Did Hebrew School Kill American Judaism

Since the Pew study about the declining number of Jews who consider Judaism their religion as opposed to their heritage came out a lot of people have written about the decline and possible reasons for it.

I’m not a religious scholar or an historian, but I’m a highly conflicted Jew. I’m one of the whopping 26% of Gen Xers who consider themselves Jew-“ish” (to borrow a coinage from those Hipster Millenials, 36% of whom don’t consider Judaism their reigion) but not Jewish and so, of course, I have a theory.

I think Hebrew, or rather, the focus on teaching Hebrew to kids may be behind the lack of interest in Judaism.

The story of the Hebrew language is fascinating. As an everyday language, Hebrew fell out of use in the 12th century or so. For about 700 years it was used only as a liturgical language, for prayers, and Rabbinic discussions.

Then, in the 19th and early 20th century, as the concept and necessity of Zionism began to take hold, Hebrew started making a comeback. Hebrew is the ONLY language that died out as an everyday language and was then revitalized.  It’s a central tenant of nation building that a nation needs a language. That’s why when a country achieves independence, whether it’s an African nation or a former Soviet territory, it establishes a “national language.” Not coincidentally, that’s also why when a colonizing power takes over a region they like to split up different language groups. If your country has both Chichewa and Swahili speakers in it, it’s going to take a lot longer for them to get together and overthrow you.

So, as the 20th century progressed and the need for a Jewish state became more and more urgent and obvious, so did the need for the Hebrew language. As Israel was formed, making sure that Jews in other parts of the world also spoke Hebrew was a great way of connecting Jews to the Jewish state. For Israel to survive, it needed other Jews around the world to have that connection to it. And other Jews, awash in fear and guilt over the Holocaust, needed that connection to Israel.

When I was growing up in the 1970s I went to Hebrew School twice a week and Sunday School once a week. I also went to a Jewish summer camp, at which we were supposed to speak Hebrew exclusively (we didn’t, but we did take Hebrew lessons and yelled “we’ve got ruach” instead of “we’ve got spirit” and I had my first French kiss there, so you know, all tov).

I remember learning a lot about Hebrew, and Israel, and the Holocaust and Jewish Holidays. I remember learning Bible stories and prayers. What I don’t remember doing a lot of is talking about God or Judaism or what it means to be a Jew or Jewish outside of Hebrew, Israel and the Holocaust. Also, I don’t really know Hebrew. It takes a lot of time to learn a language, especially one out of your native language’s language group. If you don’t use it, you’ll forget it.

I grew up in Louisville, Ky. I love my hometown, but Jews in the 1970s and 1980s were still very much “an other” in Louisville. My yearbooks from high school are full of people mentioning that I’m “their favorite Jew” or “favorite little Jew” and other strange, but affectionate, references to my religion. When I worked in a fast food restaurant my senior year of high school I offered to work on Christmas Eve. The manager was shocked to learn that I was Jewish because I did not have horns. This was 1986.

In Louisville, KY Jews went to Jewish cotillion because we were not allowed in to the other cotillions. I can’t imagine that there is any other reason my New Yorker parents would have sent me to cotillion, but because we were restricted from other cotillions you better believe I went to the Jewish one. I believe Jewish cotillion, more than any other reason, is why I am a Jew today.

But, it’s been decades since I’ve done the Foxtrot. It’s been decades since anyone has asked to see my horns. It’s even been at least one decade since anyone has asked, “You’re from Kentucky, but I thought you were Jewish?” or “You’re Jewish, but that accent?” As I meet other Jews without my southern baggage I meet people happily unaffiliated, unconnected to any synagogue and unconcerned about it. Now that anti-semitism is fading and fading fast, what do I have to fall back on for my religious identity? Several years of Hebrew. When I was a little girl I lived in Tanzania and apparently at the time spoke quite a bit of Swahili. I don’t speak Swahili any more, and I don’t speak Hebrew any more. The difference is, no one expects that early exposure to Swahili to give me a continued connection to Tanzania or an African identity. They do expect the Hebrew to have seen me through.

My children are growing up in a culturally diverse suburb. I spent about 6 hours a week in Jewish education, they’re spending about 4. Still, although they only have 4 hours a week, a lot of is devoted to Hebrew. Why? No one can possibly learn a language in 4 hours a week. I have never met anyone who seriously speaks Hebrew, who has gone on to study Judaism or Jewish texts or even really understands what they’re saying in services who only studied Hebrew in childhood Hebrew school. So why is this where that limited time is spent?

I have nothing against Zionism, some of my best friends are Zionists (literally, my best friend lives in Israel). But my children and I are not moving to Israel, neither are most American Jews. I have never been to Israel, and I would guess, neither have most American Jews. When I was growing up we were told that Israel and Hebrew were important to us in case of another Holocaust. Given that some of our Hebrew School teachers were survivors, it seemed like a necessary escape plan.

Every time I move some place new I look for the “Nazi hiding place” in case of emergency. I have frequent daytime nightmares about how horrible my children would be at following directions in such an emergency. As in the story “This Is What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank” I have thought about which of my neighbors would hide my family (I’m going with the Mennonite across the street or the conservative Catholics on the next block). But even I no longer truly fear another Holocaust It seems unlikely, or rather,  it seems unlikely to happen to me, to happen to Jews in America.

So why is Jewish education still so focused on Israel and Hebrew? Given that most of us aren’t moving to Israel, what if we talked instead about what it means to be a Jew here, in this country, in this land. What if we gave our children (and adults like me) a reason outside of history and anti-semitism to be Jewish? Why are we still nation-building, focusing on a language, instead of building a religion?

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One Response to Did Hebrew School Kill American Judaism

  1. Chana says:

    I completely agree with this post and I love it! The term American Jews says it all — we are all so assimilated to the American way of life that our Judaism comes after it.

    Earlier this year I started on my ba’alat teshuvah journey and have developed a great deal of Jewish pride and pride to be different. It’s something I think and talk about a lot, what is killing the Jewish religion? Why is such a special, sacred religion laughed at by the majority of it’s descendants?

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