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Learning the Alphabet

Learning the Alphabet

 Learning the Alphabet: A Poignant Tradition

​Learning to read and write is among the most exciting of life's experiences. We are told that the characters we see on the page are coded messages and we are eager to crack the code and understand what the characters mean. A new world is revealed to us then. The process is a gradual one and little by little, we try, memorize, learn, stumble, experiment, and the words begin to take shape. This is a dramatic time in our lives, often fraught with difficulties and frustration. Ordinarily, we only come to appreciate its significance with the benefit of hindsight, when we are experienced readers and writers. In affluent 21st century societies, children begin writing after several years of exposure to the written word. They are literally surrounded by letters, words and sentences and many learn to read to some degree from their informal encounters with the world of reading and writing. Still, the starting point of formal learning, the first step on the educational path, is the acquisition of literacy. Whether we come to school already knowing how to read, or merely familiar with characters and the idea that they carry meaning, we all sit in first grade and are taught reading and writing.
The ability to read Hebrew has always been a hallmark of Jewish society throughout the world. Among Jews, the literacy rate was markedly high. In certain places, instruction in reading and writing Hebrew began as early as age three. Mastery of the language, at least the ability to read, was essential to the integration of the child in the everyday life of the community, in prayer and study. Moreover, communities that spoke Jewish languages (Ladino, Yiddish, Jewish-Arabic, Jewish-Farsi, etc.) wrote these languages in Hebrew script.  Thus, the Hebrew alphabet became a cultural conduit.
 
Today various methods of teaching reading and writing are employed. This is true of many modern languages, including Hebrew. However, unlike the vast majority of written languages, Hebrew has a past: thousands of years of reading, writing and religious and literary written works. This makes an examination of the various methods used to teach reading and writing in Hebrew especially fascinating.
 

 

 

 
It is immediately clear from the sources which characteristics have remained more or less constant. Hebrew reading is taught using vocalized characters at first. In other words, each of the letters is learned along with each of the diacritical vowels (kamatz, patach, segol, tsere, etc.) Actually, the young student is taught to express syllables by learning to recognize characters and sounds. Through learning to associate the written form with the sound, the child begins to acquire reading skills. Pages, notebooks bearing row upon row of vocalized Hebrew are testament to countless choruses of little voices sounding out the litany of Aleph kamatz – AH, Bet kamatz BAH.
 
Yet not everything has remained the same over the generations.  The learning of letters and vowels by way of syllables was accompanied by beginner "readers". These are common teaching materials given to beginner readers, which progress from words, to phrases and then to sentences. Some readers contain only individual words and it is worth considering why those particular words were selected, why they appear in a particular order, and how they are reflective of the stage of learning.  Is the choice solely didactic or a value-based, religious? To what degree does the reader direct the learner toward the prayer book or other sacred texts? In cases of more modern readers, one can ask what cultural and technological realities they reflect. And from a didactic point of view, do the examples stress differences or demonstrate confusing similarities in order to force the learner to read carefully?

The National Library holds some 1,500 items related to the learning of Hebrew reading and writing. This volume surprised the curators of the online exhibition presented here. Textbooks and unbound teaching materials were not considered collectibles. Children used them and the materials were generally prone to wear and tear. Moreover, under Ottoman Rule, during the British Mandate and in the early days of the State of Israel, there was no obligation to preserve educational materials in a national library. Nevertheless, the National Library possesses an enormous cache of materials on this subject. These materials are testament to the importance Jews assigned to mastery of Hebrew and they are part of our cultural persona. The materials presented here are one example of the depth and richness of the National Library in Jerusalem's cultural treasures, now available to both scholars and the general public.
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