Forward Thinking

Britain's U-Turn on Teaching Hebrew

By Liam Hoare

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The British Department for Education (DfE) today announced a U-turn on its previously-proposed policy that would have limited the scope of Jewish elementary schools in the United Kingdom to teach Hebrew as a modern foreign language.

As The Forward previously reported, under controversial plans released last December as part of an overall reform of the national curriculum, the DfE mandated that beginning in September 2014, pupils aged 7 to 11 would only be allowed to learn one of either French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin, or ancient Greek as their second language in state-run schools.

The DfE stated that the aim of this policy was to prevent “any potential proliferation of very low take-up languages, and would focus schools’ attention on a sample of important languages.” A spokesperson for the Department told the Forward at the time that, “We want to give young people the skills they need to compete in a global jobs market.”

Such a policy, however, would have been destructive for the proliferation of Hebrew in government-aided Jewish day schools. The teaching of either classical or modern Hebrew would have been pushed to the margins in order to allow for the obligatory teaching of one of the seven permitted languages. The teaching of foreign languages in British schools is already compromised by the amount of time allocated to other subjects, including literary, numeracy, science, and the humanities.

Under the altered proposals which follow a public consultation, the DfE now states that in primary education, “teaching may be of any modern or ancient foreign language and should focus on enabling pupils to make substantial progress in one language.” This same policy also applies to the teaching of modern foreign languages up until the age of 14.

The DfE adds that, “If an ancient language is chosen the focus will be to provide a linguistic foundation for reading comprehension and an appreciation of classical civilisation.”

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No 'Israeli ABBA' — Again

By Liam Hoare

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Moran Mazor

A Romanian opera singer dressed like Dracula and wailing falsetto. Dancers in a Perspex boxes and drummers dosed in baby oil. Moustachioed Greeks dancing and singing about the joys of free alcohol. A Russian plea for world peace in three minutes with a key change.

In case you missed it, that was the Eurovision Song Contest, Europe’s annual festival of music, costumes, and lights that at once unites, divides, and simply baffles the continent. And the winner wasn’t half bad this year. Denmark’s Emmilie de Forest sang “Only Teardrops,” a steady tune with a smattering of drums and Celtic pipes, and won 281 points, including the maximum points from eight countries, beating out Azerbaijan and the Ukraine respectively.

Absent once more from the spectacle was Israel. Since Harel Skaat placed 14th in the 2010 final with “Milim” (“Words”), Israel has failed to make it out of the semi-finals on three successive occasions. This year, Israel entered the talented if unknown reality show winner Moran Mazor, and her ballad “Rak bishvilo” (“Only for him”) fell flat in the semi-final, finishing 14th out of 17 acts.

For its size, Israel has a very strong record in Eurovision. Since it first entered in 1973, Israel has won on three occasions – including back-to-back in 1978 and 1979 with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” and “Hallelujah” – and has come second twice and third once. This is more remarkable given Israel hasn’t even submitted an entry every year, missing the contest when it has fallen on the memorial days Yom HaShoah or Yom Hazikaron.

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Greek and Latin, Yes. Hebrew, No.

By Liam Hoare

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.”

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Lingo of the Sarah Silverman Controversy

By Sarah Bunin Benor

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Sarah Silverman

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).

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: yiddish, yaakov rosenblatt, sarah silverman, orthodox, jewish press, hebrew, haredi, frum

How Do You Say 'Purple' in Hebrew?

By Blair Thornburgh

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Alice Walker in 2006

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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