Learning Hebrew - just a minor lamentation

I was sailing away from Odessa when Jonathan Freedland’s column on learning Hebrew was published in the JC, so I only got round to reading it this week.

Readers may recall that Mr F, one of my favourite scribbling Jews in a crowded field, gave himself up to a minor lamentation (wringing but no rending) on the inability of a sufficient number of British Jews to speak Hebrew.

“I encounter young people, otherwise academically accomplished,” he wrote (and you can practically hear his beard growing and see it turning white) “who have sat through school Hebrew lessons for more than a decade and yet still cannot string a conversational sentence together”. British Jews “lag behind” the Jews of South Africa, America and even (oy!) France.

The jeremiad almost complete, Jonathan ended by urging the laggers to unlag. Now, these columns are only 650 words long (in the days of Sir Moses Montefiore, JC contributors had whole pages to develop their theses) so it may be unreasonable to have expected Jonathan to devote a sentence or two to exactly why it is such a bad thing to lag behind the French in speaking Hebrew. However, it meant that the obvious question was begged.

Of course knowing something is better than not, and an interest in traditions and origins is to be welcomed. But, frankly, why should Jews generically learn a language that is spoken in only one small country (a country whose inhabitants mostly speak English in any case) and in religious ceremonies? Unless, that is, they really want to.

There is one good reason I can think of (and only one) not to learn Hebrew, and that is that it may be easier to sit through Jewish services if you don’t know how repetitive and purely assertive of the supernatural the words are — and instead listen to the music of it all.

Otherwise, the main problem with learning an entire language is the opportunity cost. Could you be doing something more profitable with your time?

That cost doesn’t seem to enter into Jonathan’s calculations. So when he writes that, in the battle for learning Hebrew, “the enemy is ourselves” he is suggesting some kind of duty placed upon Jews — akin to emigrating to Israel — that is not placed upon anybody else. It should be noted, incidentally, that, when the Christian churches wanted to modernise, they stopped holding their services in Latin, rather than trying to teach all their communicants the amo, amat.

Nor was I reassured by the statistic from which Jonathan appeared to take comfort, that whereas one in 10 Jewish children were taught in Jewish schools, now it’s seven in ten. I don’t regard it as any victory to have all the little Jews in Jewish schools speaking Hebrew, all the little Muslims in Muslim schools speaking in Arabic and all the little born-agains in born-again schools speaking in tongues. People will know more about Jews if everyone is educated together.

Isn’t it true that many Jewish parents wouldn’t touch Jewish schools with a 10ft Torah scroll if they thought that Ellie or Josh would emerge with an enhanced Jewish sensibility, but rubbish A levels? Their children, perhaps knowing this, are voting not with their feet, but with their inattention.

I celebrate the fact of Jewish museums, scholars and history. But I also have to reflect, yet again, on the strange paradox of simultaneously making it as hard as possible for people to become Jews, or even remain Jews, while moaning that the Jews are going to die out. You don’t want Judaism and Jewishness to die? Then don’t demand that Jews to be Jews must marry in, go to Israel, learn Hebrew or circumcise their sons.

Last updated: 11:45am, August 16 2013