Summertime, And The Speaking Is Hebrew
Tue, 08/10/2010

By 8 a.m., the air hung heavily across the Northeast, a thick curtain of suffocating warmth that quickened tempers and slowed thoughts. But Andrew, a counselor at the Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, bounded off the bus with his usual energy. 

“The camp has declared it a Yom Cham,” said Andrew, flashing a smile that seldom seemed to falter. On this Yom Cham or “Hot Day,” explained Andrew, Nyack campers would engage in a slew of water activities, a giant inflatable slide, sponge tag and lots of free swim in the brecha — AKA the pool.

Water activities sounded promising, but my mood lifted for another reason. I was quickly growing accustomed to this sort of Ramah-speak, peppering one’s conversation with Hebrew. And I liked it. It was just what my daughter Talia had been aching for when she asked in June if maybe next year she could attend a Hebrew school where she might build on the language skills she had acquired in her first-grade year at a Jewish day school, before she transferred to public school last September. 

 The Yom Cham suddenly felt more bearable.

This year, there’s more to Ramah’s Hebrew story; and, in full disclosure, even if I weren’t paid to do some publicity work for the camp, I’d be spreading the news: The Ramah Camping Movement, which includes eight overnight camps, three day camps and various programs in Israel, has received a multiyear grant from The AVI CHAI Foundation to strengthen its Hebrew language programming. The new program, called Daber (which means “speak” in Hebrew) has already trained some 45 staff members on how to incorporate more Hebrew into a day’s fun — and sometimes the evening’s too. 

At the overnight camps, for example, counselors set aside two meals a week as Shulchan Ivrit, literally a “table of Hebrew,” no English allowed. When there’s downtime, or when thunder threatens, the Daber fellows might introduce a Hebrew game or song. “We’re turning every moment into a teachable moment,” says Maya Dimant Lentz, a 24-year-old Daber fellow, who adds that one of the goals is to increase fluency, stringing in the verbs that sometimes get lost in camp-speak. 

On that first Yom Cham at Nyack — one of so many last month — Talia, 8, and Joel, 5, met an odd pair of characters at morning meeting. Rami and Chani, who wear oversized Cat-in-the-Hat-like top hats, adorned with Zionist blue and white stripes, feign ignorance of English. That morning in Nyack, the characters presented a short, repetitive skit, focused on the importance of hats and water, introducing critical phrases such as “T’ni lee et hacovah shelee,” as in, “Give me my hat!”

Some Jews have questioned the need to learn Hebrew today. One member of my husband’s family wondered aloud last year why Talia couldn’t be learning a more useful language like Spanish. Supplemental religious schools, which we adults persist in calling Hebrew schools, have been cutting hours over much of the last 50 years, and Hebrew is no longer a centerpiece of the curriculum.

In the early days of the afternoon religious programs in the United States, right after World War I, educators taught Hebrew as a living language as well as a liturgical one, according to Jonathan Krasner, an assistant professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. At the time, the schools often met four days a week. Today, most afternoon programs meet for one or two days a week, and according to Krasner, “If you take a look at the allocation of hours, the time devoted to teaching Hebrew has decreased relative to other subjects.”

And yet, we wonder why young adults today feel so little connection to Israel, why older adults feel so little connection to prayer. “We’ve paid a price. Many American Jews, even very knowledgeable ones, don’t know Hebrew,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.  

Not so very long ago, a Jewish educator advised me to be pragmatic, that it’s not possible for children to learn conversational Hebrew unless they enroll in a Jewish day school. The educator joked that she too struggles with unrealistic desires. She would love to devour an entire cake without gaining weight. Since learning about Daber, though, I’m feeling more optimistic. Maybe my daughter can consume that cake after all. 

Elicia Brown, who has been working part time for Ramah this summer, writes her column the second week of the month. E-mail: eliciabrown@hotmail.com.

 

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