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IAP course delivers Hebrew in hours

The IAP Hebrew literacy marathon held Jan. 25 and 26 promised to teach 25 students what it takes many a child in Hebrew school five or six years to learn -- to read Hebrew out loud.

Initially, I had my doubts.

Taught by Hasia Richman, a native of Israel who is now a Boston-based Hebrew teacher, the class was divided into two, four-hour sections, each lasting from 4-8 p.m. in the Small Dining Room of W11.

With varying degrees of experience, my classmates and I were a diverse mix of current MIT students, alumni and MIT staff members.

Senior Victoria Chou, an electrical engineering and computer science major, had never taken a Hebrew class and did not know the Hebrew alphabet, or "aleph-bet" as it is known in Hebrew.

"It just seemed like a good way to broaden my horizons," said Chou who was reading close to comfortably by the end of the class. While Chou was not surprised that the class delivered on its promise, others were.

"I am so impressed by the people with no Jewish heritage who took this course and learned so much," said Sasha Devore, a Ph.D. candidate in the speech and hearing bioscience and technology program.

As a child, Devore learned a couple letters of the alphabet, but decided to come to the marathon to "reconnect" with the Jewish side of her family. She was surprised by how quickly she picked up the reading. "This has been a lot of fun," she said.

I had studied some Hebrew, but that was years ago. Since then, I've barely seen the language, so I was amazed how quickly it came back. By the end of the first four hours, I was reading Hebrew and, after completing the homework, was able to recite the alphabet as though I had never forgotten it.

Aided by cookies, dried fruit and clementines in the center of the large table we squeezed around, each of us was called upon to read and practice. No one was exempt, and we all learned quickly.

"Honestly, I was skeptical at first," said Rachel Shiffrin, MIT Hillel's program director who helped bring the class back to MIT for another session. Last year, the Hebrew marathon was offered in the fall, but was taught by someone else.

The first day, all 25 of us learned parts of the "Aleph-bet," although not in order. We also learned the vowels -- dots and lines that surround the letter and aid the pronunciation. The vowels in Hebrew are not part of the alphabet and are not commonly used in Israel or in religious texts. The idea is to eventually understand Hebrew well enough not to need the vowels, but that takes years. Since we only had eight hours, all of our reading included the vowels.

By the end of the second day, all of us -- even those who had never glanced at a Hebrew text -- were reading common phrases and Jewish prayers with very little coaching.

Richman does not understand why Hebrew school students take years to learn to read, she said. To her, an eight-hour marathon is the ideal way to start.

Five minutes into the class on Jan. 25, Richman promised, "You will not be able to speak or understand spoken Hebrew, but you will be able to read." By Jan. 26, she had delivered.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 1, 2006 (download PDF).

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