I teach Hebrew — I swear I do — but I’m not sure anyone’s learning Hebrew from me. It’s very frustrating, it’s a little embarrassing, and it’s Sisyphean — and yes, I had to look up how to spell that word. I teach 80 minutes of my once-a-week Hebrew class, but if that’s all the Hebrew students get during the week, nothing’s going to stick.
If the only time a student sees and hears the word לילה is in the class when they study the prayer Ma’ariv Aravim, the learning will quickly dry up and shrivel.
I think I know what would make all that Hebrew stick, and it’s cheap, it’s pretty easy, and it might be fun. We should be listening to Hebrew with our kids from the time they are babies. Include Hebrew lullabies at night: Tanja Solnik’s version of Numi, Numi, Craig Taubman’s Lailah Tov, and David Paskin’s B’yado are beautiful ways to end a day. Two of those songs appear on the album Jewish Lullabies, Volume 1, which features several other wonderful performers. Learn these songs and do your own singing, and you will enrich your young child’s connection to Hebrew even more deeply. Plus, you’ll learn some pretty useful Hebrew, too. Back in my day . . . she said scratching her beard . . . we didn’t have all these options for music — at least, I didn’t know about them — so I just sang the few texts I knew at bedtime for my children: Oseh Shalom and Eitz Chaim Hi. At that time, I never thought about singing the Sh’ma and Hashkiveinu.
NOTE: I just returned from NewCAJE 6, a conference on Jewish education, you should send your teachers to NewCAJE 7 . . . but I digress . . . but you should really send your teachers there . . . and while these folks weren’t on my radar before, you should check out Ellen Allard, Abbie Strauss, Mama Doni and Eric Lindberg, and lots more, of course. (Oy Songs is a great place to find Jewish music and hear a clip before you buy.) AND . . . AND . . . AND . . . Elena Jagoda, whom I’ve been told is great and then discovered on my own by chance. I’m going to stop adding names now; there are many more.
As your children develop their English skills through exposure to language, so can they develop their Hebrew skills through exposure to language. Add Hebrew songs to their playlists before they start building their own playlists, play Hebrew music in the car, make Hebrew place mats, maybe with Hebrew food words and phrases. I’m still looking for Hebrew dubbed Harry Potter movies, but I know there are several Hebrew dubbed Disney songs on YouTube. For older kids, you can find some funny Israeli ads.
Play Hebrew games: With four sets of Hebrew flash cards, you can play Go Fish, I Doubt It (commonly known as B.S.), Crazy Eights, Rummy-style games (without the sequenced sets), and lots more.
Use Hebrew catch phrases: greetings, cues, jokes, and more.
And for goodness’ sake, text your kids in Hebrew. That’ll teach them to roll their eyes at you when you can’t figure out how to turn off your ringer. Switch your keyboard to Hebrew and type . . .
when you’re waiting outside the mall to pick them up (or anywhere else) to say I’m here;
איפה את to a girl
איפה אתה to a boy
איפה אתם to a group
to say where are you?
instead of LOL (Laughing Out Loud — though לוֹל could work too and for something really funny לוֹלים or would that be לוֹלוֹת? But I digress . . . )
The idea is to take every opportunity to squeeze in a little Hebrew, as though it were nothing more than a snack or your daily walk to the park. The idea is to create a practice of owning Hebrew as you own your family stories. The idea is to seed children’s lives with the sound and symbols of Hebrew so that they have a lively, vital culture upon which to build their formal Hebrew studies.
When we study the prayer Ma’ariv Aravim and we hit that phrase בורא יום ולילה what I want to hear in my class is this: Hey! That’s the same word as my dad says when we go to bed. And what I want you to hear at bed time is this: Hey! We learned that word in a prayer today!
That would be some mighty sticky learning.