Follow in the steps of Milton
HEN THE D e p a r t - m e n t for Educ a t i o n o mitt e d H e b r e w f r o m a planned list of languages officially recognised for primary school teaching, there was an outcry and the list was scrapped last year.
Excluding Hebrew would have gone against the country’s own academic tradition. Henry VIII established the first Regius chair in the language at Cambridge in 1540 and a second at Oxford six years later. Those who have studied Hebrew have ranged from the poet John Milton to the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
For many years, Hebrew was a subject largely taken by prospective priests in divinity schools. But its regeneration as a modern language — one of the greatest achievements of Zionism — has transformed its place on campus. Few degrees enable you to span 3,000 years of civilisation, from Amos the prophet to Amos Oz.
Oxford and Cambridge continue to offer degrees and both Manchester University and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies have BAs in Hebrew and Israeli studies. But the only specialist department remains at University College London.
There, you can take a BA in Jewish studies and Hebrew, or in Jewish history — as well as in combination with other subjects. But, whatever the choice, Hebrew will be a compulsory part of the course; how much depends on your specialism. The full spectrum, from classical and rabbinic Hebrew to Ivrit, is available.
“We believe that a basic familiarity with the language is needed,” says senior lecturer Dr Tsila Ratner. “It can be an introductory level, but it should be there. There is no such thing as Hebrew being more difficult than any other language. Every language can be taught and learned and I think we do it quite successfully.
“We have students who come in the first year without any knowledge of the language and may not have even seen the Hebrew alphabet. But our experience is that when they have left, they are fluent. They are quite amazing.”
While some may have to start at the aleph-bet, other students will be doing more advanced courses enabling them to read newspapers in Hebrew or academic publications.
Some may try other linguistic options, such as Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino or ancient Syriac. If you choose Hebrew and Jewish studies, about a third of your course will be language and text-based.
While you can do a BA in Jewish studies in three years, most of the courses are designed to take four, with the opportunity of a third year out in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Before they start, they go to an ulpan which is part of the university for three to five weeks,” Dr Ratner says.
“Some of the courses they go on to take are language but there is a wide range of topics. When they come home, they have a wonderful Hebrew.”
One of the department’s graduates is Raymond Simonson, chief executive of the new JW3 community centre, who during his year abroad worked in a bookshop frequented by some of Israel’s leading writers.
For Dr Ratner, it is not just the acquisition of the language that matters but access to its associated culture; encountering the work of modern Hebrew writers, she believes, is a pleasure experienced by still too few. “It is such an amazing literature that it is painful that people aren’t more familiar with it.”
For one outstanding undergraduate, UCL’s Hebrew and Jewish studies department can award the Chimen Abramsky scholarship worth £25,000 for four years.
You can go from alephbet to BA in three or four years