Tel Aviv Alternative Ulpan Provides Hebrew Classes to Young, Hip Crowd

Andrew Esensten
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Andrew Esensten

“We don’t learn Hebrew, we learn in Hebrew.” That’s the slogan of an alternative language program geared toward young, socially conscious newcomers that began its second semester of classes this week in Tel Aviv.

The program, called “This Is Not An Ulpan,” was started by a group of immigrants from North America who were disappointed with their own ulpan experiences and decided to create a space where they could engage in substantive, political discussions with their peers while also improving their language skills.

“It’s answering a need that people have to learn Hebrew in a way that is exciting and perhaps more importantly that is empowering, that makes you feel like you can express yourself and interact with the world in a meaningful way,” said Karen Isaacs, one of the founders of the program and a native of Toronto.

Classes meet in the evenings in a funky social space on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, and participants are asked to pay what they can, with a suggested contribution of NIS 100-300. There are no homework assignments, no grades and no teachers ‏(they’re called “facilitators”‏).

Last semester, about 35 people participated in three classes, including one about the Knesset election. This semester’s classes include one for beginners called “When Chomsky Met Ben-Yehuda,” and three for intermediate to advanced Hebrew speakers about the army and Israeli society, feminism and the Nakba ‏(“catastrophe”‏). The Nakba class is being offered in partnership with Zochrot ‏(“Remembering”‏), which raises awareness about the evacuation and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948.

Daniel Roth, a cofounder of This Is Not An Ulpan, said that the goal of the classes is to encourage critical dialogue about Israeli society, which he said does not occur enough in traditional ulpan classes.

“We’re trying to open doors and take what in most ulpan settings is a single story and create multiple stories,” he said.

As part of this mission, This Is Not An Ulpan recently organized a tour of Hebron that was led by a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who speak out against the occupation of the West Bank. Roth, who wrote on his personal blog that he moved to Israel last year from Toronto in part “to end the occupation,” said that This Is Not An Ulpan is “deeply rooted in leftist ideals” but noted that the army class is taught by a soldier and that anyone who has an open mind should feel welcome.

“We hope we can invite people of all backgrounds and political ideologies to have a conversation and learn together,” he said. “But one thing we don’t compromise on is the critical view of society.”

On Monday evening, new immigrants from Munich, Paris and London were among a dozen students at the first meeting of the beginner’s class. Sitting on couches and beanbag chairs, the students introduced themselves and then were prompted by their Israeli-born facilitator, Itamar Manoff, to consider the following questions: What is language? Why is it difficult to speak in Hebrew? If most people can get by in Israel without knowing a word of Hebrew, why learn the language at all?

Despite their limited conversational abilities, the students launched into a wide-ranging discussion about the challenges of assimilating into Israeli society. “I don’t want to be a − how do you say − ‘tourist’?” said 24-year-old Enrico Campelli from Rome.

Manoff, a graduate student in language pedagogy at Tel Aviv University, allowed class members to help and correct each other, interrupting now and then to write a new word on a white board and explain its etymology.

Several of the young people who attended the This Is Not An Ulpan classes this week said they found the program’s approach more effective and engaging than the text-based approach used at most ulpans.

“A lot of the things we talked about I could really identify with,” said Lucy Blechner, who recently immigrated to Israel from London.

Shani Bob said she enjoyed the class on feminism so much that she plans to commute from Haifa to attend each week. “In a regular ulpan you create fake situations or read about random things that maybe aren’t so interesting,” said Bob, who moved to Israel two and a half years ago from New York. “What I like about this is that because you’re learning about a specific topic, it’s more relevant to your life.”

For Alex Fishman, a 20-year-old native of Milan, Italy, the class represents an opportunity to meet and interact with people his own age, something that he missed while briefly enrolled in a conversational Hebrew class at Ulpan Gordon. “The average age of the class was 65 years old, and we talked about whether we prefer blondes or brunettes,” said Fishman. “I want to be able to talk about real stuff, with people from my generation, and I can do that here.”

Participants in a Hebrew lesson in March 2013.Credit: David Bachar

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