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FRONTAL FREE: Anglicization

Dave Smolar is co-founder of Kikayon Productions, creating turn-key solutions for Jewish education. Our “TORAH TIME LIVE!” Parashah Play series is now for sale! From Creation to Mt. Sinai, click on “Our Store” for more!

As a creative Jewish educator, it’s important for me to reach as many people as possible with my work. As I create “turn-key programs,” i.e. plays and games that parents and teachers simply print out, make some copies, and give to your kids to read and perform, there are a few unique issues I face. Above all, I want my projects and programs to be inclusive, to make participants feel a part of the Jewish world. To that end, long ago, I had to decide whether names and terminology I use should be written in Hebrew or transliterated into English. Ultimately, I thought it safest to transliterate.

Transliteration, writing Hebrew words by sounding them out using English letters, is not all it’s cracked up to be. For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in an area called Qumran. To get kids to pronounce it, I’d spell it something like “Koomran”, but no book would ever list it that way. Using the letter “Q” to represent a hard “K” sound is old school, I know. But when and who should update the transliteration alphabet? Isn’t the ultimate goal, really, to get folks to pronounce words properly? Then again, we’re talking about teaching using standard modern Hebrew, not colloquial, not Ashkenazic drawls or Yiddish accents. At least, I am.

But when it comes to inclusion, we argue more on a cultural level than anything else. Imagine I give you a play for kids based on a story in the Torah, and the lead character is Moshe. If a family grew up in a non-religious household but wanted to start adding more Judaism to their lives – hence the reason they send a kid to Hebrew school – they’ll know who Moses is but might not recognize the name as Moshe.

If I consistently refer to him as Moshe, in discussions as well as in classroom materials, then the child would possibly go home and start referring to him as Moshe instead of Moses. And the parents will feel alienated. They might even feel offended, like I’m presumptuously teaching the Hebrew names as if to say their use of English names wasn’t good enough. And then they’ll feel betrayed, by the school and the synagogue. These things do happen, and if and when they come to pass, it works completely against the underlying goal of fostering inclusion and strengthening Jewish identity in the student’s life.

Still, it’s important for me to use every opportunity I have to teach students Hebrew, in any way, shape, or form. When I teach Torah straight from the text, especially because I’m using the opportunity also to help boost the students’ Hebrew reading skills, I refer to the names as they appear in the Torah. And if I’m teaching a moral concept prevalent in Judaism, I’ll introduce it using the Hebrew term, like Tzedakah or Chesed. I’ll first write it for them in Hebrew as we discuss it. Then I’ll insist on students reading and pronouncing it themselves.

In fact, because transliteration becomes a crutch for someone learning and practicing reading Hebrew, I almost never use it in the classroom. However, I sometimes use it as an exercise where I give students some Hebrew words and have them transliterate them on the board, then ask the rest of the class if and how they’d adjust the letters used. It’s a great gaming exercise that makes them really think outside the box, besides getting them to function across 2 languages with 2 alphabets!

In my written works, especially the “Torah Time Live!” parashah play series, I’ve been developing a method of offering the students both the Anglicized version and the transliterated version of the names of the folks in the plays and stories. But in the body of the play, I only use the transliterated Hebrew names. So students can refer to the chart at the top of the play to make sure they know which person is which, but throughout the play and in subsequent discussions, we use only the Hebrew names. At some point, I only spell the names out in Hebrew.

And as time goes on, I take the opportunity to teach the students any origin stories I have regarding the characters’ names. This furthers the grammar discussion on recognizing shoreshim, root structures of Hebrew words, the bedrock of reading Hebrew. So teaching the students to refer to Torah characters by their proper Hebrew names not only deepens students’ connection to the Torah, it broadens their understanding of the important of Hebrew in their lives. And sometimes, it gets them to question and explore their own Hebrew names and take ownership thereof.

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