, while just 12% said that they can hold a conversation in Hebrew.
Before we consider congratulating ourselves on at least having this modicum of success, it is quite possible this small group consists almost entirely of the significant community of Israeli immigrants to the United States, estimated at half a million or more. This suggests that for almost all native-born American Jews, Hebrew is as foreign a language as Greek. If these statistics are an accurate description of Hebrew usage by American Jews, we must ask ourselves if there is a reason to change the situation and renew a collective push for Hebrew advocacy and literacy in this community.
I would argue that fundamental to any culture is its language: a tool for communication and connection among its members, the vessel that contains and promulgates core values, and an intellectual and emotional framework for how the culture organizes its conceptual world view and priorities.
Although Hebrew has value and advocates beyond the Jewish people, it is also more than a lingua franca. Hebrew is a fundamental heirloom that serves as an essential tool to unlock a textual tradition that spans more than three millennia: a linguistic bridge between Jews living anywhere and native speakers both in Israel and around the world, and the birthright of all who wish to capture, experience and articulate Jewish ideas in their most fundamental and organic language.
CAN ONE imagine the French culture without the French language, Irish culture without Gaelic, or the British community proposing that they only study Shakespeare in translation? Without Hebrew, the Jewish people would never have become a people. In the Midrashic commentary on the Book of Leviticus, it is said that God would never have redeemed the Jews from Egypt were it not that they kept their Hebrew names and language.
Moreover, the Jewish people would not have survived their eventual exile from the ancient Land of Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem were it not for their common tongue, Hebrew. The Genesis story of the Tower of Babel describes how God punished disparate peoples who tried to build a tower to the sky by confounding them with different languages. Yet even as Jews scattered throughout the world and began speaking the languages of their native countries – or Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish daily and Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino – they all relied on Hebrew as the language of shared history and destiny.
That is not to say the Jews have remained uniform in thought, belief or practice: far from it. Jews historically have been instrumental in a huge range of opposing political and social movements, from capitalism to socialism, from secularist Zionism to ultra-religious anti-Zionism.
But today in the US, the Jewish community is more divided than ever, among themselves and over issues such as Israel – as the Pew survey shows. Many Jews are less engaged in any kind of organized Jewish life, and the two animating forces that have long united the Jewish people – Israel and the Holocaust – are weakening.
But even as religion wanes, the one thing that can connect all Jews is their historical language. In fact, six years ago, I was involved in launching an organization called the Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America – to change the facts on the ground through a robust program of advocacy, professionalization of the teaching of Hebrew, and initiatives to celebrate and advance Hebrew language and culture.
In the same way that the language moved from the texts and the margins of our history to a dynamic, living language that is now the mother tongue of more than half of young Jewish children, the successful expansion of Hebrew and its elevation on the communal agenda of the North American Jewish community need not be a dream – and will happen if we make it so.
In short, Hebrew may be our last resort to revive ourselves as one people.
The writer is the chairman of the Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America.