The Accidental Hebrew School Teacher

By Ornat Turin and Vardit Ringvald

Who teaches Hebrew to youngsters in the United States?

Are they trained teachers with a passion for educating young students; How about Israeli women who are here for other reasons such as their husbands’ graduate work?

These were the central questions to emerge from the HBI’s 2014 spring seminar entitled, Gender and the Teaching of the Hebrew Language, under the supervision of Professor Vardit Ringvald, Middlebury College Director of the School of Hebrew, and until 2013, director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University.

Despite years of analysis, a variety of teaching methods and a range of settings, research shows a constant decline in Hebrew proficiency, according to Ringvald. Rather than focus on these issues, the seminar focused on just one part of the equation, the teachers. It started with the premise that teachers of Hebrew are almost always female native speakers from Israel, usually not certified or trained to teach.

Prominent scholars from different disciplines, including an anthropologist, a journalist and media scholar, a movie director, a Hebrew teacher, a linguistics expert and a sociologist convened to study the issue and begin to develop a framework for future research. Professor Ornat Turin’s topic of research, together with Professor Ringvald, was the experience of teaching Hebrew in the United States through the eyes of Israelis who have returned home. Turin was a scholar-in-residence at HBI during the seminar, along with Dr. Rahel Wasserfall and the late poet, Janice Rebibo, z”l, who also participated in the seminar.

Although much research has been accumulated on issues of immigration, gender and Israelis in the U.S., very little research has been conducted regarding Israeli teachers in America; and, what exists concerns other perspectives such as diminishing command of the language or issues of religious identity. Our research project focuses on the teachers’ perspective — those Israelis who have found themselves teaching Hebrew, simply because they were staying in the United States and are native Hebrew speakers.

Our research method was a semi-structured interview with women who lived in the United States for a period of one to 10 years, then returned to Israel where they may or may not have continued teaching. Interviews were conducted face-to-face or through Skype and lasted about one hour. We asked questions such as: “Why did you go to the United States and what were the circumstances for starting to teach Hebrew? Could you share a memory of something nice that occurred during this period? Could you share a difficulty? In retrospect, what makes a good Hebrew teacher and what makes a bad one? What is the difference between teaching in Israel and in the U.S.?”

Preliminary results

  • Our initial results show that all of the women interviewed so far were in the U.S. because of their husbands’ work such as advanced degree programs or prestigious academic positions. The wife started teaching Hebrew as a means of financial support for the family.
  • Initially, all the interviewees reported that their motivation for seeking teaching positions was extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations developed at a later stage as teachers became motivated to strengthen the Hebrew language and Jewish awareness. Over time, they developed pride in becoming ambassadors, of sorts, for Israel.
  • The secular teachers confronted their own lack of acquaintance with the religious corpus, including prayer. Teachers reported that as they taught American students, they drew closer to the Jewish holidays – a culture from which they had drifted away.
  • Following a brief period of bewilderment, the teachers learned the new cultural system of which they were now a part. As they saw it, their success, their turning point was the moment they realized that they had to free themselves from a strict methodological framework and adapt a ‘marketing’ approach for teaching a second language, incorporating playfulness and lures.
  • Historically, the fact that women sought teaching positions was deemed legitimate, as the role of the teacher was perceived as an extension of the maternal one.
  • In the cases at hand, which take place within progressive families and a modern professional environment, teaching is still shadowed by patriarchal ideas. The teachers of Hebrew are essentially those with an occupation secondary to their spouse, using “natural” capabilities rather than professional qualifications as a means of supporting the family.

These “accidental teachers” concluded that the experience was a positive one and used words such as “it was like a dream.” Upon reflection, they said the job did not have any of the dull qualities they expected. The prestigious concept of relocation and temporary limited residence in America (as opposed to emigration), has turned Hebrew teaching into a chapter of “the good life.” One wonders if the “dream” has been nostalgically polished? 

From Ornat Turin:
Let me dedicate a few words for one seminar member and colleague – Janis Rebibo, z”l, a unique poet, who could express herself in both languages, as accurately as a native speaker. Janice, a part of this seminar, who was known for her humor and strong voice, passed away a few months ago in March, unable to complete her work. She intended to study curricula, and to conduct a content analysis of the textbook used to teach Hebrew. We all miss her. She could lift the whole room into high spirits the minute she came in.    

Ornat TurinOrnat Turin was a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the head of the media education department at Gordon College of Education in Haifa, Israel.


Vardit RingvaldVardit Ringvald is the Middlebury College Director of the School of Hebrew, the CV Starr Research Professor of Languages and Linguistics and until 2013, director of the Hebrew and Arabic Languages Program at Brandeis University. She led the 2014 HBI Spring Seminar, Gender and the Teaching of the Hebrew Language. 

The Bubbie and the Mobster

By Phyllis Karas

Phyllis Karas

Phyllis Karas

How on earth did I — a journalist, a college professor, a doctor’s wife, and a nice Jewish grandmother — become the sidekick of the real life criminal, Kevin Weeks, whose impressive resume includes five murders and who is being represented in the new movie, Black Mass, by Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad fame?  And, how do I reconcile all that with my Judaism?

The answer to all these questions starts in the late 1990’s after I’d finished a book about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis. My agent found me a low-level drug dealer, Eddie MacKenzie, who wanted someone to write his story. He was working for the infamous Irish mobster from Boston, James “Whitey” Bulger, who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for 19 murders. Over the next two years, I learned a lot — about drug dealers, the Medellin cartel, leg breakers and swear words I’d never known existed. MacKenzie was a pretty likable, albeit rarely truthful character, and he liked me a lot after the book, Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob, got reviewed in The New York Times in 2003.

When a couple of bankruptcy lawyers called me a year later, it wasn’t exactly out of nowhere. They had come up with a way for another member of the Bulger mob to avoid wrongful-death suits. He could write a book about his major asset, his life story, and give 50 percent of his profits to the victims’ families.

Kevin Weeks

Kevin Weeks

When they told me it was Kevin Weeks, I was dutifully impressed. Weeks had been Bulger’s closest confidant, the only person reputed to have met with Bulger since he had disappeared 10 years earlier. With this book, I would be climbing way up the ladder of bad guys.

The only thing the lawyers did not tell me was that Kevin, still in jail and not due out for at least 18 months, hated MacKenzie and despised Street Soldier and everything it said about him.

To make the situation even more unpleasant, Kevin Weeks didn’t want to write his life story. He’d spent his entire adult life committing criminal acts under the cloak of darkness. Revealing his life of crime to any author, never mind a woman, he repeatedly stated, was even worse than remaining in jail for the rest of his life.

But his lawyers prevailed and I pursued him with an intensity I’d never known I possessed, ignoring his crankiness, nastiness, murderous ferocity and all-around disdain. I was determined, I have no idea why, to have my name on his story’s book jacket. Three years after my first meeting with his lawyers, Kevin was out of jail. The book about him, Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob, spent time on The New York Times Best Seller List, and I was getting birthday presents from my subject.

While the Kevin Weeks who walked out of prison appeared to have no problem turning his back on his former life of crime, I was a changed woman. Things happened to me that made it impossible for me to return to my former life away from the mob. Too many experiences had altered my way of thinking. I now know more about crime — loan sharking, extortion, drug dealing, stabbings, leg breakers, the RICO Act, money laundering, bookmaking, shipments of arms, hideouts built into walls, C-4 explosives, witness protection, superseding indictments and accessories to murder — than Carmela Soprano.

For instance, I remember the day I couldn’t spend with my two-year-old grandson because I had to be with Kevin, getting photos of murder sites where he had buried a few bodies. “If nothing happens to Bubbie while she’s schlepping through the marshes tomorrow, she’ll be able to play with you on Monday,” I once told Jason.

I managed to squelch any strong feelings of guilt that accompanied my role as a Jewish biographer to the Irish mob. In truth, my Judaism often comes in quite handy for this role, especially when I introduce my criminal co-author to groups of curious readers.  As my rabbi kindly explained to me before one large gathering, nobody is completely innocent.  From a Jewish perspective, even speaking gossip is a crime.  Yet a person who rights the wrong he has committed or pays for his crime in some way, a ba’al teshuvah, is deemed more highly in God’s eyes than the person who is born perfectly and never makes a mistake. The Talmud expresses high regard for baalei teshuva with the statement, “In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.”  Thus in Judaism you can right your wrong, pay for your crime and return to the straight and narrow.

Whitey Bulger, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit

Whitey Bulger, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit

Our book, Brutal, has been in print for six years now. Kevin and I are once again partners in crime, or at least in crime fiction. This time we have written a fictional account of Whitey Bulger’s 16 years on the run, eventual capture, trial and sentencing, called Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger. Once again, we are spending lots of time together  promoting the book, meeting lots of new people.  Some like us, fascinated as they are with mob life; others hate us for making money from criminal acts. While I identify more with the latter, I remind myself that at least with Brutal, victims’ families are still profiting from that book, an occurrence that rarely, if ever, happens in other true-crime books.

Today, 10 years after his release from prison, Kevin Weeks, who I guess I could, with a bit of liberty, call an Irish ba’al teshuvah if he would let me, is a law abiding citizen, making an honest living in construction, living a quiet simple life, close to his two sons and his beautiful pregnant new wife Anna whom he loves dearly.

Hunted Down may not be the last book we write together.  We are nearly finished with a second piece of fiction, The Jewel Thief, based, once again, on Kevin’s nefarious deeds.  It is a weird collaboration — the former Irish mobster and the bubbie — that I will admit. But right now, Kevin is out of jail, having forsaken a life of crime. While I know we are not writing Crime and Punishment, I do think our stories are entertaining, honest, and above all, Kevin and I are not breaking any civil or religious laws.  For that, I will utter a heart-felt kinehora.

Phyllis Karas is a former adjunct professor at Boston University, former stringer for People Magazine and author of many books including the recent, Hunted Down: The FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Whitey Bulger.

Simchat Torah, Vienna Style

By Shulamit Reinharz

shula2015A year ago, I spent Simchat Torah in Vienna when I travelled there to participate in the Vienna Project, a multi-tiered program created by Karen Frostig, a Boston-based Jewish artist and daughter of a Viennese family who had to flee during World War II. The point of her project was to engage many current Viennese citizens in a remembrance of their past. I arrived the morning before Simchat Torah with several other members of Frostig’s U.S. advisory board.

That night, we went to The Stadttempel, the main Viennese synagogue, one of the few Jewish structures that survived Kristallnacht. We saw Austrian soldiers with machine guns – this time to protect the Jews, not to mow them down. The pair of Jewish men at the door to the synagogue foyer checked our names against a list of pre-screened invited guests.

The women were shepherded to the women’s balconies, one that was rather close in height to the floor of the main sanctuary, but constructed as a semi-circle hovering above the main area. There were quite a few women in the balcony but certainly many fewer than the men below. It was wonderful to look over the railing and see the “the synagogue” overflowing with men and boys of all ages. I put “the synagogue” in quotes, because it felt that the synagogue was down there, not up where we were.

The service began and I noticed that several American women seemed to know the prayers. The other women – presumably from the Viennese congregation – either did not pray or kept quiet. Many were talking or caring for children or grandchildren. There were a few Simchat Torah flags for us to wave, but we women were entirely peripheral to what was going on.

Finally, the time came to take all the Torah scrolls from the ark. They were handed to the men and post-bar mitzvah boys to carry as they circled the lectern over and over, sometimes in a frenzy, singing loudly with joy and camaraderie. We women had absolutely nothing to do but be happy for them.

After a while, one of the leaders of the congregation came to where the women were sitting to wish us a Happy Holiday. I asked him if he could bring us one Torah scroll so that the women could walk around with it in the balcony without intruding onto the synagogue floor action. We wouldn’t make any noise to attract attention. He consulted with someone to see if we would be permitted to celebrate Simchat Torah in the manner of men. When he returned, the answer was “no.” Adding, “You American women are asking for something we don’t do.” How sad, I thought, to deny Jews the right to experience joy on Simchat Torah.

I guess we have a long way to go if we want to help create vibrant European communities where women can have meaningful roles. The HBI recommends offering Jewish education to girls and women so that they can become dynamically involved in public holiday celebrations as well as other aspects of Judaism.  One European organization working on women’s roles in Judaism is Bet Deborah. But the organization that seems most attuned to the role of women in Orthodox life is JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), which now has a branch in London as well as its base in the U.S.

We applaud JOFA for jumping into this void by offering a webinar on the very topic that bothered me so much last year. Entitled “Engaging Women on Simchat Torah in your Community,” on September 10, the participants discussed ways “to create engaging, meaningful and spiritual opportunities for women in traditional communities during Simchat Torah.” As JOFA advertised, “Make this year’s Simchat Torah a meaningful experience for women in your communities.” I hope someone from Vienna tuned in.

Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.

Prayers to Open the Heart and Soul for the High Holy Days

Editor’s note: As we approach the High Holy days, here are two selections, one for Rosh Hashanah and one for Yom Kippur, excerpted from Marcia Falk‘s The Days Between: Blessings, Poems and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, published by the HBI Series on Jewish Women, Brandeis University Press.

thedaysbetween_MarciaFalkThe ritual commonly known as Tashlikh, – literally, “You (God) will cast” – takes its name from Micah 7:19: V’tashlikh bim’tzulot yam kol-hatotam, “You will cast (hurl, cast away) all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (or on the second day, if the first day falls on the Sabbath), Tashlikh takes place near an ocean, river, or other natural body of water. After the recitation of the verse from Micah, crusts or crumbs of bread are tossed into the water to symbolically cast one’s sins away.

The re-created ritual, “We Cast into the Depths of the Sea,” begins with “Casting Away,” a recitation that revisions and expands upon the theme of the biblical verse. The opening word in the Hebrew is nashlikh, “we will cast (away).” Instead of asking that God purge us of sin, we seek in this declaration to free ourselves from whatever impedes our moving into the new year with clarity, lightness, and hope.

Casting Away

We cast into the depths of the sea
our sins, and failures, and regrets.

Reflections of our imperfect selves
flow away.

       What can we bear,
       with what can we bear to part?

We upturn the darkness,
bring what is buried to light.

       What hurts still lodge,
       what wounds have yet to heal?

We empty our hands,
release the remnants of shame,

let go fear and despair
that have dug their home in us.

       Open hands,
       opening heart —

The year flows out,
the year flows in.


The traditional prayers of confession recited on Yom Kippur are lists, in abecedarian form, of sins that may have been committed in the past year by oneself or other members of the community. This re-creation replaces that catalogue with a call to self-accounting.


Stand at the roads, and consider.
Look into the paths of the past,
see which is the road of goodness.
Walk it, and find tranquility.
–Jeremiah 6:16

In the mirror of our eyes,
the other is reflected;

in the eyes of the other –

We look outward,

see how we have hurt
and harmed,

how hurt embeds even
in the smallest wounds.

We give ourselves over,
begin to make amends,

to make ourselves whole.

Marcia Falk

Marcia Falk is the author of The Days Between: Blessings, Poems and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season

Memory is Our Home: A Seed Planted in Childhood

By Suzanna Eibuszyc


Roma Talasowicz-Eibuszyc

My most vivid memory after the war in Poland is of my mother, always watching the door, always hopeful, never giving up that a loved one would enter, back from the dead. Later, when I grasped the magnitude of the crimes against Jews in Europe, I questioned why my parents thought it was essential to stay in “their homeland.” With time, I accepted how important it was for them to restore their roots where their ancestors had lived for 1,000 years. My mother found courage and strength among the ashes of her family. She brought them back to life daily. But 20 years, after the war, Jews were targeted again with an anti-Semitic campaign, sponsored by the Communist government. Between 1968 and 1969, Polish Jews were forced to disappear from Poland.

It was in Elie Wiesel’s classes at CCNY that I gained the courage to understand what my mother had lived through. With time, I allowed myself to confront the ghosts of my childhood. Then, my family’s history started to make sense. When Professor Wiesel told us about his experiences in the concentration camps and when I read his book, The Accident, I realized that my parents, though survivors, lost their entire families and could not escape their past. When I told Elie Wiesel about my mother, he said, “Your mother must write her story. Future generations must know. You must help her to do it.”

My mother hesitated at first, but as I persevered, she agreed. I understand now that her re-entry into a world she suppressed for so long, was a great risk to her safety and sanity. For the sake of truth, she relived terror, hunger and pain. She bravely remembered the family she abandoned in Warsaw and she brought them back to life by telling her story. She confronted the memory of impossible hardship, surviving in Russia, and added her voice to a generation silenced by Hitler.

I was born in communist Poland after the war where we lived until the late 1960s. I went to a Jewish high school, Szalom Alejchem, in Wroclaw before leaving for America. I graduated from CCNY with a B.A. in Jewish Studies, where I first met Professor Wiesel.  Later, when I received my M.A. from UCLA, I was awarded a grant, which allowed me to travel to Poland and Israel.

memoryisourhomeUltimately, I addressed the trauma of growing up in the shadows of Holocaust aftermath and how this trauma is transferred between generations. For me, one of the second generation,  the seed for writing Memory is Our Home was planted in my childhood. Looking back in time, I know now that my entire life was a preparation to be “a memorial candle.” I assumed the burden of my parents’ emotional world and I became the link between the past and the future. This history is imbedded deep in my memory, in my soul. It is part of my DNA.

My book is an illustration of a working class Jewish childhood and adolescence, my mother’s, with emphasis on class, gender, politics and religion. It pencils a vibrant and bleak portrait of daily Jewish life during the interwar years in Warsaw. A difficult, impoverished upbringing after WWI in Poland gave birth to a generation of Jews who participated in Polish culture. During her youth in Warsaw, my mother, Roma Talasowicz-Eibuszyc, joined the Bund movement. She participated diligently to improve conditions for all workers, while preserving Jewish culture. Life for Jews in the 1930s deteriorated and life-changing disillusionment followed as Poland entered the pre-Holocaust and Holocaust periods.

I describe her richly textured accounts of Poland under the Nazi’s murderous grip and the faith of Jews surviving throughout Russia and Uzbekistan during WWII. She survived the month-long bombing of Warsaw, the perilous escape to the east and six years of harsh exile — the single best chance for Polish Jews to escape the catastrophe that engulfed Eastern Europe. After all that, she survived the shocking repatriation to the “vast graveyard” of postwar Poland and Jewish life under communism that was to follow for the next 20 years. The vestiges of Polish Jewish citizens who returned home to rebuild a new life, as it turned out, ended up being ruled by a different destruction, the oppressive Communist regime.

Interwoven with my mother’s diary are stories she shared with me throughout my life, as well as my own recollections as my family made a new life in Communist Poland after the war and into the late 1960s. I try to shed light on intergenerational transmission and the inheritance of the emotional burden. It is the price, we as a family paid, when we were forced to say goodbye to the old world and the challenges we faced in new world.

FullSizeRender(11)_Suzanna Eibuszyc received degrees from the City College of New York where she studied with Elie Wiesel and the University of California. She received a Research Award from HBI for this book. She lives in Los Angeles.