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Another Semitic Tongue Finds a Place at Barrack

April 29, 2010 By:
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Middle-school students at Barrack offered different reasons why they wanted to learn Arabic. The class is part of a pilot program. Photos by Bryan Schwartzman

"Don't look at me. I know I'm handsome. Look at the page," David Rabeeya said playfully to his sixth- and seventh-grade students before switching back to Arabic.

"Uskoot," Rabeeya said a bit more forcefully. The septuagenarian somehow managed to come across as both jovial and stern as he made perhaps the most common classroom request in any language: "Quiet."

A few minutes earlier, he had invited his students at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, one by one, to write on the blackboard. It might just have looked like squiggly lines to the uninitiated, but these kids were getting the hang of a new alphabet, according to their teacher.

"I am so delighted that most of you have finally figured out how to write your names in Arabic and how to write the Arabic alphabet," he said.

He then asked the 14 students to repeat several phrases and explained how they offered a window into the mindset of Arabic speakers. The teacher, who has a Ph.D. in Arabic, explained that the common expression, Inshallah, or "God willing," conveys a sense that even the most mundane aspects of life are out of the hands of the individual and controlled by Allah.

It's similar to several phrases in the Jewish tradition, and in effect reveals a commonality between Jews and Arabs, he said.

The kids have been learning the idiom for all of five weeks now. The elective class is part of the day school's yearlong experiment with the language. Barrack is offering two groups of students the chance to learn in what officials are calling an "exploratory" fashion.

Some 12th-graders also got an introduction to the Semitic language in the fall.

For now, the course is relegated to elective status, but Steven M. Brown, Barrack's head of school -- who has pushed for the addition of Arabic to the curriculum since taking the helm three years ago -- said that he hopes to implement the subject on an even larger scale. He wants it to be a full-fledged alternative to taking other offered languages offerered, such as French, Spanish and Latin.

Beginning in eighth grade, students must choose a second language to study five days a week, in addition to learning Hebrew.

Barrack has joined a handful of Jewish day schools in New York, Maryland and North Carolina in teaching Arabic.

More Kids Learning It

On the whole, there's been a substantial increase in the number of public and private K-12 schools nationwide teaching the subject, according to the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint project of Georgetown and George Washington universities, and the Center for Applied Linguistics.

A survey released this month by the institution found that Arabic is being offered in 313 schools in 40 states, reaching a minimum of 47,000 students.

Brown cited several reasons why he's pushed for the inclusion of the language in the curriculum.

"If we are ever going to make peace with our enemies, understanding their culture and language will be crucial to rapprochement," Brown said during an interview in the school's cafeteria. He also cited the fact that Arabic is one of Israel's two official languages.

"When the kids go to Israel, they are looking forward to the fact that they might be able to speak to an Arab in his or her language," said Brown. It also happens to be a little easier to learn with a grounding in Hebrew, since the languages share many of the same roots and some common vocabulary.

He acknowledged that some parents perhaps privately "raised their eyebrows," but that starting the class didn't elicit any outward complaints.

The head of school noted that having Rabeeya already on staff as a Hebrew teacher made it much easier to introduce the course. Born in Iraq, Rabeeya is a native Arabic speaker who fought in the Six-Day War for Israel before coming to the United States permanently.

Another factor that made the class feasible, Brown noted, is that administrators were able to find a textbook that wasn't full of anti-Israel propaganda -- not necessarily an easy thing to do.

The book they did choose had one problem, said Brown. It didn't show Israel on its map of the Middle East.

Rabeeya said that he wrote to the publisher, EMC Publishing, and that representatives said they would make a correction in the next edition.

Kerrie Goughnoure, marketing manager at EMC, said that she couldn't confirm that correspondence.

The map in question in the original 2007 printing, she said, specifically labels countries that are in the "Arab world."

Goughnoure said that editors plan to review the map and its heading before the second printing appears, but that she couldn't guarantee that Israel would be included.

When the students in the Barrack class were asked why they wanted to learn Arabic, almost every hand in the class shot up. The responses were as varied as the letters of the alphabet.

Middle-schooler Sam Engle suggested that knowing the language would look great on a college application.

He also said that "if we have to find directions, if we are in Israel, a lot of people speak Arabic and not necessarily Hebrew."

Amos Epelman explained that "we have a lot of enemies who are Arabic, but killing people isn't the solution. If we learn their culture and how to talk with them, that can help us solve everything."

Gabrielle Hoessly, whose grandparents were born in Tunisia, and spoke French and Arabic, said that she was interested in the class because she wanted to better understand her own Sephardic roots.

"My parents didn't really know I wanted to speak Arabic, and they were actually going to pull me out, and I told my mom I wanted to stay," explained Hoessly. "And my grandparents were like so happy, they were like, 'Oh my God!' "

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