The influential ‘granny’ of Bible teachers

By Vicki Belovski, May 21, 2009

Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar
Yael Unterman
Urim Publications, $39.95

This biography looks at the life and methodology of Nehama Leibowitz, certainly one of the most influential Tanach (Bible) teachers of modern Israel. Born in Latvia, she was educated in Germany after her family moved to Berlin in her teens, gaining a doctorate before marrying and moving to Palestine in 1930.

Nehama, as she was widely known, is famous for her unique gilyonot, worksheets on the sidrah, which she originally distributed as homework to students attending her classes. As their popularity grew, they became widely available over a period of 30 years: to soldiers, kibbutzniks and anyone else who asked for them.

The book describes her progress from teaching small groups, to becoming the savtah melamedet Tanach the Bible-teaching granny (although she never had any children). It displays clearly how her distinctive style could only be the product of an incisive rationalist background, combined with a German passion for truth and exactness, imparted by her general education.

The second section of the book looks at Nehama’s beliefs and opinions, often very different to those of her equally famous brother Yeshayahu Leibowitz, to whom a chapter is devoted. The third section deals with Nehama’s methodology, which was formative for many current teachers of Tanach as well in curriculum development in both Israel and the diaspora.

The biography is a fascinating depiction of an old-style religious Zionist. Nehama left Israel only once after her aliyah, to escort her parents there, and insisted on speaking Hebrew in all her classes, believing it to be the appropriate language for Bible study. It also reveals the sharp intellect and refined character that enabled her to relate to the whole spectrum of Israeli society, from university academics to some of her favourite people — taxi drivers.

Overall, an essential read for Nehama aficionados, but worthwhile, if slightly slow-moving, for everyone.

Vicki Belovski is rebbetzin of Golders Green United Synagogue and community news editor of UK Hamodia

Last updated: 3:38pm, March 3 2010