At least once a month, someone, usually a business acquaintance who doesn’t know much about your private life, will ask what your child is up to at Hebrew day school, and then go on to let you know in no uncertain terms that you are a traitor to every aspect of the Yiddish language and culture from which you make most of your living, from the fondly remembered labor movement to the Yiddish-speaking Orthodoxy in which you were raised. They’re upset that someone like you, who spends so much of his time writing and lecturing about Yiddish, has been sending his kid to an Ivrit b’Ivrit (Zionist Hebew-language) day school in which the study of Yiddish is, quite literally, not an option.
Why Hebrew school? Hebrew school is the kind in which the kids are not only taught to understand the language, but also are expected to function in it without recourse to anything else — English, Russian or French — for 50% of every eight-and-a-half-hour school day? “You like Hebrew so much,” they ask, “why don’t you just send your child to Israel?”
I would — if everyone didn’t speak Hebrew there. As things are, though, Hebrew (thank God) comes too easily in Israel, where someone’s daughter’s age can morph very quickly into a virtual native speaker. Like any state-sponsored national language, Hebrew in today’s Israel is conditioned, in Gershom Scholem’s words, “by unconscious processes in which the power of tradition is a minor factor.” Every native speaker of Hebrew calls an eagle, for example, a nesher because nesher is just what it’s called.
Things are a little different over here, where “eagle” is the default term for an aquiline bird, a fact that allows nesher to take on nuances that might not be present in English: The ideal day school graduate will be able to turn out an idiomatic Hebrew sentence about the nesher on the Great Seal of the United States without being able to forget that she first encountered the word in the 19th chapter of Exodus, which states that God took our ancestors out of Egypt “al kanfey nesharim, on eagles’ wings.” Fluid as a student’s Hebrew might get, such a word — nesher is only one of thousands of possible examples — will never quite lose a certain biblical tinge.
And that’s what I like about day school. When language acquisition rests squarely and unashamedly on “the power of tradition,” students receive a rare opportunity to get the best of both linguistic worlds: the Holy Tongue of tradition, and the day-to-day language of a contemporary sovereign state. Since all classes with any Jewish content at all are taught in Hebrew — these classes include literature, history, Hebrew grammar and composition, and other subjects that would be looked upon as limudei khol, secular studies, in traditional religious and secular Israeli schools alike — pupils develop near-native levels of fluency; gaps in day-to-day usage are filled in during classroom discussion by teachers who tend to be Israeli.
Your kid and his or her fellow students will be learning something that might look and sound just like the official language of a state on the other side of the world, but is really a great deal more: It’s a key — the only real key — to who they are, who their forebears were, how and where they lived, and how and why they died.