Fol­low in the steps of Mil­ton

The Jewish Chronicle - - JC SPECIAL - BY BOBBY BRUCH

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

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