As some of you probably know, next to Makeup Alley, BJPA is my absolute favorite internet resource. If I've spouted a piquant anecdote, a piece of historical trivia, a statistic about the apathy of Jewish Americans, you can bet it probably came from the massive holdings of BJPA.
Tomorrow (Monday) they're having a sure-to-be fascinating conference about dual language public schools. Over at the BJPA blog, the ever-thoughtful Seth Chalmer excerpted some relevant articles. He's got one on the crisis of Jewish language illiteracy, by Leon Wieseltier. And another by conference participant Adam Gaynor, about the potential for a multicultural approach to bring Jewish (and non-Jewish) students into frequent, and deeper, contact with Jewish content.
I wrote a brief response to Seth's post. Here's part of it:
There was a time when Jewish leaders pushed very hard to have modern Hebrew taught in American public schools. You can read the fascinating story in the work of historian Jonathan Krasner. From the turn of the century up to the immediate post-war era, Samson Benderly and his disciples fought to create an American infrastructure for Tarbut Ivrit (Hebrew Culture.) This included getting Hebrew accepted in American public schools. And, as Krasner notes, it was almost a complete failure. For complex reasons, American Jews rejected modern Hebrew, both as a public school option, and, on the larger scale, as noted by Wieseltier.
The failure of Benderly and his followers to introduce Tarbut Ivrit into schools brings up an important question: if Jewish content is to be introduced into mainstream spaces, *whose* Jewish culture will be represented? One of the reasons for the failure of Benderly's project is that modern Hebrew had precious little relevance to Yiddish speaking immigrants and their children.
Benderly's program was quite explicit in its ideology. It was not the Hebrew of Torah and prayer that would be taught, rather, the modern Hebrew of (then) Palestine. The plan was not just to make American Jews bi-lingual, but bi-cultural, with Palestine supplying a new mode of Jewish life in America, in the spirit of Ahad Ha'Am. This was obviously in conflict with the needs and concerns of the average American Jew who was, at most, a passive supporter of the Zionist project.
Today, the ideology behind American Jewish educational initiatives is often much more obscure. "Jewish content" sounds nice in the context of multiculturalism, but, I ask, whose content? For example, what are the chances that I, a Yiddish identified modern Jew, would see anything that represented easten European life (which Gaynor omits from his article entirely) as more than the tired tropes of oppression and darkness? What are the chances that I would hear any Hebrew in other than the now standard modern Israeli pronunciation?
The assumption that there is a monolithic Jewish culture is, in part, a legacy of Benderly and his followers who were quite clear about the way that American Jews would look to modern Hebrew as the future of American Jewish life. However, today, even more than at the turn of the century, the assumption of monolithic Jewish culture (and language) hinders real educational innovation.What do you think about the state of Jewish literacy? Do you think there's a crisis? Do you think the answer lies in the public sphere or in a revisioning of the Jewish school experience?