"There Is No Time More Pleasurable Than When I Converse in the Sacred Language": A Plan for the Revival of Spoken Hebrew in Nineteenth Century Italy

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The view that Eliezer Ben-Yehudah was the pedagogical pioneer who first applied contemporary language methodology to the teaching of Hebrew in the 1880s has been challenged in recent scholarship. Nissim Behar, who employed Ben-Yehudah at a school he headed in Palestine, introduced the "Hebrew via Hebrew" approach at a Jewish school in Constantinople in 1874. (1) Earlier still, however, some Jewish pedagogues trained young learners to speak Hebrew, using textbooks modeled on contemporary foreign language instruction. The textbooks featured dialogues demonstrating how to use Hebrew to converse in daily life. Among these manuals, Leone Reggio's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Studio pratico della lingua santa stands out for its thorough assimilation of contemporary methods for studying modern languages. (2) While some features of Practical Study were paralleled in other Hebrew grammars used in nineteenth century Italian Jewish communities, only Reggio's textbook took full advantage of the strategies of foreign language pedagogy current in his day, and only Reggio explicitly linked his teaching strategies to the goal of making Hebrew into a living vernacular whose use would not be limited to religious and academic contexts. The overall arrangement of Practical Study was shaped by the idea that Hebrew could be a living, spoken language, and the author's conviction that this language would soon become the Jewish national idiom pervades the book. (3) In this article, I begin by presenting a sketch of Hebrew language education in Italy during the first half of the nineteenth century, describing the types of textbooks and grammars that were in use during the years that Reggio was developing his strategies for teaching Hebrew. A detailed examination of Practical Study follows, highlighting the characteristics that distinguish it from other conversation-oriented Hebrew manuals, in particular its secular orientation. This study contributes to an enriched understanding of the didactic experiments pursued in the diaspora to restore Hebrew as a vehicle for spoken communication--strategies that foreshadowed the revival of the language in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century.

2. Hebrew Instruction in Mid-Nineteenth Century Italy

The debate concerning the role of Hebrew in Jewish culture in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe laid the foundation for the eventual revival of the language. (4) In Hebrew-language periodicals, revivalists articulated their agenda and fostered literary creativity. They proposed strategies for adapting Hebrew to the needs of modern times, including the enlargement of the lexi con. Traditional Jews resisted these proposals, maintaining that the "sacred language" should not be profaned by its use as a vernacular. Some Jewish intellectuals, pointing to the emergence of national languages in Europe as a compelling example, engaged in intense and sophisticated debates over the role of Hebrew as a language that could unite European Jewry. (5)

The revival of Hebrew as a literary language, a signal achievement of the Haskalah, was less influential in Italy than in central and eastern Europe; in fact, general interest in Hebrew waned during the first half of the nineteenth century, jeopardizing its position in the elementary school curriculum. (6) A handful of Jewish intellectuals and educators made a concerted effort to reverse this decline, hoping that interest in the language would help to preserve religious values. Elsewhere in Europe, the literary revival flourished in newspapers and journals, but in Italy proper no Hebrew-language periodicals were published. (7) L'Educatore Israelita, a journal devoted to Italian Jewish culture founded in 1853, provided a forum for debating--in Italian--strategies to encourage the study of Hebrew. Points of contention included when children should begin their grammatical studies and whether they should begin with Hebrew or Italian, but most educators agreed that translation and composition should be emphasized over the acquisition of grammatical rules. …