Name: Stephen Long
Location of Study: Jerusalem, Israel
Program of Study: Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Four-Week Intensive Modern Hebrew Language Course
Sponsor(s): Bruce Broillet
A brief personal bio:
I did my undergraduate work in Mathematics and Classical Studies at Virginia Tech. I then went on to complete a Masters in Classics (Greek) at the University of Virginia. While teaching high school in Kentucky and Florida, I pursued additional graduate work in Hebrew and theology. I am now working on my MTS in the Department of Theology here at Notre Dame.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
A fascination with language initially prompted me to complete a Masters in Classics. However, during the course of studying Greco-Roman antiquity my professional interests shifted increasingly toward Biblical Studies, leading me to the present pursuit of a Masters in Theology in preparation for doctoral studies. Integral to the field of Biblical Studies is a thorough knowledge of the original languages—not only of the Greek and Latin acquired from my Classics background, but also of biblical Hebrew (and the ancillary Semitic languages Aramaic and Syriac). The opportunity to learn modern Hebrew this summer will contribute to my professional development in two specific ways: first, knowledge of modern Hebrew will greatly improve my grasp of the ancient version of the language, and will substantially assist me in the study of ancient texts. Second, the rise of modern Israeli scholarship means that some of the best biblical scholars in the world now write important books and articles in Hebrew. Facility in modern Hebrew will enable me to interact more responsibly with modern biblical scholarship and to serve the scholarly community by engaging with a body of scholarship produced in a language that is still not widely accessible to European and American scholars.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
As explained above, I hope to acquire facility in modern Hebrew in order both to interact with modern scholarship and to engage more effectively with ancient texts written in Hebrew. Both of these primary goals will be directly and specifically assisted by the course in modern spoken Hebrew hosted by Notre Dame’s Tantur Institute in Jerusalem. The course will be taught by an accredited instructor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, ensuring that the instruction in spoken Hebrew will be of the highest quality. The setting in Jerusalem will provide ample opportunities for cultural as well as linguistic immersion, and my active language skills will be exercised and greatly improved by navigating bus systems, visiting cultural sites, and volunteering in the community. In addition to the Tantur’s attractive emphasis on spoken Hebrew, there will also be supplementary sessions devoted to navigating scholarly academic Hebrew. A more focused program of instruction for my needs could hardly be found anywhere else, and it comes with the recommendation of my Department here at Notre Dame.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
1. By the end of the summer I will be able to converse–both verbally and in written form–with native speakers of Hebrew on academic topics concerned with the interpretation of ancient texts.
2. By the end of the summer I will be able to read modern Hebrew at a level of proficiency sufficient for my academic work.
3. By the end of the summer I will be able to communicate with native speakers of modern Hebrew to discuss political and cultural topics such as Jewish-Christian and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
In addition to the classroom study of modern Hebrew, I plan to supplement my acquisition the language in two ways: through a service project in the city of Jerusalem, and through cultural field trips. I plan to volunteer at the Ichlu Reim Soup Kitchen, which provides meals and other services to the Jerusalem community each day. I will volunteer to assist with preparing and serving food, with cleaning the facilities, or with the needs that the director of Ichlu Reim deems most pressing. In addition, Jerusalem and its environs also provide unique opportunities for cultural field trips. In Jerusalem itself, I hope to visit the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Knessett (Parliament), and the archeological sites around the Temple Mount. I also hope to take day trips to see such archeological sites as Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and the ruins of Masada. These sites are naturally of special interest to me as a Biblical Studies student—and the opportunity to visit them will provide abundant occasion to practice the Hebrew language, as I navigate buses and taxis and ask questions of Israeli tour guides.
[Note: My internet access was limited while I was in Israel, so I’m posting all my blog entries about the experience in Israel after my return home.]
Reflective Journal Entry 1: Pre-entry Reflections
I’m really looking forward to spending the next four weeks in Israel learning modern Hebrew. This trip to Israel, as an immersion experience in this country, is especially exciting to me for two reasons—one cultural and the other linguistic.
I visited Israel twelve years ago—as a tourist. As a tourist, I spent most of my time with my fellow tourists from the United States; we stayed in hotels for tourists; and we kept to the beaten track for tourists. I didn’t think much about how I was getting to the sites I visited, nor about whose territory I was passing through to get there—I just climbed on the bus at the appointed time and place and let the organizers of the tour think about the logistics of getting from one place to another. It was the first time I had ever been outside the United States–and I was naively inclined to be impressed by just about anything foreign and new.
This visit is altogether different. I’m not living in a hotel for tourists. If I go anywhere outside the gate of our lodgings, the responsibility for getting from one place to the next depends on me and my communicating abilities. I’ll still be an “outsider” in this country, but I won’t be a tourist. I’ll be immersed in this culture as a temporary resident who has to live and travel here on my own.
This time in Israel is also exciting to me for the role it will play in acquiring a language. I’ve studied biblical Hebrew for about five years now. I can read it fairly well with a dictionary. However, my knowledge of biblical Hebrew is basically a passive knowledge—I can recognize forms and words when I see them, but they aren’t on the tip of my tongue…they aren’t something I can actively produce and use. I hope this trip will change that—I’m really excited about acquiring Hebrew as an active ability.
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
Our first week of classroom work felt like it passed swiftly – even at 5.5 hours a day! As expected, the biggest issue with acquiring this language isn’t the novelty of the verb forms or the grammar per se, but with producing the forms off the top of my head – or off the tip of my tongue – without having to stop and think about them explicitly. Biblical Hebrew didn’t have a “present tense” per se; modern Hebrew supplies this by a “periphrastic” construction using the personal pronoun and the present participle. Having to form this all the time is working wonders on my command of these participle forms – which have always been passively recognizable but not actively usable.
My living quarters are situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. From the window of my room I can see the concrete wall that separates Bethlehem and the Palestinian territory only a quarter mile away… I’ve gone into the Old City of Jerusalem a couple of times. There is an Arab bus system and an Israeli bus system – separate from each other, of course. Having any but the most minimal conversation about directions with a native speaker is still difficult—but I’m getting used to the transpo system anyway. In addition to visiting the historical sites around the Old City, we went over into Palestinian Territory to see the Herodion – an ancient palace/fortress of Herod the Great’s on the edge of the Judean wilderness. The Israeli museum also has an excellent collection showing the historical development of settlement in The Land and its connections to the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
Regarding Journaling Task 1: I’ve found that the word “גזעי” used to mean something like “cool” – but it’s dropped out of usage for that these days. “חברתי מן” used to mean a “friendly person”–but will get you punched in the face today… (Better be careful what slang you attempt on the street!) My favorite bit of informal language is the phrase “az yalla bye,” which combines Hebrew, Arabic and English into one phrase meaning “goodbye.”
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
This weekend, after our second full week in Israel, we borrowed a car and drove around in the southern region of Israel (i.e. in the “Negev”). Last time I was in Israel I saw the central region around Jerusalem and the more northerly region around Galilee—but this time I wanted to check out the desert in the south. Also, I was really interested in what navigating between Israeli and Palestinian territory would be like. On Friday we went to the site of ancient Lachish–which Sennacherib took by siege—and then to ancient Ashkelon on the coast; on Saturday (Shabbat) we drove down to Beersheba, to (wadi) En Avdat, and then to Tel Arad; and Sunday we went to Masada (down by the Dead Sea). It is a remarkable experience, to my unaccustomed eyes, to have to pass through Israeli ckeck-points (in order to leave the Palestinian Territory) where the car is searched and the baggage thoroughly x-rayed. The border guards were friendly (to us, anyway—as we were carrying American passports), allowed us to practice our Hebrew, and were interested in where we were from. Still – it reminded me to be thankful that I don’t have to navigate checkpoints every time I pass from one state to another when I’m back home!
I’d recommend any of the sites mentioned above to future visitors of Israel—especially Beersheba and Tel Arad, as they’re very old, very well-preserved, and aren’t crowded with tourists (doubtless, due to the heat). Any of them demonstrate what an ancient city in The Land looked like. It’s surprising how small they were—especially compared to the vast sprawl of a modern city. The Israelis do a remarkable job with their archeological parks… (Though it’s perhaps worth noting that there’s a sometimes un-subtle concern to connect the political narrative of the modern Israeli nation-state with the ancient past.)
Regarding Journaling Task 2: Over in Tel Aviv there were some social protests during the first week of our stay. Some of the (relatively peaceful) demonstrators were arrested. When I asked about this, concerns were expressed about police “violence” against protests regarding social justice. Demonstrations are technically allowed—so there was uncertainty what had warranted the arrest of non-violent protestors. The protests stemmed from the high rent/cost of living in places like Tel Aviv. One person I talked to about this had lived in Germany, and drew comparisons with living there: relatively speaking, living in Israel is much more expensive; and, although it was felt that a good social system was in place in Israel, the feeling was also expressed that the politicians ought to do more to lower the cost of living. Two things strike me as noteworthy about the social issue and the perspectives expressed on it: first, like the citizens of most westernized countries, there was confidence that the politicians could do something about the social situation. But in common with other westernized countries(?), there’s sympathy for the protest (think the “Occupy” movement), but considerable unease with how the protest is received and handled by the authorities.
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
My third full week of intensive Hebrew went well. This week I took several routine trips into Jerusalem via the now very familiar bus systems — no problem navigating my way into the city at all now. Otherwise, the week’s schedule varied vary little from the two previous weeks — except that I stuck closer to home in the evenings since I was getting pretty tired.
One notably entertaining—but also helpful—activity that I did in the evenings was to watch an Israeli sitcom. It’s called “Arab Labors” and is told from the perspective of an Arab Israeli. One of it’s many virtues is that it shows the difficulties of navigating between life in Palestinian and Israeli territories—but it does this without being preachy at all. Plus, once the writers hit their stride (in about the 3rd episode, I’d say), the show is hysterical. Check it out.
On Sunday I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Jerusalem. I spent the whole week prior trying to track down someone in the admin to speak to about coming. The person I was finally able to make arrangements with manifestly did not tell anyone else that I was coming. When I arrived, there a large group of young teenagers working in the main dining room—singing with great enthusiasm to American pop music from the late 90s/early 2000s. The only person in any sort of official capacity was the largish cook—who spoke no English (except for “I don’t speak English”). Our intensive Hebrew course hasn’t been geared toward working in a kitchen or describing the utensils or actions in a kitchen–but the cook and I made do. I chopped a lot of vegetables in the back—while listening to the enthusiastic chatter and singing of the Israeli youth group. Then I ate with the folks who come to the kitchen for lunch. (The conversation with them, in Hebrew, went a little better than the one with the cook.) The lesson I took away: humanitarian work, to be really effective, requires proficiency in the language. No surprise there.
Regarding Journaling Task 4: I’ve had several conversations with people in “minorities” in Israel. One of these was a woman of Russian descent. Israel has experienced several waves of immigration—and the Russians wave was one of the more recent. New immigrant groups get stereotyped in Israel much as they do in America, and the stereotype for the Russians associated them with drinking and drugs—but also with being good at math, art, music. In any case, said the woman, since the Russians aren’t the most recent, the stigma of being the newest goes to others—to the Ethiopian immigrants, who are often looked down upon as uneducated.
I also spoke with a group of Palestinian Christians. Clearly, the life of the Palestinians is difficult in general. But the Christians are stuck between a rock and a hard spot. They can’t move about and work freely in Israeli territory; but even in Palestinian territory they cannot get jobs in the government without family or other connections since the state is Islamic. One young man whom I got to know well has dreams of finishing a Master’s degree in social work. I wonder whether he’ll ever get the opportunity…
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
I think the most useful thing I did for my language acquisition during my last week – beside the classroom instruction, of course – was to attend several church services in Hebrew. I wish I’d been able to find these earlier during my stay. (Most other services that I know of were in English, French, or Arabic – anything but Hebrew…)
Another useful activity was an evening spent in Jerusalem with our two Hebrew instructors. We “toured” several interesting sites – a house museum, the residence of a famous poet, an Ethiopian church, a historic hospital, etc. – in the vicinity of Ben Yehuda St. We (the students) were the tour “guides,” so we researched our assigned sites and prepared a presentation/description of it in Hebrew. Afterwards, our instructors took us to their favorite street restaurant where we enjoyed an evening of pleasant conversation. A very helpful evening as far as modern Hebrew goes.
Regarding Journaling Task 6: I’ve asked several people about their views on America. The opinions expressed were usually positive over-all—but with qualifications. One woman expressed the opinion that Americans as individuals generally come across as optimistic, loud, pleasant people – and that nationally/politically America decides everything for Israel, while Israel can’t do much without America. The U.S. President is viewed favorably. My conversations with Palestinians also revealed some views about America: that it’s a land of optimism and opportunity. Yet there was also the feeling that America is largely silent about what the Palestinians are made to suffer in their political situation…
Reflective Journal Entry 6:
Time for retrospective reflections on my four weeks in Israel.
Broadly speaking, I found little difficulty “adapting” to the local culture. Getting around in the city and buying things in the markets was no great difficulty after the first week. Enough people spoke enough English that if I couldn’t make myself understood in Hebrew they could still help me with whatever I needed.
If there was any “culture shock” at all, it was only due to increasing perplexity as I observed the mutually difficult plights of the Israeli and Palestinian states. The concrete walls that separate the territories, the separate bus systems, and the limited political rights of some –these carry connotations of the Berlin Wall experience, segregation in the American South, and Apartheid in South Africa. I come away utterly perplexed as to what an equitable solution to the social situation would be. Neither side can simply yield and leave and go “back” home.
Since this was my first experience with modern Hebrew, my vocabulary was too small – even after four weeks – to carry on extensive conversations about anything except directions to the market and how much I like orange juice. However, it did serve the basic purpose of giving me the grammatical categories/forms used in everyday conversation. It greatly reinforced my command of the participle forms that are used so extensively in the modern language.
If I am ever able to return to Israel again and continue to work on the language, I think I would try to create for myself a set of basic words used in discourse about a specific political or social topic. Then I’d try to have multiple conversations about that topic, thus reinforcing my command of that vocab, learning by experience how any idioms associated with them are used, and expanding my speaking abilities outward from that specific center. And if I were to volunteer again at a soup kitchen, I’d make sure that I had a ready vocabulary for actions involved in working in a kitchen (“chop,” “dice,” “knife,” etc.)!
I thought that the practice of writing up a description of a site — as we did during the evening in Jerusalem with our instructors – was very helpful. I’d try to do that more often. At this stage of acquiring modern Hebrew, I felt that the time in the class room with patient instructors was more effective than trying to engage people on the street. Watching Israeli television was also very helpful. (Again, the sit com “Arab Labors” was hysterical – I’d recommend it to anybody for it’s wit, as well as for the informative yet comical way that it deals with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.)
Postcard(s) from Abroad:
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
Until my immersion experience in Israel this summer, my command of Hebrew was always a passive capacity – I could recognize forms in reading, but not produce them speedily nor distinguish them aurally. The immersion experience forced me to come to terms with the stark difference between an active capacity for producing forms, and the passive capacity that I had taken to be knowledge of Hebrew. I have a much richer familiarity with those forms that I was forced to use over and over – especially the participles, which are an integral part of the verb system in modern Hebrew. Four weeks of active speaking is worth at least a semester – maybe even a year – of classroom study. I feel that I made significant progress with regard to my goals for language learning: although I am not yet as proficient as I wish to be, I am much closer to being so than I was before going abroad. I think I adjusted to cultural differences with sufficient speed. My main approach to engaging cultural differences was to go out and meet the culture – navigate the transpo system, eat the food, shop in the market, and talk to people. It worked.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
My overall experience was thought-provoking. I found both the Israelis and the Palestinians with whom I ate and conversed to be very hospitable. At the same time, I have reservations about the sustainability of a social configuration that seeks to divide two groups of people via walls and separate bus systems. The summer language abroad has highlighted the complexity of resolving international and social tensions in the Middle East. It also highlighted the difficulty of even the most basic volunteer work in an international setting without a deep command of the language. I would advise someone preparing to study abroad to work extensively on vocabulary before they go over. Pick an area (e.g. politics) and find out what the basic vocabulary of discourse is for that topic. Practice it while you’re there, and use that as a launching pad for having conversations.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
I and three of my fellow Hebrew students are continuing our language acquisition with an online instructor. The language competence achieved via the SLA experience will assist me in reading and interacting with academic sources in modern Hebrew. I will try to continue improving my modern spoken Hebrew. I will also watch events in the Middle East with a more informed and interested perspective on the situation.