The Limits of Cultural Zionism in America: The Case of Hebrew in the New York City Public Schools, 1930-1960

Article excerpt

The atmosphere at New York City's Textile High School was positively electric on Sunday, October 17, 1937, as students from six public high schools gathered for a mass rally celebrating the Hebrew language and Jewish culture. Sponsored by the Jewish Culture Council, a federation of Hebrew and Jewish culture clubs in the city's public high schools, the rally was punctuated with song, dance, and dramatic performances by various school Hebrew clubs participating in an interscholastic competition. First prize, a copy of the Jewish Encyclopedia, was presented to the troupe representing Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School. But for many of those assembled, the climax of the day was the awarding of gold ayin pins to the top achievers in each of the schools' Hebrew classes (Ayin is the first letter in the word Ivrit, meaning Hebrew). A total of sixty-four pins were presented by a beaming Israel Chipkin, educational director of the Jewish Education Association, who was instrumental in pleading the cause of Hebrew before the city's Board of Education and worked indefatigably to increase the number of public schools offering Hebrew as a foreign language elective. (1)

For cultural Zionist educators committed to facilitating a Jewish renascence in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century, the effort to introduce Hebrew into public schools was only one part of a longstanding agenda to promote the burgeoning of an American Hebraic culture. Arenas such as public education had become more central to their campaign, however, after a series of frustrating experiences working within the more conventional setting of Jewish educational institutions. Bucking opposition from Jewish communal leaders and parents, these educators had worked assiduously to promote the teaching of Hebrew as a spoken language in afternoon supplementary schools using the "natural method," a foreign-language teaching technique designed to imitate primary language acquisition through immersion. But despite their zealous efforts, very few students emerged from the supplementary schools as fluent Hebrew speakers. As a result, by the late-1920s and 1930s, American Hebraists were in search of other venues through which to spread Hebrew among American Jewish youth, including Hebrew-speaking camps, Hebrew culture clubs and all-day schools. Among the most intriguing of their initiatives was the endeavor to introduce Hebrew as a foreign language into the public schools.

Those who spearheaded the introduction of Hebrew in New York City's public schools touted the study of the language by Jewish youngsters as a guarantor of continued ethnic cohesion. Some even went as far as presenting the election of Hebrew study as a sign of Jewish loyalty and ethnic pride. "I cannot think of any better way in which the Jewish student in New York could identify himself with the Jewish group than by electing Hebrew as part of his high school or college program," wrote Samuel Margoshes in the pro-Zionist daily, Der Tog (The Day). "There are, of course, some who prefer to forget their Jewishness, hoping that thereby they will induce others to forget it, and they will reject Hebrew," wrote Margoshes. "But those who are aware of the sheer bankruptcy of this ostrich-like policy, and are desirous of proclaiming their affiliation with the Jewish people, will find in their Hebrew registration blank one of the most dignified forms of expressing their Jewish allegiance." (2)

Despite such exhortations, however, Hebrew study in the public schools never really took off. A decade after its introduction in 1930, less than three percent of Jewish students in New York City's high schools were electing to study Hebrew. Even during the peak years of Hebrew study in the early 1950s, the subject failed to attract more than 7,000 students per year. Hebrew never attracted enrollment numbers comparable to foreign languages like French, Spanish and Latin.

This article traces the hard-fought battle to introduce Hebrew into the New York City public schools and explores the reasons why the experiment ultimately fell short. …