In a recent article published in the Jewish Forward (April 13, 2012), [http://davidhazony.typepad.com/david-hazony/2012/04/memo-to-american-jews-learn-hebrew.html] reflecting on the ever-widening cultural gulf between American Jewry and Israelis, the journalist and author David Hazony challenged the American Jew to learn Hebrew. Here is some of what he wrote:
“…there exists no greater threat to Jewish Peoplehood than the cultural disconnect between Israeli and American Jews. And unlike so many of our people’s other problems, this one actually is quite simple to solve – but only if American Jews decide they want to solve it… Growing up in American public schools, I studied French for six years. By 12th grade I’d read Moliere, Camus, Voltaire and Ionesco in the original. Later in life I was able to revive my French in a couple of months of a weekly conversation class, and after a number of brief visits to Paris I was getting by, or at least making a noble effort… such an education gave me something much deeper than just lingual training. It gave me an incredible amount of insight, appreciation, respect and fondness for French culture, French thinking, French joie de vivre…”
Then he says:
“American Jews have to learn Hebrew…there are at least two overwhelming reasons that they should. Leon Wieseltier covered one of them last year, in a jaw-dropping essay called ‘Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,’ who said ‘American Jews…have inhumanely and un-Jewishly cut themselves off from the vast oceans of their own biblical and rabbinic past because they don’t bother to relate to Hebrew the way that Western countries until recently related to Greek and Latin – as a basic building block of cultural literacy. The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin… Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear.”
Hazony continues that
“…the time is coming very soon – if it has not already arrived – when one will not be able to fully participate in Jewish cultural life without knowing Hebrew. This is true in part because of the sheer quantity of cultural creativity, but also because of the trends: Israel is quickly growing in wealth, population and global influence, while American Jews are, in the optimistic view, marching in place. American Jews have much to contribute to Hebrew discourse and our collective Jewish future. Their tradition of tolerance and religious liberalism, their democratic experience and their philanthropic habits, to name just a few things. But they will do so only if they dispense with the ignorance-as-wisdom arrogance that locks them out of Hebrew-based culture.”
It is true that in the United States Jewish scholarship is available in English. It is true as well that English is spoken widely in Israel. Consequently, many American Jews have concluded that they do not need to speak or read Hebrew to get along. What is lost, however, is something deeper and more essential that goes to the heart of Jewish peoplehood.
The language of prayer and Jewish faith, of Torah, philosophy, mysticism, and literature, of Zionism and the Israeli experience is Hebrew – not English. If we American Jews are ever to be a part of the culture of the Jewish people, we must be able to converse in the language of our people.
David Hazony was spot on when he said, “Yehudei America: Limdu ivrit!” (American Jews: Learn Hebrew!) – one letter, one word, one phrase, one verse, one idea at a time!