Family & Education

Why schools might take a Shtisel test

How much Hebrew should be expect children to understand?


The trailer for the latest series of the Israeli drama Shtisel shows the veteran school principal Shulem confronting a group of men who are trying to oust him. “Who do you think I am?”, bellows the outraged patriarch, “Some mizrochnik running a lottery ticket booth?”

Well, that’s according to the English subtitles, which would not have helped those Netflix viewers left wondering what a mizrochnik was. In the actual episode, it was translated as “modern Orthodox” (I assume the jibe means someone from the religious Zionist camp, once represented by the Mizrachi party).

It would be an interesting exercise to find out how many of our community were able to follow the Hebrew dialogue of the series without the aid of subtitles (the Yiddish is another matter). And more specifically, how many sixthformers in our Jewish schools.

If more children than ever in the UK are now receiving a Jewish day school education, from nursery to A-level, how many might we reasonably expect to emerge with some proficiency in Ivrit? Or alternatively, how many could make sense of a narrative passage of Torah in the original?

Every Jewish school here teaches Hebrew to some extent. But only within the Charedi community is Hebrew literacy expected. In the broader Jewish sector, the expectation is more that children should be able at least to read the language of prayer, even if they don’t understand it. Five years ago Jeffrey Leader, the head of the Board of Deputies’ Jewish studies inspection service, Pikuach, reported that there were some children leaving Jewish school without even being able to read Hebrew properly.

While periodically there are calls to establish some national benchmark in Jewish attainment, this remains an elusive goal. One indicator might be the number taking public exams in Hebrew. And there is some good news: this has increased.

A report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research some 20 years ago found a “steady improvement” in the take-up of GCSE modern Hebrew through the 1990s, reaching around 400 by the end of the decade. However, only 25 chose it for A-level.

Over the same period, biblical Hebrew had enjoyed an upsurge from around 300 to 451 by 1999 and from 30 to 64 at A-level.

The figures are even better now. Last year, 567 students were entered for modern Hebrew GCSE and 595 for biblical Hebrew. But at A-level, the numbers were down on the previous few years: 53 took A-level modern Hebrew (compared with 70 in 2019) and the same number A-level biblical Hebrew (compared with 66 the previous year).

Given the rise in Jewish secondary school numbers over the past 20 years, the increase is perhaps no surprise. But the entries for Hebrew are small enough for exam boards only five years ago to have reviewed whether to continue the subject — although the government has pledged to protect it.

Intriguingly, biblical Hebrew GCSE is much more popular among girls: according to Pearson, the exam board which now offers it, there were 429 female entrants, compared with 166 male. One explanation may be that Charedi girls sit exams, whereas many boys have already moved to yeshivah by 16. If every Charedi teenager took biblical Hebrew, the numbers would soar.

As for Ivrit, some students, it must be noted, are the children of Israelis who have moved or are working here. According to research done for the OCR board in 2009, around 10 per cent of those sitting modern Hebrew GCSE were native speakers.

The rise in Ivrit exam entries over time might reflect increased investment in curricula and teacher training. PajeS, for example, has supported resources such as Ivrit Beclick at primary and Yesh VaYesh at secondary level, as well as initiatives such as an annual Hebrew spelling bee.

But barriers to further progress remain: the crowded national curriculum, the need for more specialist teachers, plus the country’s general indifference to foreign languages in view of the international dominance of English (which probably remains the most widely understood language among world Jewry).

Exams, of course, offer only one route to study. Hundreds of children each year go from Jewish school to spend a year at yeshivah or sem in 
Israel, where their competence in Hebrew will develop. However, the drop in numbers opting for non-yeshivah gap year schemes in Israel in recent years has reduced youth contact with Hebrew.

So perhaps it is time to consider whether more should be done to promote the language in schools. One idea could be the launch of some kind of accreditation scheme to encourage Hebrew proficiency, with bronze, silver and gold awards as incentives. It could offer different options, one in conversational Hebrew, another in Tanach. A voluntary challenge might be better than trying to rope more students into exams.

In the meantime, programmes such as Shtisel increasingly available through streaming are bringing Hebrew into homes in a way that did not happen before. It might not quite be “Torah from Zion” but educators should seize the opportunity.

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