DIVINELY INSPIRED: THE HEBREW LANGUAGE AND THE ISRAELI ULPAN SYSTEM

One of the most infamous translation errors of all time was made in Hebrew.  The Latin Vulgate translation of the biblical text of Exodus 34:29 by Saint Jerome states:  “And when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.”  In actual fact, the original Hebrew reads more like: “Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was radiant”.  To give Saint Jerome his due, the original Hebrew word could mean either  “horn” or “irradiation”.   As a result, basing himself on the Latin Bible, Michelangelo depicted Moses with horns in his famous statue located to this day in the church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome.

The language of the Jewish people and also the language of the modern state of Israel, Hebrew has been referred to as “the Holy Language”  since ancient times.  According to some Jewish traditions, Hebrew was the language of the creation and is considered to be the one language spoken before the dispersion connected with the Tower of Babel.  In medieval times, it was thought that children who grew up without any linguistic influence would automatically speak Hebrew as their mother tongue.   It was the language of the early Jews, although gradually replaced by Aramaic for every day speech.  After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD, use of Hebrew as an everyday language ended, although it continued to be used for literary and religious purposes.
Today, Modern Hebrew is spoken by some 7 million people in Israel, where it is an official language together with Arabic. The language is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet, which is a consonant-only script of 22 letters.   It is studied as a foreign language mostly by students of Judaism and Israel, as well as academics studying Middle Eastern civilization in general, theologians and seminarians.  English is widely spoken in Israel to a high level and therefore there is little incentive for foreigners to learn Hebrew for commercial or business reasons.

Rebirth of the Hebrew language

Modern Hebrew developed along with the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century.  Elizer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922) was the first to make exclusive use of Hebrew in his home in Jerusalem and he devoted his life to the revival of the language through journalism, publishing and the establishment of schools.  This linguistic hero “made it possible for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love, and curse at their neighbours in a language which until his day had been fit only for Talmudic argument and prayer.”   Elizer Ben Yehuda is therefore one of the most important figures in the foundation of the modern Israeli state and the main commercial thoroughfares of both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv bear his name.  Nonetheless, he and his family were also ostracized from the ultra-orthodox community, due to their usage of Hebrew as a day-to-day language. The religious community saw this as sacrilege because they viewed it as the language of the prophets, not to be used for everyday banalities.
Ben Yehuda dedicated much of his life to the creation of a Modern Hebrew dictionary, containing words for all practical situations and purposes. He would copy notes onto filing cards, making a separate card for each word.   The Hebrew language ceased developing its vocabulary when it ceased to be a spoken language almost two thousand years previously.  Therefore, appropriate Hebrew words did not exist for many modern concepts.  Ben Yehuda solved such problems by borrowing words from other Semitic languages such as Arabic, Assyrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Coptic.  Ben-Yehuda’s legacy was famously defined by Cecil Roth: “Before Ben Yehuda Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”   In 1913, Hebrew became the official language of instruction in Jewish schools in what was then Palestine. In 1948, Hebrew became the official language of the newly established State of Israel.

Ulpan and absorption

As Ben-Yehuda’s heroic life story demonstrates, Zionism and Modern Hebrew are inextricably linked.  This is still reflected today in the Israeli language teaching system.  An ulpan  is an institute or school for the intensive study of Hebrew, allowing new immigrants to learn the language quickly and effectively.   The concept of the ulpan was initiated soon after the creation of Israel in 1948. The new country was faced with a massive influx of new immigrants, refugees from war-torn Europe, oppressed and disadvantaged communities from Africa and the Middle East, and others from all parts of the world. Although all were recognized as Jewish, their language and culture varied widely.
Since the establishment of the first ulpan in Jerusalem in 1949, more than 1.3 million new immigrants have passed through the system which is operated by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption free of charge.  Due to the diverse cultural and educational backgrounds of the immigrant learners, the method is more intuitive than systematic, with concepts presented without the support of any argument.  Adult immigrants are taught basic language skills, together with the fundamentals of Israeli culture, history, and geography.  The primary objective of the ulpan is to integrate new citizens as quickly and as easily as possible into the social, cultural and economic life of their adoptive country, representing a major step in assimilation.
“The importance of Hebrew ulpan as part of the absorption process cannot be over emphasized.  The language skills you acquire in ulpan will benefit you through every phase of your absorption, including finding a place to live, looking for employment, and building relationships with veteran Israelis.  During ulpan you will learn about and experience Israeli society, politics and culture, while getting to know those institutions, authorities and agencies that you will be dealing with in the future.” (Guide, 5)
The ulpan framework’s culture-based, intuitive approach to language teaching is highly innovative, offering a fast and effective way methodology, developed over the past 60 years to great effect.  The method has even been copied in even in Wales, where Wlpan offers Welsh language and culture programmes for thousands of adult learners.  In recent years, the ulpan system has moved forward apace with innovations in Israel’s high tech industry, and it is now possible for anyone in the world with a computer and an internet connection to study at “Ulpan on line”.
Although I have been fortunate enough to have spent many months living in Israel in recent years, I was always too busy when in Jerusalem to study at a local ulpan.  There are several private programs in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv which are aimed at the non-resident market.  I decided to enroll with “Hebrew on line” when I returned to the UK, in order to consolidate my knowledge of the language picked up in everyday situations in Israel.  High tech gadgets began arriving in the post (including a special head set) and links arrived in my inbox to various new programs to be downloaded, including access to my virtual classroom and student locker and a new toolbar which would allow me to access Israeli radio (I was astonished to find that the army station, Galgalatz offers an unexpectedly excellent music playlist) and news programs round the clock.  For someone with a traditional, systematic linguistic background (rote learning of verb tables, etc.) it was a shift to become used to the intuitive method used, but within a few weeks I became familiar with the dialogues and question and answer exercises presented in the virtual classroom, which was like a conference call on skype, including features allowing you to raise your hand or even pass notes to friends.  My classmates lived in the Netherlands, Greece, the United States and Australia.
The on line ulpan is not geared towards immigration, but this does not mean that the program skimps on cultural segments.  I receive a weekly e-zine in English, focusing on various aspects of Israeli life, followed up with a list of new vocabulary, word games, and a song in Hebrew, with lyrics and a link to an audio file so that I can sing along.  Recent topics have included the history of Masada, bird migration in Israel and biographies of various famous Israelis.  Zionism is not in evidence, as the audience for this type of course is quite varied and learners are not necessarily interested in making aliyah (immigrating to Israel).  A series of extra on line courses are offered as one-off cultural seminars from time to time, with topics including the Dead Sea scrolls, Israeli cookery and various aspects of Biblical studies.  There is a sister program of Classical Hebrew for those interested in reading Biblical texts in their original language.  Generally, I find that the weekly on line sessions keep me focused and enjoy the possibility of replaying the entire class at leisure in order to review.
The teaching of Hebrew in Israel is a source of constant debate, as the Hebrew language is one of the defining features of the Israeli identity.  There were difficulties in the 1990s, when the State of Israel was faced with almost 1 million new immigrants from Russia, prompting a new Israeli joke:  “What is the second most widely spoken language in Israel? – Hebrew!”  In 2007, the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, has established an inter-ministerial committee to advise and make recommendations for improvement and changes to the ulpan system. Several alternative teaching systems are being considered for use in the ulpan framework. Amongst them is a system of accelerated learning for Hebrew. Starting in 2004 many ulpans were closed on account of budget cuts by the Jewish Agency.
Nonetheless, the Hebrew language continues to be a source of pride and cohesion among Israelis from all backgrounds and all walks of life.  Israeli is perhaps one of the most satisfying places in the world to be a language student as many people you encounter either learned Hebrew themselves as a second language or their parents did in this land of immigration.  Therefore, Israelis are universally patient and polite with your attempts to converse, often assuming that language learners are new immigrants, prompting warm displays of welcome and encouragement.
Given its history as the language spoken by Moses and the prophets, the language of the psalms of King David, the Hebrew language has long been a source of fascination as a holy language.  Along with this historical prestige, in Israel today it is a dynamic, daily, secular language.  One of the first expressions new learners encounter is the greeting “L’Haim”, “Here’s to life!”  (לחיים), which is much more meaningful than its English translation “Cheers!” and gives a sense of the vitality of everyday life in Israel, a vitality and energy that is expressed also in the vibrancy and innovation of its ulpan language learning system.
Bibliography
Umberto Eco, The search for the perfect language (1993)
Joel M. Hoffman, In the Beginning:  A Short History of the Hebrew Language, New York:  NTU Press, 2004.
Ilan Stavans, Resurrecting Hebrew, New York:  Nextbook-Schocken, 2008.
Robert St. John, Tongue of the Prophets, Hollywood:  Wilshire Book Company, 1952.
A Guide to Ulpan Study – Fourth Edition – Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, Jerusalem 2005
Cecil Roth, Was Hebrew Ever a Dead Language
Ayanawo Farada Sanbatu, “Most ulpan grads over 30 unable to read, write Hebrew fluently” Haaretz, 14 January 2007.

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