Yeshivas Say Salaam Aleikum To Arabic
Wed, 08/20/2008
Associate Editor
American schools have been teaching foreign languages from the earliest days of the republic and yet most Americans are like Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” trying to speak French to the French: “We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” But after 9/11 and the intifada, there’s no room for “innocents.” Yeshiva high schools that have long offered French, Spanish and even Latin, along with Hebrew, are now teaching Israel’s other official language: Arabic. The trend is so below the radar that an official at New York’s Board of Jewish Education could only guess how many Jewish schools were doing so, “maybe one or two.” In June, The New York Times guessed that a Quaker school in Manhattan “is most likely the first school in New York to offer the language that doesn’t have a significant Arabic-speaking student body.” Not so. Recent years have seen Arabic added to Jewish curriculums across the city and country: at Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School (SAR) in the Bronx; the New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles; the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.; at the American Hebrew Academy, a non-denominational boarding school in North Carolina; at Shalhevet High School for Girls, a new school in Cedarhurst opening in September; and at Ramaz, on the Upper East Side, where Arabic is offered as an after-school group. That’s just a partial list. Interest at Yeshiva University reflects the interest of religious Zionist students. Y.U.’s Richard White, who teaches undergraduate Arabic, says, “In recent years, first-year [Arabic] has reached or almost reached” its class capacity of 17. He adds, “The number of [Jewish] high schools teaching Arabic seems to be increasing.” The most controversial Arabic program in New York, of course, is at the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a Brooklyn public school plagued by protests and lawsuits. Many of its leading opponents have been Jews, warning that teaching Arabic is not innocent but a stalking horse for teaching radical Islamic politics. The complaints led the hijab-wearing principal, Debbie Almontaser to lose her job, a case still embroiled in the courts. Yet, the teaching of Arabic in the yeshivas has elicited no complaints from those same protestors or from parents. SAR’s principal, Rabbi Naftali Harcsztark, says that when people hear that SAR is offering Arabic “it does raise eyebrows, but after a second they say, ‘that’s pretty cool.’ I haven’t gotten negative reactions. People think it’s pretty neat.” Rabbi Harcsztark says his own son, entering sophomore year, is taking Arabic. “I encouraged him. It’s out of the box; it’s important exposure for kids. Language should be culturally broadening and this certainly is.” Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and one of the strongest critics of the Gibran school, says that Arabic in yeshiva is not a problem. While he “enthusiastically” endorses “the teaching of Arabic,” he also is concerned about “the political and religious baggage its instruction so often carries. Accordingly, I call for special scrutiny to Arabic-language classes in taxpayer-funded schools to make sure they are clean. That, of course, does not apply to privately-funded schools such as [these] Jewish schools, which, unlike public schools, are free to espouse a political or religious outlook.” Students at SAR understand the difference. Emily Cooper, entering her junior year, says, “The government should do whatever it takes” to fund Arabic studies. However, “there is supposed to be a separation of church and state in this country, and if the government is funding a [public] school for Arabic studies, it is hard to keep religion out of it. ... So far, I have learned so much both about the language and about Muslim culture. I might want to go into Middle Eastern affairs when I’m older, and knowing Arabic is probably helpful.” At SAR, Islamic visitors were brought in to explain Ramadan and the hijab, in response to student interest and inquiries. At the Charles Smith day school, Arabic teacher Doran Goldstein says her Jewish students had two joint programs with an Islamic school. “It was fascinating to watch our students interact, learn from one another and engage in powerful and challenging conversations,” says Goldstein. “Students made it known to me that they have continued to be in touch with the [Muslim] students over the Internet.” Though Almontaser and her defenders passionately insisted that teaching Arabic had nothing to do with teaching Islam, Islam has indeed entered yeshivas via the Arabic classes. But critics seem reassured because of each yeshiva’s strong religious Zionist ideology. SAR’s Arabic teacher, Irrit Dweck, who says she admires Almontaser and actually worked with her on Khalil Gibran’s preliminary curriculum, recognizes the distinction between public school and yeshiva. Dweck pointed out that at SAR, whose elementary school Dweck attended, “these are kids who spend half their day in Jewish studies and it’s a major focus of their lives at home. If they’re learning Bereshit [Genesis], I love being able to contrast the stories from the Torah and the Koran.  It’s way to sense connections. We were doing case endings and I was able to show them that in the Koran.” Jeff Wiesenfeld, a leading Jewish critic of Almontaser and the Gibran school, told The Jewish Week that he was fine with the yeshiva programs: “Arabic taught by competent, democratic, loyal professionals is an asset to this country,” although that’s “not the way it is persistently done, in most cases,” beyond the yeshivas. Rivkah Blau, a veteran Orthodox educator, is the principal who brought Arabic to Shalhevet in Cedarhurst. “In order for Israel to live with its neighbors,” says Blau, “we have to be able to communicate; we have to learn our neighbors’ language. Arabic is an important part of Jewish history. The Rambam, for example, wrote in Arabic. The Sephardic Jewish experience is recognized and honored through studying the language and culture this community lived with for centuries.” “It’s a mistake to think that Islam is intrinsic to Arabic,” Dweck says, and Islam is, in fact, quite peripheral to her curriculum. “My grandparents were from Syria, spoke Arabic and were Jewish. There are millions of Christians who speak Arabic, too.” For many, Arabic isn’t only a foreign language, it’s familial. Almost a quarter of the 34 SAR students that took Arabic last year are, like Dweck, from Middle Eastern families. Dan Chamudot, entering his junior year, is from an Israeli family and plans to return to Israel: “I expect that one day [Arabic] may prove useful.” Keren Sebbah, entering her senior year, comes from Algerian roots. “Whenever I visit [my relatives], they’re always speaking in Arabic. When I heard Arabic was going to be one of the languages offered, I jumped at the opportunity to finally fit in with my family. Taking Arabic has not changed the way I view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ll always remain true to my country of birth, Israel. But I fell in love with the language. It’s softened my heart to the beauties of the Middle Eastern countries.” One controversy at the Khalil Gibran school centered on whether the word “intifada” and Arabic culture were being sanitized there. More than a year ago, The New York Post asked Almontaser what “intifada” meant, and there ensued an argument to this day about the nuance and context of her answer, that it meant “a brushing off,” and she still protests that the question was provocative and misleading. At yeshivas, though, when The Jewish Week asked what “intifada” meant, Chamudot crisply answered, “The word ‘intifada’ brings to mind a group of extremist Arabs with the sole purpose of killing and hating the Jewish people and land. They are often widely supported by their terrorist-controlled governments and civilians.” Nevertheless, adds SAR student Emily Cooper, her Arabic class was sophisticated enough to also teach that “the intifada and the situation we are in right now with the Middle East is not all [that] Islam and Arabs are about.” On another level, Cooper says, “I think it is so cool that I can speak a language that so few people I know can speak. There are very few Orthodox Jews who speak Arabic in New York.” Cooper’s classmate, Yael Bellin, adds, “I feel as if I am gaining a deeper understanding of a different culture. When I watch the news, [and see] signs in Arabic, it is no longer squiggles and dots. I have a feeling of satisfaction that I am a part of the Middle Eastern world.” It’s a world Dweck knows. She lived for a year in Egypt while earning her master’s degree at Columbia University in Middle Eastern language. She’s worked with Sesame Workshop on the Arab-Jordanian regional Sesame Street, and her curriculum incorporates both classical and colloquial Arabic. Dweck took her students to see “The Band’s Visit,” a Hebrew-Arabic film, about an Egyptian band lost in Israel. They watch videos of Middle Eastern coffeehouses, and scenes from the TV show, “24,” to critique accents, grammar and stereotypes. One day, Dweck played a recording of “L’Beirut,” an ethereal Arabic song of the Lebanese civil war: “A greeting from my heart to Beirut Kisses to the sea and to the houses To a rock, which is like an old sailor’s face She is made from the people’s soul, from wine She is from his sweat, bread and jasmine So how does her taste become a taste of fire and smoke?” The music stops and the room is still. “You’re the poet,” Dweck tells the class. “Write a verse about New York or any city you want — in Arabic. It’s not hard to make words rhyme in Arabic.” The excitement of being a teenager is discovering the world, being an “innocent abroad,” not quite in childhood’s world, not quite in the other. Learning Arabic is to be closer to the other, closer to headlines from abroad that are anything but innocent. And yet, there’s a poetry to it all, say the Jewish students, thoroughly schooled in the “fire and smoke” that Israelis have known too well. After watching the movie of the lost Egyptian band, Dweck’s students said they understood how “loneliness is a feeling that transcends borders”; they understood the words.