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Cambridge Interfaith Programme

A child's exercises, writing out letters from the Hebrew alphabet with vocalised transliterations (far left)

How do you define literacy? Young learners at a Jewish complementary school found themselves grappling with competing ideals as their teacher encouraged them to accept variation in transliteration and pronunciation, and let go of their concern to comprehend textual Hebrew. The end result was a language-learning experience that diverged from schooled expectations and allowed students and parents to position themselves as global citizens.

In a newly published article for the journal Language and Communication (Volume 87), CIP Research Associate Dr Anastasia Badder documents the learners' experience and its significance for Jewish communities and the wider understanding of what constitutes literacy. Dr Badder explains how opportunities opened up during fieldwork:

“The article benefits hugely from the regular collaboration and close relations I enjoyed with the community I was observing. Drawing on my own Jewishness, I had begun to attend services at both the Liberal and Orthodox synagogues in Luxembourg. The Rabbi of the Liberal synagogue asked if I might help teach the youngest class. I was very unsure. Another woman was joining as Hebrew teacher, and ultimately I agreed. 

“I was able to observe and get to know the students and their families every week--at classes and other events. I was asked to babysit, and to attend dinner and social gatherings, alongside my ethnographic interviews. I even managed to shadow some students in their secular schools for several months. This shifting position helped me pay attention to the hopeful and future-facing, the resilience and creativity of students. Their stories helped me think about Jewish community, education, and literacy in new ways.”

Read an extract from the article's Introduction:

“Parents and students of Luxembourg's Liberal Talmud Torah feel a tension between their commitment to liberal ideals and their obligation to ensure Jewish continuity. This Talmud Torah, like many others, revolves around Hebrew language learning, reading liturgical and biblical texts and studying the Talmud, learning Jewish histories and laws, and rehearsing ritual practices. Even the name, ‘Talmud Torah’, which translates literally to ‘Torah study’, is intended to evoke a sense of age and tradition. Generally, the goals of enrolling one's child in Talmud Torah are to pass on Jewish tradition in preparation for b'nai mitzvah and future community maintenance. However, for the parents of students in Luxembourg's Liberal Talmud Torah (hereafter LTT), these goals appear to be at odds with an equally important aim: encouraging one's child to be a successful (secular) student and future ‘global citizen’. In this Liberal school, parents simultaneously want their children to ‘learn how to be Jewish’ and to emerge from Talmud Torah and b'nai mitzvah as modern and liberal as the day they started.

“Hebrew is a key site for the negotiation of this tension for LTT parents, students, and teachers. While parents and teachers value Hebrew for the access it affords to liturgical texts and, therefore, collective ritual participation, they also fear the transformative potential of Hebrew literacy – too little Hebrew literacy and one has failed to do one's part towards Jewish continuity, too much Hebrew literacy and one risks becoming ‘religious’, a way of being parents are loathe for their children to take up.

“Finding a kind of middle ground between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ literacy, LTT students learn to read (in the sense of orally realizing) textual Hebrew, which encompasses the Hebrew of the liturgy, Bible, and Rabbinic literature, for use in ritual settings (Benor et al. 2020b). They do not, however, learn to read for comprehension, nor do they learn Modern Hebrew for conversational use.

“Such literacy practices are not unique to this Talmud Torah. [...]

How to read the whole article

Continue reading Dr Badder's work (free, open access) via

The full article is published and can be cited as:

Anastasia Badder, ‘I just want you to get into the flow of reading’: Reframing Hebrew proficiency as an enactment of liberal Jewishness, Language & Communication, Volume 87, 2022, pages 221-230, ISSN 0271-5309.
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Contact the author

Dr Badder welcomes invitations to speak about her research and discuss its implications for religious literacy, including in interfaith settings.

View Dr Badder's contact details in the Faculty of Divinity directory.

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