Language, Culture, & School

Two articles from the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service caught our attention recently, in light of our upcoming event this Monday (see flier below for details). The event will explore issues facing dual language public schools -- institutions which might be viewed by some as vehicles to preserve and transmit cultural identities, while others would seek to minimize or oppose this goal since public schools ought to serve society as a whole, rather than individual cultural sub-groups. (A viewpoint from the perspective of promoting multiculturalism might not view these two goals as being in tension.)

BJPA didn't have these articles in mind while planning the event, but they're worth excerpting in advance of it.

Leon Wieseltier: Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

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The American Jewish community is the fi rst great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered. 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...

In America, the first evidence of Jewish illiteracy occurs as early as 1761 and 1766, when Isaac Pinto published his translations of the liturgy into English. He was acting out of a sense of crisis, out of his feeling that Hebrew, as he put it, needed to “be reestablished in Israel.” Of the American Jewish community of his time, Pinto recorded that Hebrew was “imperfectly understood by many; by some, not at all.” In 1784, Haym Solomon found it necessary to address an inquiry in the matter of a certain inheritance to Rabbi David Tevele Schiff of the Great Synagogue in London, but the renowned Jewish leader could not write the Hebrew epistle himself, and so he enlisted the help of a local Jew from Prague. In 1818, at the consecration in New York of a building for the Shearith Israel synagogue, Mordecai Emanuel Noah observed that “with the loss of the Hebrew language may be added the downfall of the house of Israel.”...

Of course, I do not mean to deny the validity or the utility of translation, which was also a primary activity of Jewish intellectuals throughout the centuries... Translation has always represented an admirable realism about the actual cultural situation of the Jews in exile. Whatever the linguistic delinquencies of the Jews, their books must not remain completely closed to them. Better partial access than no access at all, obviously.

Moreover, we are American Jews; that is to say, we believe in the reality of freedom, and we are prepared to pay its price... The requirement that a Jew know a Jewish language is not a requirement that a Jew know only a Jewish language, and it is certainly not a requirement that a Jew express only one belief in only one means of expression... My question to the Jewish writer in America is not, what language can you write? My question is, what language can you read?...

Illiteracy is nothing less than a variety of blindness, and the vast majority of American Jews are blind. The extent of this blindness—and it is a willed blindness, a blindness that can be corrected—can be illustrated anecdotally. Here is a tale. Some years ago, the exiled president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was traveling around the United States in the hope of enlisting sympathy for his cause, and he went to New York for a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Now, in his youth Aristide had studied at a seminary in Jerusalem, and he happens to be fluent in Hebrew. It seemed entirely natural and right, in his view, to address the assembled representatives of the Jewish community in what he took to be their own tongue, or at least one of their tongues. And so he began to speak to our leaders in Hebrew. After a few minutes, the negidim rather sheepishly asked their distinguished non-Jewish guest if he could make his remarks in English, because they could not understand what he was saying...

All this is not justifiable. It represents a breathtaking communitywide irresponsibility. Between every generation, not only in circumstances of war but also in circumstances of peace, much is always lost. Only a small fraction of the works of the human spirit ever survives the war against time, but the quantity of the Jewish tradition that is slipping through our fingers in America is unprecedented in our history. And it is the illiteracy of American Jewry that makes it complicit in this oblivion.

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Adam R. Gaynor: Beyond the Melting Pot: Finding a Voice for Jewish Identity in Multicultural American Schools

For the better part of a century, integration has characterized the Jewish experience in America, but modern Jewish education struggles to reverse that trend by separating Jewish youth from their non-Jewish peers and herding them into the walls of our communal institutions. This model ignores a particularly acute demographic reality: most American Jews no longer affiliate with the communal institutions in which Jewish learning takes place. Consequently, this article posits that the key to providing high-quality Jewish education with the majority of Jewish students, who do not access Jewish learning or intensive Jewish experiences, is to reach them in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. More specifically, I argue that we need to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of school communities, the places in which Jewish kids and young adults spend the majority of their time...

...It is worthwhile to note that although Jews are well represented and largely successful in universities and schools, Jewish content is generally absent. Often, when Jewish content is integrated into curricula, Jews and Jewish culture are portrayed as obsolete. Jewish content most often appears in courses about Bible, representing ancient Jewish history, or about the Holocaust, representing Jewish victimization. For Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, the implicit message conveyed through these choices (in the absence of other content) is that Jewish culture lacks contemporary relevance. When prominent Jews, such as Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, and Bella Abzug, are studied, the fact of their Jewishness and its impact on their work remain unexplored. On occasion, Jews emerge in elective courses about the Middle East, but are often portrayed as a monolithic and imperialist group. The diversity of Jewish opinions about the Middle East and the complex modern history of Jewish identities and communities that have affected this topic remain unexamined...

Historically, the problem of representation in educational institutions and curricula is not unique to Jews. For traditionally marginalized and disempowered groups such as communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, and all combinations thereof, the problems described above have existed to a greater or lesser degree for centuries. However, for several decades now, other historically disempowered communities have increasingly seen themselves reflected in the curricular and extracurricular programming of public and private schools on the primary, secondary, and university levels; there is no good reason why Jewish students cannot see themselves reflected in these spaces as well...

Multicultural education has had a profound impact on the contemporary educational landscape, particularly following periods of intense student activism in the late 1960s and early 1990s. In concert with feminist theory, it has brought significant attention to the histories and literature of people of color and women through curricular enrichment and the founding of specialized, interdisciplinary departments at colleges; it has led to the diversification of faculty and student bodies; it has forced schools and colleges to reconsider discriminatory policies; and it has increased faculty professional development on cross-cultural teaching that can lead to improved achievement (Tatum, 2003). However, except for the recent growth of Jewish Studies courses and departments, Jewish content is still nearly absent from curricula, and Jewish culture is largely ignored by student services offices...

Ironically, it is the Jewish community’s own resistance to multicultural education that has prevented our inclusion in educational curricula... Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century were fierce proponents of public education; unlike Catholic immigrants who opted for parochial education in large numbers, Jews valued public schools as a route toward acculturation (Krasner, 2005). Jews have also been fierce defenders of the separation between church and state and have supported the exclusion of religion as a census category. Jews embraced the universalism of the Enlightenment, which was reinvented in the melting pot motif, as a ticket to achieve unprecedented success in America. For many Jews, multiculturalism theoretically threatened the universalism that facilitated this achievement...

The prevailing, isolationist model of Jewish education that pulls students out of their everyday lives and separates them from their peers has not inspired significant participation. Sometimes, separating and feeling grounded as a group are important, and we should honor those needs. However, if we are to inspire Jewish students to feel invested in their Jewishness, then Jewish learning has to imbue their everyday lives with meaning. The key to doing this is through high-quality Jewish education in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. Our aim should be to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of students’ schools, the communities in which they spend most of their time. Multicultural education is the practical framework for this approach.

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And don't miss the event this Monday:

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From the J-Vault: Jewish Language and Culture in Public Schools

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Perhaps you've followed recent controversies in the Jewish and secular media surrounding Hebrew language charter schools, which accept public funds, charge no tution, and teach Hebrew without (theoretically) any Jewish religious instruction. (For background, see this article, this blog post, and the Hebrew Charter School Center.)

As always, however, a peek into the J-Vault reveals that the latest innovation, and the controversy surrounding it, have been foreshadowed by generations past.

This week, from the J-Vault: Teaching Yiddish in a Public School (1916)

The Milwaukee Yiddishe Folkschule was a free Sunday morning school which taught Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish history from a secular perspective. When the school began to use the space (after hours) of a public school classroom, however, critics charged that the school was an unacceptable violation of the separation of church and state, and also a purveyor of ethnic particularism instead of a healthy assimilation. (Naturally, these critical voices came from within the Jewish community.)

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