by Moshe Levin
Translated by Amy Samin
As the Zionist movement spread throughout the Diaspora there came the idea of reviving the Hebrew language. It's obvious, said the proponents of the idea, because it would be impossible to describe the renewal of nationalist Jewish life in the Land of Israel without the existence of the national language as the private property of the people. This lofty idea also stirred the hearts of some of the youth of our people in our small town of Goniadz in the Bialystok region, which at that time belonged to Russia.
At that time in the first years of the twentieth century there was in our town a group of about fifteen youths, some of whom were students at the Bialystok and Łomża yeshiva, - who began to diligently study, in addition to their studies in Gemara, outside subjects [secular subjects].
The place of study was the House of Study, where the youth would pass their time in the study of Gemara. Upon completing their studies in Talmud, they would remove their outside books from their hiding places and begin studying the Hebrew language, literature and grammar, Tanah [Bible], foreign languages, particularly Russian language and grammar, with great diligence and enthusiasm. Later, they also began studying mathematics, science and geography.
Among the members of that group, Yitzhak Yaffe was noted for his knowledge, and it was to him that the students would turn with their questions about things they didn't understand. Eventually, Yitzhak was accepted as a student into some pedagogical courses in Grodno. After completing his studies there he immigrated to
the Land of Israel where he became the principal of the elementary school in Rehovot.
The members of this group, as they gained more knowledge, began to influence others in the town, who became interested in Hebrew literature. The number of people who could read Hebrew increased. A small library was founded, where the youth would gather in the evenings and pass their time reading and discussing matters of interest in the Jewish world at that time.
During that time, there arose in the students the desire to speak the Hebrew language. Several of them set themselves the task of fulfilling this aspiration, despite the ridicule of several of their disbelieving friends, who said that it was impossible to make use of Hebrew as a spoken language. How could one, they said, use that language to speak of everyday matters if there is no word for such things as ‘clock’ or ‘gazette’ or ‘railway’? To this question our dear friend, Yoel Meir Cohen of blessed memory, who excelled at inspiring others as well as in the Hebrew language and its literature, responded, Just because you do not know our language, since you are too lazy to learn it, we should abandon our lofty aspiration? Tell me, please, the origins of the word clock from the Polish word zeiger, gazette from the Russian word gazatta, or the word railway from the German word eisen-
-ban and the like. If you would make the effort, friends, to learn our national language, you will become convinced that your opinion of our language as lacking in everyday words is mistaken. In our modern Hebrew literature there already exist many of the words necessary for everyday conversations, and our authors are updating words to apply to daily usage, as an attribute of our language and its essence: the main thing is we must learn this literature.
Conversations such as this, which took place frequently, greatly influenced the youth of our town, and encouraged them to study the Hebrew language and its literature diligently.
At the same time, a modern heder [Talmud Torah school] was founded in our town, where the study of the Hebrew language was introduced as a special subject.
One of the first students in the modern heder was our dear friend Yosef Halfran, whose father Efraim of blessed memory was one of its founders. Of course, study was done with the help of translation into Yiddish, but even so there was in the founding of the heder a sort of important renewal which introduced
the study of the Hebrew language as a special subject. This was seen as an important advancement in the education of the children of our town.
In those days (1906 1910), after the failure of the Russian revolution, which ended in pogroms against the Jews, the Zionist movement gained strength. Many of the Jewish youth in our town joined the associations Zairei Zion [Youth of Zion] and Poale Zion [Workers of Zion], which were involved in a bitter struggle with the Bund, which was opposed to the nationalist idea. Thus the ambition to learn the Hebrew language spread amongst them. Once the desire to speak the Hebrew language amongst themselves took hold, the number of youths doing so grew by leaps and bounds. Knowledge of and conversations in the Hebrew language amongst the students became more wide-spread when I began teaching them using the new Hebrew in Hebrew method as it was called.
The first time this instruction took place with some difficulty. The children had a difficult time understanding the explanations, and their speech was hesitant and artificial. It was difficult for them to convey their thoughts on even clear and simple matters, because
they lacked the words and the pronunciation required.
But after a short time it was as if there was a sudden revolution in the children's use of the Hebrew language. They began to understand the explanations and to answer questions without any particular difficulty. Their answers were brief, but they were clear and comprehensible. This progress encouraged the children, who began speaking Hebrew amongst themselves without too much effort.
This sudden, positive change which brought with it the development of Hebrew speech amongst my students raised my spirits as well as those of my young wife, who was also one of my students.
From this day on… my wife said our home will be a true Jewish home where we will only speak Hebrew. That instruction was immediately put into effect. Our friends, who often gathered at our house, were also compelled to speak only Hebrew.
Later, when our eldest daughter Shulamit, may she rest in peace, was born, we decided that her mother tongue would be Hebrew. We kept to this decision completely. Thus ours was the first Hebrew household in the Diaspora and our daughter Shulamit was the first girl in the Diaspora who was raised and educated in our national language.
When the First World War broke out, our town of Goniadz was occupied by the Germans (1915). In those days the Germans still treated
our people fairly and in a cultured manner. After the occupation, most of the Jewish residents returned to the town, after having been expelled by the Russians. With their return, the question of education for the children was raised, because there were only a few teachers, not enough to educate all of the children of the town. On the one hand, there were many parents who were not at all comfortable with the study arrangements of a traditional heder. Apart from that, the question came up of education for girls, who prior to that time had been educated in the Russian school. At first, I was hesitant to present my idea to them to open a school for fear that it could be that G-d was not on my side and I would be unable to put my idea into action. Nevertheless, a few parents approached me, among them Mr. Efraim Halfran of blessed memory, proposing that I take this problem (as they expressed it), in hand. After I clarified for them the difficulties involved in the matter, I told them I will give you my answer in a day or two.
That same night, I invited two of my best students over: Yoel Meir Cohen and Shimon Halfran of blessed memory, who excelled in their knowledge of both Hebrew and general studies. I put forward the proposal of the parents, and I inquired whether they would be willing to join me in founding a school and to work there as teachers. I also explained to them the great difficulties inherent in the task of realizing the idea of establishing a Hebrew elementary school especially given the fact that we had no textbooks for any of the general subjects not arithmetic, not science, and not
geography. Could we create something from nothing? In spite of all of the difficulties, we felt obligated to make every effort to put this plan into action and to found a proper and well-organized Hebrew school, such as every other people in the world have. If we could actually make this thing work, wouldn't that be a revolution in the education of Jewish children in the Diaspora, because from this experiment Jews in other cities in the Diaspora will see and do the same. The two answered me that they would be delighted to join me in founding the first Hebrew school in the Diaspora, and that they were willing to dedicate all their energies and abilities to this important nationalist work. Later we discussed various practical matters relating to the founding of the school, and we made various decisions. Between them, they also decided that in this school, boys and girls would study together.
The next day there was a gathering in one of the homes of the parents, and I informed them that I, together with Yoel Meir Cohen and Shimon Halfran, would take on the task of teaching in the school that was to be opened in our town. I also told them of the various decisions we had made in
our meeting the day before. In addition, I informed them that I had the permission of Mr. Yaacov Rudesky (who had not yet returned to his home) to open the school in his house, where I was also living at that time.
At that meeting, one of the parents announced that he already had ready the benches necessary for the school, and that he would bring them the next day and arrange them in the three rooms of the house of Mr. Yaacov Rudesky. Other parents took it upon themselves to supply the school with other necessary equipment, according to the list they would be given by the teachers.
The next morning, even before the benches had finished being arranged in the rooms, parents began to arrive to sign their children up for the school. Over the next two to three days, over eighty children were registered boys and girls.
After testing the children, we divided them into three grades. Only a few children were not accepted to the school, when it became clear they were not suited to any of the three classes. It was quite difficult for us to disappoint the parents and send their children home, but we weren't able to
accept them. It was a very unpleasant situation. However, my wife rescued us from the unpleasantness by offering to care for those children, until a place could be found for them.
After the testing, the teachers held a meeting wherein we discussed teaching methods. On the subject of the language of instruction there was no disagreement among us. It was obvious to all of us that we would soon begin teaching using the Hebrew in Hebrew method, that is to say, all instruction and explanation would be only in Hebrew, without using Yiddish at all. There were some disagreements as to how to actually put this method into operation. How would the teacher run the lessons, if the children didn't understand what he was saying? After much arguing, we reached certain decisions regarding the best and most suitable methods that the teacher must use to assure that the children understood him. Among other things, it was decided that in each class there would be some students who already knew some Hebrew who could answer the teacher's questions, and after them there would certainly be among the new children some who would be able to repeat the answers of the first to respond. In this manner the rest of the students would gradually begin participating in the lessons. We also decided that once a month a teacher would give a sample lesson, and afterwards the teachers would meet to discuss the quality of the lesson, its positive elements and its lacks, in order to fix mistakes and shortcomings.
These decisions brought great benefits: they greatly eased the work of instruction, and so the teachers made every effort to follow them precisely.
The greatest blessing was the sample lessons and the critiques that followed them. They greatly improved the work of the teachers, each of whom tried to find a number of innovations in teaching methods which did a great deal to facilitate the students' understanding of the subject being taught.
Every day after lessons were over, the teachers would gather to prepare the next day's lessons together. At the same time, I began writing textbooks for geography and science, which were published later by Tzantrel in Warsaw. I did this work after we had completed our daily preparation of lessons.
All in all we were very satisfied with our hard work, for we felt we were fulfilling a vital nationalist duty and were producing a new, valuable and lofty creation: we were building a national school, an original school, just like all of the other enlightened peoples of the world possessed.
Our students were also very pleased with their studies. They applied themselves diligently and with great enthusiasm to their studies, and made excellent progress in both their knowledge of Hebrew and of general subjects.
Many of the students learned their lessons by heart, for example chapters of the Tanah [Bible], various poems and articles, as well as certain things in geography, science and the like. Some of the children, a few months after the school opened, began speaking Hebrew amongst themselves even when not in school, even though it was not something required of them by their teachers.
There was never any problem with discipline. There was never an instance when a teacher complained about any shortcomings in the attentiveness of a student or a student's diligence in studying. The students' behavior was exceptional, and they always showed love and respect to their teachers. To this day, memories of those students come to my mind and heart, which is filled with love and longing for all of my dear students, both boys and girls, who are today scattered in various countries around the world. It is my hope that they have also not found it easy to forget me.
During that time, a young man named Yeroham Levin came to our town. He was one of the leaders of Tzairei Zion [Youth of Zion] in Bialystok (later a resident of the city of Afula in our Land). This young man, who was exceptional in his knowledge of the Hebrew language, came to my house and told me that a rumor had reached him of the founding of a Hebrew school in our town, and that he had come to see this great miracle with his own eyes, for he did not believe what he had heard. After visiting one of the lessons in the school, he said, I am very excited and thrilled by all I have seen and heard here today. As I listened to the lesson, it seemed to me as if I was seeing and hearing everything in a dream, and I remembered something that my grandmother once told me: man sometimes sees things so clearly in a night vision [dream] that it seems to him he is seeing it while awake. Only when
I began speaking with the children, and heard their clear and fluent speech in Hebrew, did I realize that it is not in a dream that I am seeing and hearing all of this, but in a real Hebrew elementary school. I am certain that this institution will bring about tremendous positive change in the method of educating our children in many countries of the Diaspora. Be strong, my dear friends, and you will be blessed.
When I told Yeroham Levin in the course of our conversation of the difficulties we faced in the creation of the correct terms for general studies, he told me that two young men from Bialystok who had studied in the Herzliya Gymnasia in Jaffa had recently returned home. Those young men had brought back with them lists of their studies, upon which appeared at least some of the terms we needed. He said he would send those lists to us upon his return home. After a few days we received the lists from him, though we found on them only a little of what we needed, though that little was of great benefit to us.
In its second year of existence, our school grew and the number of students reached 120. We opened
a new class and took on Yehonatan Neiman of blessed memory as a teacher. He was very young in years and even more so in his appearance, but he was so talented that he quickly adapted, with the help of his friends, to the work of teaching and after a short time became quite a good teacher.
After the new class had opened and students added to the other classes, the rooms in which they studied were too small to hold all of the children. In addition, there were parents who complained that it was too difficult for their small children to walk all the way to the other side of the town, along the river, in the winter. We therefore moved the school to a different flat in the center of town. The new flat had larger and nicer rooms than the first location and very much resembled a proper school.
Our friend Yehezkel Peretz Cherniak helped us with the move to the new flat and began to take an interest in the school, engaging in many activities for its benefit.
One day, after the school had been founded, there came into my classroom during the Tanah [Bible] lesson a man with a kindly face, who said good morning in German
and introduced himself as the school inspector for the occupied area. He said to me: You must certainly be studying Bible, for the children are wearing hats. He put his own hat on his head and asked which chapter we were studying. After I answered him, he said I could resume my lesson. He listened for about half an hour, and told me he wanted to assess the children. I did not object, and he asked them various questions on the subject we had learned. The children answered him in Hebrew, and I translated their answers into German. In the next lesson, he quizzed the children in arithmetic, and later went on to visit the other classes.
At the end of the lessons, after the children had gone home, the inspector gave us a summary of all he had found in the school, indicating the deficiencies he had found in the lessons and explaining how we had to repair the shortcomings. He gave us a valuable lesson in instruction. I thanked him for his remarks and explanations, and requested that he attend the sample lesson on the coming Friday.
Later he told us, Explain to me, please, why you go to all the trouble of preparing lists for all of the general subjects that you teach? I can offer you all of the necessary textbooks, and you won't need to go to such lengths to prepare those lessons. I replied, We greatly appreciate your good intentions in wanting to come to our aid, but we cannot take you up on your offer because we wish to educate the children in their national language, and not in the language of another people. And I think that a man such as you can understand that without any further explanation. I understand your spirit he answered and I withdraw my suggestion. Later, he parted from us saying, See you on Friday.
On Friday the inspector arrived at the appointed hour. Yoel Meir Cohen gave the sample lesson in arithmetic, and at its conclusion the children went home and we sat around the table as was our custom. I told the inspector, Long ago, when we dwelt in our land, there was a great court, on which there sat 71 judges. The trials were determined by majority opinion. Each and every one was asked
to give his opinion on the matter at hand that was under discussion. In order that the younger judges not be swayed in their opinions by the older judges, they would start off asking the youngest for their opinions, working their way up to the eldest. However, this time I want to ask the eldest to express his thoughts first, so that the younger of us may listen and learn.
The inspector said that first of all he wished to point out that the customs and practices in Germany were completely different. There, strict discipline was enforced. Everything the students did was according to the orders of the teacher. Entering the classroom, sitting on the bench, taking out textbooks and opening them, and so on, are all done on commands: One. Two. Three. Although the behavior of your students here, so far as I could see, is very good, you should still be running your school with more precision and order. But we'll speak of that another time. In addition, our method of study is not like yours. So you can understand, I will give you an example of a language lesson. You will be the pupils, and I the teacher.
In that lesson, we learned that there stood before us an expert teacher with widespread and profound knowledge of teaching theory and that it would behoove us to take advantage of the opportunity to learn everything we could from him. At the end of the lesson, we conveyed to him our admiration for his impressive talent for instruction, and we requested that he continue to give us as much assistance as possible in our work through his vast knowledge, his tremendous experience, and his deep understanding. He was quite willing, and we parted fondly and with his promise to continue to visit us and to help us in any way he could. He kept his promise, and we made every effort to be good students and to use his methods in instructing our own pupils.
After some time, war refugees began coming to our town. Among them was a young man named Shmuel Skelot who had taken courses in Hebrew pedagogy in Grodno. I invited him to become a teacher in our school. This young man had a pedagogical education and was outstanding in his knowledge of Hebrew and general subjects, and he also possessed a fair knowledge of music and played the concertina. He could also draw a little. From the time he began to work at the school, he brought in a spirit of vitality. After
a short time we began taking the students out on field trips in the area surrounding our town, and sometimes even to the forest.
On these trips the students learned to recognize many plants that grew in the area. There were some students who learned to classify the plants with the help of a field guide which we had translated from the Russian and German terms. In geography and herbology the students learned according to a list of text books - which were ready for print. We taught arithmetic and geometry according to a list of text books which we had translated from German and Russian.
The teachers acquired a great deal of experience in instruction of all subjects. Every teacher entered his classroom ready for anything not only in terms of knowledge of the subject but also all of the necessary teaching aids, such as: maps, pictures, plants, flowers and the like. The level of teaching in our school was much higher than in the Polish school, which opened quite a bit after
our school was founded. Not a single Jewish child left our school to study in the Polish school.
One day, when the inspector was visiting our school, a letter was delivered to me which invited me to the regional pedagogical office located in the city of Szczecin. When I got there, the manager gave me a certificate which appointed me the principal of the Hebrew school of Goniadz.
We are giving you this certificate, said the manager of the office, upon the recommendation of the inspector Radben, who has praised you highly and told us you are deserving of this position. This certificate was very important, and was most beneficial to the school, when the government was later turned over to the Poles.
In the third year of the school's existence, there were 21 students in my highest class boys and girls, almost all of whom had been my students even before the school opened. Most of them excelled in their studies in every
subject, especially in their knowledge of the Hebrew language. All of them increased their reading in Hebrew, and spoke only Hebrew amongst themselves. There were some who also started speaking Hebrew to others. When they would go into a store to buy something, they would speak to the grocer in Hebrew. There was one case where a few children went to the store and asked the grocer in Hebrew for something. He told them he didn't understand, and suggested that they prepare a list for him of the items they were accustomed to purchasing from him. He would learn the list by heart and so be able to help them. They did as he suggested, and he kept his promise.
The children's devotion to the Hebrew language had an enormous influence on the youth of our town. Many of them began reading Hebrew books, and thus were exposed to the Zionist idea and the rebirth of our national language. Three books in particular, which came to us by way of the library that was founded in our town, had a significant impact on our students and the youth of our town: Ahavat Zion [Love of Zion] by Avraham Mapo, Shirat Hazamir [The Song of the Nightingale] by Buki Ben Yagli, and Masa L'Eretz Yisrael B'shnat Taf Taf [Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 2020] by A.L. Levinski.
The marvelous descriptions of the life of our people from days of yore, and the descriptions of the breathtaking scenery of our land, from the book Ahavat Zion deeply penetrated the hearts of our sons and daughters and awakened in them a boundless love for our dear land. Many of the students memorized a large portion of those descriptions.
In the book Shirat Hazamir, the story is told of a city boy who comes to the country and hears for the first time the marvelous song of the nightingale. In his fascination with that song, he loses touch with reality and begins hallucinating, imagining he sees various sights and scenes before him from the way of life and customs of our forefathers in days of yore in Eretz Yisrael, such as: pilgrimages, offerings, pouring out of water during the Sukkot holiday, and the like. Those visions awakened in the depths of the souls of those young readers an intense longing to renew the lives of our people in the land of our forefathers.
The third book, Masa L'Eretz Yisrael B'shnat Taf Taf was a utopia an imaginary description of the life
of the Jewish people dwelling in the independent Land of Israel in the year 2020. The book tells the story of a Jewish teacher living in Russia who travels with his wife on a honeymoon to the Land of Israel, which is an independent Jewish state.
All of the residents of that country are Jews, and they are governed by a Jewish president. The Jews did not acquire the country by the sword or the spear, but rather they purchased it with their money.
The main occupation of the Jews was to work the land. There is not a single resident of the country who does not work the land, which was owned by the state, and divided in equal portions amongst the residents a certain piece of land for each person. Every person made his living through the work of his hands. There were no exploiters and no exploited. There was no poor and no wealthy. There were no laborers and no lords. Each person worked for himself and was his own master. In other words, everyone was equal.
All of the residents set aside time to study Torah and science they were all honest and trustworthy people, living in brotherhood and affection with one another. In the country justice according to the law of the Torah of Moses, to which everyone was faithful, prevailed. In the country there was only one language Hebrew.
Descriptions of this ideal life in this Hebrew state that would be founded soon and in our time (according to rumors about the Balfour Declaration which filtered down to us from the front lines) kindled in the hearts of our young men and women a strong love for the idea of our resurrection. Frequently it was possible to see a young man or woman immersed in the reading of one of these books while tears rolled down their cheeks tears of longing, tears of dear and pleasant innocent children yearning for their homeland.
Typical of the feelings of our students in those days was the following fact: once one of the female students recited in front of her class the poem by Frug: Kos Hadmaot [Goblet of Tears], in which a child asks his mother: The truth of the matter, told by my grandfather, that before G-d on the highest height there stands a wondrous and deep goblet into which G-d cries a single tear for every time any sorrow befalls the people of Israel. And when the wondrous goblet is filled with tears, the Messiah will come… The mother answers: Yes, that is right and the child instantly asks: And when, oh!
Mother, will that goblet, the wondrous goblet, when will it be filled to the brim with tears? Or perhaps the tears, with the passage of the years, dry up and are lost? Or perhaps…or perhaps the bottom has a hole in it? And as every tear falls, it trickles out? And when the student recited that final line, she was overcome with emotion and fainted.
This incident shows how deep and powerful was the yearning of our students to discover our people and our homeland, literally to the depths of their souls.
One morning when I arrived at the school, I discovered Mr. Redban sitting and waiting for me. When I asked him what brought him to the school so early, he replied that this was the day the Germans were going to hand the school, which was in the occupied area, over to the Poles, and he had come to say goodbye to us. Great indeed was my sorrow, and the sorrow of the other teachers as they arrived, over this sudden separation from this dear man who had played such an important role in the pedagogic improvement of our school. Later on, he entered the classroom of the highest grade and taught the students to recite a poem from the German textbook, and parted from them with great affection. Also from us, the teachers, he parted with warm-heartedness,
saying as he departed, Perhaps we will not meet again, but the affection that exists between us will not be obliterated so quickly from my heart. And our affection for you will live on in our hearts, I replied.
About two weeks after our parting from Mr. Redban, the teachers were gathered at the school one evening for a meeting to discuss various matters relating to the curriculum. Suddenly the door opened and a young Pole entered and, without a word of greeting, said, I am the inspector of schools in this region and I have come to see your school. Are you the teachers? And who is the principal? Yes, Mr. Inspector, I answered. These are the teachers, and I am the principal. May I see your certificates? I handed him my certificate. He glanced at it and said, I would be more satisfied if you had a Polish certificate. If you please, sir, I replied, I would also be very satisfied if you would be so kind as to give me such a certificate in Polish.
Without replying to that, he pointed at Yehonatan and said, Is he also a teacher? Listen
he told him, as he wrote on the board (a + b) explain how one would solve that exercise?
Yehonatan (who had paled a bit) got up from his place and began to approach the board. Nevertheless, I stopped him and told the inspector that while of course he had the right to test the teachers who work under his supervision, it was not right to single out only one teacher to test, even if he was the youngest one there. Would that not make the teacher feel terribly insulted? Perhaps he would like to sit with us for a while and discuss the matter…
I don't have time to sit, I must go quickly to see the priest. If you would be so kind as to show me the way that leads to his house, he said. Good bye. He left the room and I accompanied him so as to show him the way to the priest's house. When I returned, I found the teachers were very gloomy. We talked for a while about the unfortunate incident, then returned to our previous discussion of the curriculum.
Since the students in the highest class were making excellent progress and had already acquired the knowledge required for elementary school (according to the program of Department D of the Hebrew Gymnasia of Jaffa), we decided to graduate the first class of the Hebrew School of Goniadz.
After we had decided upon the date on which the examinations would take place, I notified our friend Yeroham Levin from Bialystok. After a few days I received a reply from him, that a few young people would come and take part in the examinations.
On the day, three young people came to us, sent by the Zairei Zion Union of Bialystok. All of our students excelled in those examinations, which were oral as well as written, in Hebrew subjects as well as in general subjects. Great was the joy of those students, their parents, the teachers and the guests.
After the examinations, the guests from the Zairei Zion Union invited me to come to Bialystok and open a Hebrew school there. After consulting with my friends the teachers about the matter, they told me that I must not refuse that invitation, because the existence of the Hebrew school in Goniadz was already assured, and it would be a great national sin to leave a city such as Bialystok, which numbered more than sixty thousand Jews, without a Hebrew school, and therefore it was incumbent on me to make it happen. My wife agreed with the teachers.
When I parted from the teachers as I departed for Bialystok, they asked me to bring them to Bialystok and send other teachers to take their places in the school in Goniadz. I promised that I would try to fulfill their request, and after a short time I sent two good teachers to the school in Goniadz and brought two of my friends - Yoel Meir Cohen and Shmuel Skelot - to the First Hebrew Elementary School of Bialystok, which I founded with the help of Zairei Zion and Hamizrahi.
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