Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dual Language Public Schools: an upcoming conference sponsored by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive

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?


  1. I'm putting my money (and a huge amount of my time) on creating for my kids.


  2. Not sure if there is a "crisis", but the idea of a monolithic anything with regard to Jews is just plain silly. Put 10 of us in a room, ask a question on politics, economics, social issues etc., and you'll surely here 10 different options.

  3. While Hebrew language education became focused on modern Hebrew and culture, from my understanding, Benderly's role was more nuanced and interesting. I'm far from an expert on this, but here's the relevant extended quote from "American Jewish Education in Historical Perspective" Journal of Jewish Ed., Jonathan Sarna, 1998

    He [Benderly] opposed day schools fearing ghettoization... and he opposed religion in public schools, fearing Protestantization. But rather than living with the Protestant model of public school plus Sunday school, he championed what he called "the double school system." ... he called for "a system of Hebrew schools which our children can attend after their daily attendance in the public schools." ...
    In addition to supplementary schools, Benderly also brought the ivrit be-ivrit program into American Jewish education. He justified it not on the basis of its cultural program, which would have made it controversial, but rather on the basis of its pragmatic value as "the shortest and most attractive road tot he Bible and the Prayer Book." Since the traditional word-by-word translation method of teaching Hebrew reading was widely viewed as "unpedagogice" and had in any case "utterly failed, particularly in this country," he argued that it was "worthwhile to give the Natural Method a thorough and extensive trial." (Goelman, 1971)
    His followers... succeeded in spreading the ivrit-be-ivrit gospel throughout American Jewish supplementary education (Honor, 1952)... As a result, American jewish education became Hebrew-centered and Zionist-oriented...the curriculum of Jewish education came to focus on hebrew, so much so that the schools themselves came to be known as "Hebrew schools." This was an accurate, but revealing change from Talmud Torah.

  4. Hi spouse of EAWH,

    Benderly's role was more nuanced and interesting than what? It's hard to respond to you because I'm not totally clear on your point. It seems, through your emphasis, that you want to argue that Benderly did not have an ideological program promoting an Ahad Ha'am style cultural Zionism or Tarbut Ivrit and that he just wanted the best way of teaching prayer book Hebrew.

    Of course it's true that learning Hebrew would make tanakh and liturgy accessible to young Jews and that was viewed as a good thing. However, the teaching methods promoted by Benderly and his disciples (a large group spanning a couple of decades) were hardly apolitical. There's no question that they were Zionists and their program was Zionist.

    To make your point you cite Sarna's work, which is almost 15 years old. Sarna himself relies on scholarship which is relatively ancient (1952 and 1971). I highly recommend you read Krasner's work, either his article 'The Limits of Cultural Zionism in America: The Case of Hebrew in the New York City Public Schools, 1930-1960' or you pick up his 2011 book about Benderly and his circle.

  5. Sorry for not including much context in that last comment. The original push toward modern Hebrew by Benderly and others had two goals. One was as a practical gateway to understanding prayer and texts. The other was the cultural & Zionist goals you mention. I don't know enough history to say how Benderly himself prioritized these two goals at various points of his life and it's clear some of his prominent followers heavily prioritized the cultural/Zionist goals.

    Still, both goals existed, and it was spoken Hebrew as a gateway to prayer that gave Hebrew language education an early foothold in many education environments that weren't as Zionist. As the quote above notes, the cultural/Zionist goals eventually became dominant to the point of us now having "Hebrew" schools.

    This isn't my specialty and I understand my limits, but, as we've been working to create MoEd, I've started to dig into Jewish education history to better understand how and why past innovations have failed or succeeded. Since MoEd includes daily afterschool education model I've particularly been interested in the history of Talmud Torahs. I've read some of Krasner's other articles on Benderly and, thanks to this post, might buy and read the book.

  6. Knowing Modern hebrew does not lead to really understand Hebrew Bible. Syntax and vocabulary are sufficiently different to consider that we are facing two quite different languages. Official affirmations and illusions of resemblance are misleading the linguistic conscience of contemporary Jews. Furthermore the practice of Modern Hebrew leads, with a certain linguistic contempt (modernity against...). to consider Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew as archaic and obsolete forms.
    (un zayt mir moykhl farn english).