The Jewish Nomad: A deeper dive into what Jewish day school did for me (and didn’t do)

Ilana Zackon’s view from Cesarea during her last trip to Israel—while trying hard to remember how to describe it in Hebrew.

We talked about the Jewish day school system, on this past week’s episode of Bonjour Chai.

And boy, did we ever. With a panel of three other staff members from The Canadian Jewish News joining us three regular podcast hosts, we had a wide range of opinions presented.

We heard from parents on why they did or didn’t choose to send their kids to day school, former students’ experiences, and had a discussion on current trends.

Here’s a bit more on my own personal experience…

I feel proud that I had a really solid education at both Hebrew Foundation School, in the West Island of Montreal, and Herzliah High School, which was in Ville Saint-Laurent at the time. 

For the first three grades, my day was split between French and Hebrew. English class only entered the picture in Grade 4. (I learned to read and write at home, not to worry.)

My trilingualism was like a superpower I didn’t know I had—until I left Quebec. 

Most of my friends in B.C. and Toronto had very mediocre French, and various degrees of passable Hebrew.

Somehow, despite studying in three languages, I had an amazing secular and religious education.

However, no one warned me: “if you don’t use it, you lose it!”

When I entered CEGEP, I suddenly had one French class a week, and zero Hebrew. 

About a year later, I visited Israel–this was only a couple of years after my high school graduation, keep in mind–and my Hebrew was on-point. Many Israelis I met even asked me if I had grown up in the Holy Land. 

I was perfectly fluent. In fact, my grades had been better in Hebrew, than in French.

But since that last trip, unbeknownst to even myself, I started to get rusty as heck. The language simply wasn’t relevant to my daily life anymore.

A few years later, I was touring a children’s show across Canada. We had a bit at the end of the performance where we signed autographs for the kids. (It was a Disney-style show.) 

I heard a family approaching the stage while talking in Hebrew.

I got super-excited. “Wow! An opportunity to bust out my amazing Hebrew chops.”

But then, when I opened my mouth to speak, it was like someone had chopped off a part of my brain.

I had kept up my French over the years from working in cafés in very francophone parts of Montreal, and making a point to use it when I visited my family back home after I moved away. Hebrew didn’t get the same workout.

And the weird thing about speaking multiple languages is sometimes they all jumble in your head. So, as I stood there in front of this Israeli family, I knew I knew the words but they just weren’t coming.

I managed to get out: “I speak Hebrew” in their native tongue.

As I tried to say more, the thoughts came to me in French. Gah!

Needless to say, they didn’t seem very impressed. Yet, even though I only said one sentence, I still thought it was pretty cool. 

I mean, how often do you see a Disney-style show where the princess can speak Hebrew? C’mon! Give me some cred, at least.

But anyway, it was the strangest feeling. Like, I knew the words I wanted to say in Hebrew, and I knew I knew how to say them—but they were so deeply buried.

It built up a massive frustration, almost like I had lost my memories. 

This type of interaction happened a number of times over the years that followed, and then one day I decided it needed to change.

I pushed myself past the frustration and forced myself to speak Hebrew with my Israeli friends in Vancouver, asking them to correct me and remind me of the words I’d forgotten.

I usually knew when I was wrong, I just couldn’t quite remember what was right.

And then when they told me the correct word, I felt like a dingo. “Of course! I knew that.”

Needless to say, my Hebrew has come a long way since that embarrassing interaction on tour. But there’s still more work that needs to be done.

It makes me wonder: what are ways we can make the language relevant past day school?

We use it for reading in shul, or a sense of connection when visiting Israel, but that’s about it.

Maybe it’s time for the community to step up the Hebrew game, and make it more integrated into our daily lives.

For example, the camp I attended growing up was very Zionist and integrated the language into every activity. It was like living on a kibbutz. (During colour war, your team even lost points if you weren’t speaking Hebrew!)

If we want to keep our Hebrew up, maybe we need more immersive experiences in the activities at our local Jewish Community Centres, for example.

And, more importantly, classes for people who might’ve aced Hebrew in high school but haven’t used it in a decade or more.

If you know of anything that fits the bill, hit me up.

In the meantime, I’ll keep at it. 

Todah, chaverim!

(And, if you read this far, you’ll love listening to the rest of the discussion: “Do Jewish day schools actually work?”)

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai