Voices from the Field
by Alex Feder and Binnie Swislow
Getting within earshot of a group of people during a vacation in Costa Rica, wondering who they are and where they are from, a huge smile and feeling of home comes over me as I recognize they are speaking Hebrew. I know them, but have never met them before. So what is it that makes me feel that we share something?
On Jan 7, we say יום הולדת שמח (Yom Huledet Sameach, "Happy Birthday") to Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. The story above is probably the best birthday gift Ben Yehuda could have asked for. He had a vision of a Jewish people united by one language, and though his aims might have been revolutionary, the process he initiated was relatively simple. In fact, all Ben Yehuda had to do to was tap into one of the most basic elements of our humanity: the desire to connect.
His plan came in three parts. First, make Hebrew the language of instruction in the schools. Second, get families to commit to speaking Hebrew in the home. In this way, language instruction became immersive. He was exceedingly careful to only allow his son to hear Hebrew from birth, making him the first native Hebrew speaker in the modern age. Third, supply the masses with vocabulary to fill the gaps biblical Hebrew faced at the turn of the 20th century. He was set on making Hebrew the Jewish vernacular in Palestine, and that meant creating new words for modern innovations like ice cream (גלידה) and trains (רכבת). Ben Yehuda was a primary force behind this amazing cultural shift, but he could never have done it alone. The desire the people feel - the desire I feel - to connect with one another is met through Hebrew.
In the end, Ben Yehuda’s plan was a success – the Jewish language in Israel is modern Hebrew, something that has affected me personally. From the time I sat in my 1st grade classroom learning the aleph-bet, Hebrew has been a part of me, and as I’ve grown up, my connection to it has grown too. For me, it is the language of our holidays, the language of our prayers, the language I speak with friends I met in Israel. Fundamentally, Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people, and it has allowed me to connect with every aspect of my Jewish identity in a deep and special way. At the turn of the 20th century, Ben Yehuda dreamed of a Jewish society in the Land of Israel that would exist entirely in Hebrew. His dream is now a reality. Bringing that same dream to communities outside Israel, namely in North America, would be the ultimate birthday present. With Ben Yehuda's achievement as inspiration, my dream for the Jewish world of the 21st century is that we become a people united by our heritage and its lived expression: the Hebrew language.
!יום הולדת שמח
- The Etymology of Modern Hebrew Words
- 'The Music of Music': Learning Hebrew Through Songs
- Hava Alberstein song about Ben Yehuda
- Cool blog on Hebrew etymologies
If you're interested in additional resources for teaching and learning Hebrew, pease contact us: email@example.com
Alex’s passion for Israel began in childhood during his education at Solomon Schechter Day Schools in Chicago’s northern suburbs. After a family trip to Israel, summer programs in high school and college, and graduating from Northwestern with majors in Jewish Studies and Psychology, Alex was ready to spend an extended period of time there. He joins the iCenter after a year in Rishon LeZion where he taught English to Israeli elementary school students through Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellowship program. Alex is thrilled to be a part of the iCenter team and looks forward to helping nurture ahavat Yisrael throughout the North American Jewish community.
Recently, I came upon a video showing non-Jewish people trying “Jewish food” for the first time. Inevitably, aside from matzo ball soup, the food elicited general reactions of disgust and “yuckiness” - chopped liver, gefilte fish and so on. As The Jewish Daily Forward pointed out, this wasn’t really an exercise in non-Jews’ reactions to Jewish food; rather, it tested their reactions to Ashkenazi food; a critical but not unsurprising mistake, to be sure.
As an American Sephardic Jew, I, and others of my background, are used to the masses conflating Ashkenazi traditions with "Jewish" tranditions. As a Jewish educator, I am in the fortunate position to have an opportunity to expand people’s understanding of “Jewish food” and other elements of Jewish culture.
Just as “Jewish food” in reality encompasses numerous categories of cuisine, “Israel narrative” means different things to different people. Often, it depends on one’s background, family history, and unique personal experiences. Educators need the space to explore these stories, learn about others’ stories, and gain the necessary skills to use them educationally. When this happens, learners will experience an Israel education that helps build deep and personal connections to Israel and Israelis.
We, as educators, are now encouraged to embrace our story and life experiences, and allow them to inform our teaching. Ari Naveh, a fellow student in the iCenter Masters Concentration in Israel Education explained how this summer’s events in Israel presented a great opportunity for educators to engage learners in deeper Israel education. But Ari also explained that his perspective on this—and how it translates into his teaching—is greatly informed by his own life experience as a son of a veteran of the Yom Kippur war.
As a Sephardic Jew and the daughter of a Yom Kippur war veteran, my perspective as an educator—particularly as an Israel educator—is informed by my own personal story.
I was born to Moroccan-Tunisian-Israeli parents who always followed the Israeli news and television shows, had Hebrew newspapers and books around the house and planned our next visit the day we came back from Israel. Israeli customs, food, and the Hebrew language were always present in my home. To my family, Israel wasn’t just a place to visit. It was, and continues to be, a part of our Jewish identity and our family narrative. My family celebrates a myriad of North-African Israeli traditions such as the mimouna celebration, which marks the beginning of Spring and the return of eating chametz. My family invites many friends to come eat sweets and mafleta, the crepe like food eaten during the mimouna. We also wear kaftans, traditional Moroccan garb, and belly dance into the late hours of the night.
The iCenter encouraged me to make my story part of my Israel education, and to share it with fellow students. In fact, most exciting about my experience in the Masters program was being among a group of people who didn’t necessarily share the same customs as I did. Yet, they were knowledgeable enough about Israel’s culture to be able to talk about different kinds of Jews in the world and specifically in Israel. I am noticing a welcomed change among my colleagues in this area, the majority of whom are Ashkenazi.
Each person in my cohort had their own Israel narrative to share. As our year of learning progressed we were able to share our stories and learn about each other through our personal connections to Israel. Critically, the iCenter gave us tools to tell our personal story effectively and to “translate it” for an intentional, educational experience. One activity organized us into small groups in which we designed our ideal Taglit-Birthright Israel experience. We were allowed to add, subtract and alter the existing itinerary in any way. This was not my first experience with this kind of activity, but it was unique because I was not the only one in the group suggesting sites in Israel related to the Sephardic narrative.
I felt heartened when others found my personal story to be an important part of Israel layering multiple narratives in one trip. We discussed incorporating sites such as Moshav Dovev, which was established in 1963 by immigrants from Morocco and Iran. The people of Moshav Dovev tell their story about their struggle to adjust to Israeli culture when they first arrived to Israel. Visiting a site like this for an educational experience is an implicit recognition of the many narratives that exist within Israel. As Israel educators, not only do we need to be aware of them, we must help our learn to articulate and share their stories too.
In what ways do you use your own personal stories in education?
For more about iFellows: Masters Concentration in Israel Education
Yael Dadoun is currently the Principal/Educator of the religious school at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, FL. She recently completed her MARE in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. In addition to her studies this past year, Yael worked at different Hebrew schools as a teacher for grades 4-12 and is the Hebrew specialist. She also works as the cantorial soloist at Ohev Sholom in Harrisburg, PA. This past year, Yael served as a NFTY in Israel Unit Supervisor and continues to passionately lead Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.