The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies maintains expertise in Judaic languages, history, religion and culture, providing a deep understanding of Jews and Judaism through time and across cultures. The center's faculty, courses and lecture series, among other offerings, provide numerous educational opportunities. The center also works to enrich the lives of individuals by offering scholarship on one of the oldest and most influential civilizations in history.
Despite the resurgence of Hebrew, especially in the legal, business and political domains, few public institutions of higher education in the United States offer programs enabling students to explore Israeli culture while developing fluency in the Hebrew language.
During the fall of 2014, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona developed and introduced a new, advanced modern Hebrew course for undergraduate and graduate students: "Hebrew and Popular Culture," or JUS 453/553. Based on the success of its first semester, the course has been reintroduced this spring.
The unique course, structured as a small seminar, offers students the opportunity to examine Israeli language and culture and its portrayal through different facets of media.
"Our goals in creating this course was for the students to acquire proficiency and communicative skills in Hebrew through the use of various outlets of popular culture, such as Israeli television shows and news items," said Anat Maimon, the coordinator of the UA's Hebrew program.
One of the important outcomes of the fall course was a 65-page book, which the class collectively produced and edited as a final project. Students and faculty are now working to self-publish the book, which originally was developed to underline the importance of the course as it pertains to bridging the gap between language proficiency and conversational fluency.
The book contains information about the course and brief biographies of students and faculty members, providing readers with a snapshot of the various topics discussed throughout the semester. While the vast majority of the book's content is written in Hebrew, the class provided a 15-page addendum of selected translations in English.
In addition to working on the book, students were able to put foundational linguistic skills to use and work toward mastering conversational proficiency when interacting with other Hebrew speakers.
At the beginning of the semester, class members chose several episodes of "Arab Labor," filmmaker Sayed Kashua's acclaimed Israeli sitcom, to examine and critique. Each episode depicted a satirical portrayal of the variety of stereotypes and prejudices that exist on both sides of the conflict in the Middle East.
Students also reviewed and discussed scientific and cultural articles from Israeli newspapers and online video news broadcasts. Each week, they were assigned news articles to review and were required to prepare oral presentations about their perspectives and opinions to present in class.
During the course, students are encouraged to speak freely, discussing their opinions and perspectives, said Uri Maimon, an adjunct instructor with the UA center.
"We were able to discuss many important subjects that concern almost every society in the world without falling into the trap of political debate," said Uri Maimon, who co-teaches the course. "What we especially enjoyed was that, throughout the semester, we were able to explore many different topics through the human aspect rather than the political one."
In addition to perspectives about current events portrayed in Israeli media and film, the book also contains a creative short story by Kamilia Rahmouni, a UA doctoral candidate studying in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Titled "A conversation between a girl and a flower," the story describes a child who has experienced great loss in a time of war, questioning humanity's objective before requesting peace in the world.
"As the semester comes to a conclusion, we feel that we have achieved our goals very successfully — the students did an amazing job of researching the different facets of Israeli culture and were able to express their impressions in a very clear and creative way," Anat Maimon said. "Every session was an enriching experience both to us and the students, and it was very rewarding to learn about how students' experiences relate to the topics discussed in weekly news items and to Israeli culture."
Class members found value in the group's diversity. For example, when talking about issues regarding conflict in the Middle East, being able to share the perspectives of individuals from different social backgrounds helped facilitate productive discussions.
"I liked that we came from different backgrounds," said Daniela Tascarella, a UA senior studying Judaic studies and political science. "It was really insightful to hear other people's perspectives and perceptions of issues we covered pertaining to Israel and modern culture."
The importance of continuing to offer students such opportunities to study Hebrew cannot be underestimated, several class members said.
Sarah Sandlaufer, a UA senior majoring in psychology, said that when she goes back to Israel in the future, she knows she will be going with a much stronger understanding of the Hebrew language and Israeli culture.
"This course has dramatically improved my conversational abilities and has given me vital tools, which will benefit me far beyond graduation," Sandlaufer said.
Lyndall Herman, a doctoral candidate in the UA's School of Middle East and North African Studies, added that the exposure to multiple native speakers, as well as the emphasis on listening and speaking, was key in helping her attain a level of comfort with the language.
"The student-focused and student-led nature of the course provided an amazing learning environment, and a great learning experience. Being able to interact multiple times a week in such an intimate learning environment and at such an advanced level with my student peers was extremely valuable," Herman said.
She explained that fourth-year Hebrew was vital in her quest to reach the ability to comfortably engage in conversation with native Hebrew speakers.
"I feel like I can actually interact with native speakers in everyday situations," Herman explained. "It's only with this past semester of Hebrew that I've actually reached a level of comfort and can recognize enough vocabulary to survive daily interactions with other speakers."