A Kids' Glossary, a Nation's First Words

Centenary of Hebrew kindergarten glossary throws light on the rebirth of the language.

The first Hebrew kindergarten in Jerusalem, which opened 110 years ago, enraged the ultra-Orthodox community, which saw it as a foothold of the Zionist establishment.

Notices posted on the city walls warned parents "who care about their children's souls" not to send them to the new kindergarten, lest they stray from the ways of "our fathers and our fathers' fathers."

Several months ago the Academy of the Hebrew Language decided to mark the 100th anniversary of a kindergarten glossary published by the Hebrew Language Committee (later to become the Academy of the Hebrew Language). But many of the Hebrew words in it were obscure or incomprehensible, such as "mlechet afunim," "kmita" and "tzalmon."

The first Hebrew kindergarten was opened in Rishon Letzion in 1897, five years before the Jerusalem one. At the time, toddlers were either sent to an ultra-Orthodox heder or were left in the care of an older woman of Sephardi origin, known as the maistra.

"The maistra would sit knitting or do some other work, while making sure the children sat with folded arms so they wouldn't fight each other and mainly, not go outside and play," Hasia Feinsod-Sukenik, mother of Yigael Yadin and Jerusalem's first kindergarten teacher, wrote later.

"[It was] a dark room without a ray of light. ... 15 children sitting on straw mats on the floor, their arms folded on their chest. All the children's eyes were diseased, pus oozing from them. ... They had other skin wounds and ailments and the sight of their faces was depressing. The maistra knitted and would not let the children talk. I asked what they did all day and she said innocently, 'Do such small toddlers have to do something?'" Feinsod-Sukenik wrote.

This attitude was not unusual at the time, when children were not thought to have unique developmental and educational needs. The Hebrew kindergartens were based on the modern educational ideology developed by Friedrich Froebel, a German pedagogue who "invented" the kindergarten concept and founded the first of them.

Froebel's educational approach encouraged spontaneous games and toys to develop the child's personality.

The kindergarten teachers in pre-state Israel taught Hebrew as part of nursery school instruction. So kindergarten children spoke fluent Hebrew long before their parents did.

The children's songs and stories, which did not exist in Hebrew at the time, were provided by poets Levin Kipnis and Yitzhak Alterman, father of Natan Alterman. But Froebel's original games had no Hebrew names and every kindergarten teacher translated Froebel's work from German or some other language as best she could, Feinsod-Sukenik wrote.

In 1912 a delegation of kindergarten teachers met Eliezer Ben Yehuda, head of the Hebrew Language Committee, and asked for the committee's help in providing Hebrew names for the various games.

Thus the committee's third booklet offered a list of terms for kindergartens. However, most of them are no longer in use and the Hebrew Language Academy people working on the booklet's anniversary could not explain them.

Cordelia Hesterman, a researcher of the academy's historical dictionary, traced the German origin of the Hebrew terms in Froebel's book. She discovered that "mlechet afunim" (pea craft) is a game of sticking picks into peas to build shapes, kmita is origami and tzalmon is making animal shadows with fingers. Each game played an important role in Froebel's educational theory.

Rachel Elboim-Dror, a Hebrew University education professor, believes Zionist history has done the early kindergartens an injustice, while extolling schools like the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. The children educated in those kindergartens were the first generation of sabras, who would later lead the "war of languages" (in 1913) and the Zionist revolution, she says.

"The two institutions that had an outstanding influence were well-baby centers and kindergartens. There the children learned Hebrew in a Sephardi, sabra pronunciation. This created a rift between them and their parents, who spoke Yiddish, or at best Hebrew in an Ashkenazi pronunciation. They were the great patriots of the Hebrew language," she says.