Hebrew – Why Now?

5 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

More than six months have passed since the 7th of October, but emotionally, we are very much still there. We’ve asked our students in Israel and worldwide how their relationship with Hebrew has changed since the tragedy. Although we have students from different backgrounds who live in various parts of the world, the emotions that are reflected in their answers are the same: fear of the future, grief for everything that has happened, and anger and hopelessness towards the absolute indifference of some people – sometimes even neighbors and friends.

What is very concerning nowadays is the uprising of anti-semitism all over the world, in violent protests, on the streets, but especially on campuses of elite universities. It is hard to believe that the most prestigious institutions of higher education, the ones that are supposed to be a beacon of light, set the highest moral example of pluralism and equality, allow their Jewish and Israeli students to be threatened. That they will not provide a safe learning environment to all of their students – regardless of their faith or race. I personally know students and faculty members abroad who have been affected by antisemitism, who have been bullied by their peers, and who are considering returning back home to Israel.

These are troubling times in many ways. But through our students’ sincere answers, one thing is certain: where there are powerful forces that drive us apart and put us at risk, there are even more powerful forces that bring us together. And no one should ever hide their identity or be afraid to show their true colors, no matter how absurd reality becomes.

Shira Avraham, our student from North Carolina, recalls: “After October 7th, I felt my Hebrew shut down. I was there in Ofakim when everything happened, and with this major crisis, I realized I was short of words to communicate my feelings and felt powerless. Now, back home in America, I hesitated to join the class. On the one hand, I wanted to reconnect to where I left off, but on the other, I just wanted to move on and never relate to it again. During the first lesson with Noam, something was about to open up again. I remember watching the recording and hearing myself speaking Hebrew, and I cried. It’s a weird feeling, I’m not usually that emotional, but I guess I’m coming from a trauma stage, and this class could help me recover my confidence. I’m looking forward to my return to Israel whenever I’m ready.”

Nuno Paixao, a student from Madrid, has another perspective: “The tragic events of 7/10 confirmed my determination to learn Hebrew and get closer to the Israeli culture and citizens. As a non-jew, I’ve always felt admiration for the history of Israel, the entrepreneurial spirit of Israelis, and after visiting the country a few times I felt the urge to learn the language. I’ve found a lot of warmth, good hearted teachers and fellow students in class which helped to create a space of comfort in these difficult times. So now, more than ever, being able to understand and speak Hebrew is my commitment to stand with the people of Israel.”

For some students, October 7th propelled picking up Hebrew after many years, even decades of not speaking the language: “I was on an ulpan in the 70’s where I learned a bit, but of course that was long ago, so I’m delighted to be back learning. It is a really good feeling to connect with other people who also want to learn Hebrew”, says Joan Taras from Canada. Carissa Bub from London shares: “I’ve been ashamed for many years not to speak even the most basic Hebrew, with a mother born in Israel and many family and friends there. I didn’t want to get too old before enjoying this cultural connection. I feel strongly about being Jewish, and while that is not the same as being Israeli, there is a familial and spiritual tie for me.”

One of the things that stood out the most in our students’ responses was the need to process difficult feelings in a safe environment. Rachel Mankowitz bravely admits, “It feels like we’re not allowed to feel or acknowledge the pain, as if we can’t hold both the pain and the hope for a better future at the same time.” Sarah Goldstein shares, “It’s really tough to hear people criticize a place I love, especially when it seems like they’re not even listening. Defending it gets exhausting, and I think getting better at Hebrew would help me feel more connected to Israel and others who love it too.” Yael Reisman adds: “Being more comfortable in Hebrew also allows me to connect with the more joyous parts of Israeli culture: pop music, comedy, Instagram influencers, and tv shows, which feels so necessary during these heavy times.”

Svitlana Odeska, born in Ukraine and resides in Israel, started her Hebrew journey with us on the 11th level – purple. Her words sum up perfectly what it means to be a student (and a teacher) during these times: “…But I was not alone with my pain. So many hearts were beating and crying, same as mine. We talked a lot on zoom, read news, and learned so many new words together. I wanted to read and watch Hebrew news and start to understand, and I did. Yes, it was mostly sad news, but now it’s so much easier for me. We all found support, understanding, and the possibility to share our thoughts out loud.

 תודה, תודה על התמיכה גם במהלך וגם אחרי הקורס. שיהיו לנו זמנים יותר טובים. (Thank you for the support during and after the course. May we face better times).

We wish to thank you, our dear students, for your support for one another. For staying focused and engaged in class despite personal difficulties and overall instability and uncertainty. For your empathy and compassion towards your teachers and fellow students. And most of all, for staying hopeful.

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