Ancient Greek and Latin, yes. Hebrew, no.
That’s the headline from a new British government proposal that excludes Hebrew from plans to encourage primary school children to learn a second language. The plan, which remains under discussion and would come into effect in September 2014 if implemented, would mandate that pupils aged 7 to 11 learn one of either French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin or ancient Greek, as to “make foreign languages a key part of every child’s education, and to stop the slide in standards and take-up.”
In response to further enquires, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) told the Forward: “We want to give young people the skills they need to compete in a global jobs market. This is why we introduced the Foreign Languages Plan, which will ensure that every primary school child has a good grasp of a language by age 11.
“Whilst French, German and Spanish were the modern languages identified by respondents to the consultation as the most popular choices, we have been clear that primary schools will be free to teach any other language.”
The DfE’s consultation document indicates the government hopes the latter is not the case and aims to prevent “any potential proliferation of very low take-up languages, and would focus schools’ attention on a sample of important languages.”
The Jewish Press set off a firestorm last week when it published An Open Letter to Sarah Silverman by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. The Orthodox author criticized the comedian’s politics, vulgar presentation style, and the fact that she remains childless. As a linguist, what I found most interesting about this article was the language. By looking closely at the Hebrew and Yiddish words used by the author and commenters, we can learn a lot about Orthodox Jews in America.
In my research, I have found that Orthodox Jews use many Hebrew and Yiddish words when speaking to other Orthodox Jews, but they avoid or translate those words in their speech to outsiders. In the letter to Sarah Silverman, Rosenblatt uses only one, a word most Americans know: kosher. He talks about God, not Hashem, and Orthodox rather than frum.
Many articles in the Jewish Press use more distinctive language. For example, Mordechai Bienstock writes: “We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs [souls] Hashem [God] has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut [serving God through the physical world].”
Even Rosenblatt uses Hebrew and Yiddish words in his other articles in the Jewish Press, for example, in an article about internet filters: “Our frum [religious] community”, “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctifying God’s name), and “Halacha Chabura” (study group about Jewish law).
You can’t say Alice Walker doesn’t put her money where her mouth is. The news that the Pulitzer-prize winning American novelist has refused to authorize a Hebrew-language translation of her landmark novel “The Color Purple” comes as little surprise. She has been involved for decades in pro-Palestinian activism. Initially drawn to the cause after the Six Day War in 1967, Walker has since been a vocal and personal advocate for Palestine, calling Israel “the greatest terrorist in that part of the world” in interviews, and even volunteering to join the 2011 flotilla named “The Audacity of Hope” that set sail to protest the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza.
It’s not the first time that Walker has withheld her work from a particular market for political reasons, either: She would not allow a film version of “The Color Purple” to be shown in South Africa until after Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency. The parallel is not lost on her; in fact, it’s central to her argument. Walker invoked the South African situation explicitly in her letter to Yediot Books, which was to be the publisher of the translation. She denounced Israel as “far worse” than South Africa and in 2009 was one of many signers to a petition that referred to Israel as having an “apartheid regime.”
The obvious question is what kind of effect — if any — withholding a translation will have. Walker says she never meant to deprive any readers. Her letter expresses a hope that, like the eventual release of the movie in South Africa, “The Color Purple” may one day be enjoyed in Israel “by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace.” She wants to share, not to censor. “But,” she writes “now is not the time.”
Publishing a book involves more than just literary creativity. It’s part of a business, one that’s competitive, globalized, and political, and the translation of a book like Walker’s can often bring all these elements into play in dramatic ways.
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