Is Ashkenazic Hebrew Obsolete?

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The yeshiva day school movement has long embraced the idea of teaching modern Hebrew. Most of these schools are pretty tzioni: they celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, they march in the Israeli day parade, their seniors take a trip to Israel, and their graduates spend a year in Israel. In such schools, teaching modern Hebrew has always made sense.

However, it appears that, in recent years, there is a growing interest in modern Hebrew among even more “right-wing” elements in our community. After all, this is the language spoken in “Eretz Yisroel,” and many graduates will go on to seminary or yeshiva in Yerushalayim.

Furthermore, as Yiddish seems to wane among Ashkenazic Jews, Hebrew is becoming a universal Jewish language.

In addition, we are seeing increasing numbers of modern Hebrew speakers in the U.S. It is not uncommon for Israelis of all stripes and hats to live in our communities and join us in our shuls. Hebrew-speaking Sephardim, Chasidim, baalei teshuva, Europeans, Russians, “chilonim,” and yeshivish people comfortably glide between Jewish communities in Israel and the U.S. In addition, some of our more tzioni friends have opted to speak Hebrew to their children in the home, either to teach the language, or in anticipation of making aliyah. Almost all Orthodox Jews have been to Israel at one point or another, many for extended stays.

As a result of all this, it is quite possible that Ashkenazic Hebrew, the way our European grandparents may have learned it, it going out of fashion. Yes, frummer schools may still teach it as “the davening accent” but, as anyone who ever went to Israel knows, that’s not exactly how we speak Hebrew these days.

Our local day school has a very long tradition, and has always taught an Ashkenazic accent in Hebrew. At some point in the later grades, students would figure out that there are different accents and that modern Hebrew is actually very different. In the last few years, however, the school (thankfully) realized their Hebrew language program was weak. Their students were just not as fluent as those in other schools. As a result, they instituted new programs, aimed at teaching Ivrit B’Ivrit, at least part of the time.

This is a good thing. However, there is something very funny about this new arrangement. Most of the week, they learn Hebrew with their main teacher, a product of yeshivish culture. Then, for certain periods during the week, they are visited by an Israeli teacher who does Hebrew activities with them and refuses to speak any English.

In their studies, they learn of “Chet,” and “Tet,” but when they get to the end of the alphabet, there is also apparently something called “Suf.” Of course, if there is a “Suf,” then really, it should be “Ches” and “Tes.” …A little bit of a contradiction here? To confuse the matter even more, they learn about Kamatz, and how it is pronounced differently from Patach. Oh, and the Israeli teacher says “Chet” differently from “Chof” and “Ayin” differently from “Aleph.”

Are we confusing the kids? At first I thought so. But now I think not. They’ll learn soon enough how Hebrew is actually spoken these days. And does it matter to anyone how they daven when they grow up? Not where I live. So let the schools confuse them. For better or for worse, it won’t be long before those funny accents from “the old country” become obsolete. Will I mourn the loss of a tradition? Some might, but I probably won’t. I myself learned Ivrit B’Ivrit.

Do you agree that modern Hebrew is taking over? Will you mourn the loss of Ashkenazic Hebrew?  

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