Give Them Good Hebrew

Teachers, let our Hebrew children read a history book that is well written, let them handle quality texts.

Fania Oz-Salzberger
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Fania Oz-Salzberger

We were recently informed that the Education Ministry considers expressions such as "to eradicate" (in Hebrew, lemager ) and "discriminated against" (mufleh lera'a ) to be linguistic challenges too complicated for seventh grade students. The body that is responsible for the future of Israeli society has once again rejected a new history textbook. This time it was not because the ministry graded the authors "barely adequate" in Zionism, but rather "very good" - or "too good" - in Hebrew. The book authored by Eyal Naveh and Naomi Vered, the ministry's examiners ruled, uses phrases such as "succumbed to difficulties" (kar'a tahat keshayim ) and "in the confined space of" (bedalet amoteha ) and therefore is "written in high-level language" that "will make it difficult for mediocre and weak pupils."

If only that quotation is incorrect! But if that is indeed what was said, then it must be explained to the Education Ministry, in simple and clear language, that this situation is intolerable. There is a limit to how much good Hebrew can be discriminated against, to how long one can be confined within the space of ignorance, and to how the basic right of a child to study his language can be eradicated.

There is a limit to the escape from elitism, and to anxiety that borders on phobia at the thought of raising standards and making demands. It is not the mediocre or the weak student who benefits from this depletion of spirit. Israeli culture will succumb to the comprehension difficulties on the part of some of those in charge, who hold the keys to the next generation's intellectual property.

After all, a child of any age is endowed with the marvelous ability of understanding things in context. Just as he has grasped what "like" is on Facebook, so he will also be able to understand the meaning of the word for "flowing from" (nigar ) in the Honey Song by Yinon Ne'eman, for example, if he read it in class before the Jewish New Year. True, this beautiful Hebrew poem sounds like a Shakespearean sonnet would to the average English speaker, who have to use a dictionary to get the full benefit, but it is good we have poetry like that. And children, by the way, are able to surf the web more adeptly than adults and look at the wonderful site Hasafa Ha'ivrit (The Hebrew Language ) which will explain to them every word of the poem.

A guiding hand is needed. If we leave the Hebrew language to its speakers aged 10 to 15, there will no longer be a "honeycomb" (ya'ara ) from which the honey will drip onto "supporting rims" (aganim ), [to quote two of the "difficult" words of the poem]. Because not everything in the Hebrew of our youngsters is so sweet, although charming and creative. For example, we should be aware that the prefix k'sheh ("while" ) has just about disappeared and instead they say sheh - and there are other examples of this kind.

I have nothing against moss, so long as cedars also grow in the forest. Culture is in need of both a revolt and a spark. A living and breathing language works on different levels at the same time - popular and high-brow, momentary and immortal. There is room for minimalism and epics, for superficiality and multilayered expressions, for glib art and rich quotations.

There is the Talmud and the Hayehudim ("The Jews" ) rock group, the reality show "Survivor" and [Nobel Literature Prize winner SY] Agnon, the prophet Deborah and the Hadag Nahash rap band. All this is good, even nice. But regrettably, the ministry did not aim for this mixture, rather the terminal lowering of language standards in Israel. The bosses of those who educate our children have decided that it is enough to be a survivor.

I am not familiar with any other culture on earth whose education ministry has a policy based on the lowest common denominator. According to that same logic, [Leah Goldberg's popular classics] "Apartment for Rent" and "Where is Pluto?" should be removed from kindergarten classes because of some of their phrases. Engineers should be allowed to not use "cosine." Young musicians, who anyway want to be rock artists or rappers, should be allowed to give up studying scales.

This was not the intention, no doubt, of the good people in Jerusalem. That is why I am making this request of them: Let our Hebrew children - the strong, mediocre and weak ones in their teachers' eyes - read a history book that is well written. Let them handle quality texts. Demand of them that they keep quiet and make an effort. And surprise them with that very pleasure known only to those who succeed in inheriting the riches that have been preserved for their benefit.

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