The year was 1923. Hayim Nahman Bialik, then in Berlin, wrote a congratulatory letter to the editors of Dvir, a new journal of Jewish Studies that was launched in Berlin and published only in Hebrew. Bialik's letter was reprinted as the headpiece of the first issue: the founding of a journal of Jewish Studies in Hebrew in the birthplace of modern Jewish Studies was an occasion for celebration—"for reciting the She-hehiyonu." Bialik hoped that Western Jewish scholars were finally recognizing that "translated Judaism," which he claimed was an invention of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, was misbegotten from the start. Jewish Studies should be transacted only in Hebrew. Judaism is untranslatable.
How distant is Bialik's vision of such a Hebrew utopia now, and how contrary to the present state of Jewish Studies. I have been at Middlebury College for most of thirty years, hired to teach Jewish Studies and Classical Hebrew, and yet, as at other liberal arts colleges with minor and occasionally major programs in Jewish Studies, a vanishingly small number of students pursue Hebrew study for the purpose of unlocking the literary treasure trove of Jewish tradition. A few want to read the Bible.
I sympathize with Bialik's motives, if not with his plea for linguistic exclusivity: to read Hebrew texts with students means to escort them behind the veil of translation, to reveal etymology—I recall, for instance, my own thrill as an undergrad at learning that "to exile" connoted "to lay the land bare," or that the verb system of Classical Hebrew indicated a foreign conception of tense and time. And yet now it is the rare college student who will have similar experiences. The MLA statistics tell the story*: the study of Hebrew is in decline. In the four years ending in 2013, Biblical Hebrew declined by 8.7% and even Modern Hebrew by 19.4% (!). Over a decade ago, when Peter Cole visited Middlebury to give a course on the medieval poets he was collecting for his anthology The Dream of the Poem, four advanced students of Classical Hebrew were eager to meet with him weekly to read the original texts. That clientele no longer exists. Even the famed University of Wisconsin Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies eliminated its BA program in Biblical Hebrew. To be sure, Middlebury's summer school in Hebrew is thriving, drawing graduate students, undergraduates, and many professionals from government service, but the college's regular year-round courses in Modern Hebrew, like those at its sister institutions, do not fill.
Thus, it seems that nearly a century after Bialik's Ashkenazic-accented "Shehehiyonu" fewer students are interested in Classical Hebrew as the language of a long literary tradition. The shrinking number of undergraduates who do study Hebrew enroll in courses in Modern Hebrew, the key to the vital contemporary Israeli scene. Their interest is the Israeli present, not the Jewish literature of the diasporic past. Whereas Bialik sought to sustain the connection between the Hebrew literary past and the vernacular coming alive in his day, its seems to me that present trends will allow that past to recede from the field of vision of a likewise diminishing number of students.
* David Goldberg et al., Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013 (Modern Language Association of America, Web publication February 2015).