Teaching Hebrew Bible in Eastern Europe

My observations on teaching Hebrew and Hebrew Bible in Lithuania so far…

First, I was pleased and surprised at the level of interest in Hebrew at our small (mostly) undergraduate school. I started out with seven students, including one faculty colleague and one study-abroad. Most of them ended up dropping the class, which seems typical based on my experience taking Hebrew at various levels. But the initial interest was promising.

Teaching language to folks who already know multiple languages seems much easier than teaching folks who only know one language. One of my students is an American who has lived in Klaipėda for five years (her father is on faculty here), and the other is Ukrainian. Each is familiar with (or fluent in!) several different languages, including Lithuanian, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, German, and Greek. Even though Hebrew is not related to any of those languages, their familiarity with the sorts of differences between languages enables them to pick up features of Hebrew that differ from English. They all understand a case system, the importance (or unimportance) of word-order, gender agreement between nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc. Bottom line: I haven’t needed to spend as much time explaining those things as I would in an American classroom.

Finally, another difference between teaching Hebrew and Hebrew Bible (not to mention New Testament) here is that there is very little familiarity with Jewish concepts and symbols, compared with North America. Growing up in the Northeast (and the son of a Brooklyn Jew!), all my friends knew Jews from school or the neighborhood, saw Jews on television, drove by synagogues with Hebrew letters on a marquee, heard about Jewish issues in the media, and saw Judaica in their friends’ homes and store windows. Here, there’s almost none of that because of pogroms, the Shoah, and migration of Jews to the US or Israel. The history of Jews in the Baltic republics is very sad; a higher percentage of Lithuanian Jews lost their lives than the Jews of any other country during WWII. Most of my LCC students (with the exception of North American study-abroads) don’t know any Jews, never saw menorot in windows in December, never had friends who ate matzot in March–you get the idea.

So, the cultural aspect of reading the Jewish scripture (and Jewish elements in the New Testament) is completely new to them. This comes up in Hebrew class when we discuss the perpetual ketiv/qere for YHWH/Adonai. When we study Pentateuch, there’s no “Aha!” moment when they connect this or that festival in the text to their personal experience with Jewish friends. There’s no hostility that I’ve perceived–just less familiarity and weaker interest than I was prepared to presume in my teaching.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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