Nancy Berg

Nancy Berg, pictured in her office at Washington University, won the National Jewish Book Award for “What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What It Means to Americans).” Photo: Eric Berger

Like many Hebrew language educators in the United States, Nancy Berg had been disappointed in recent years by the decline in enrollment and interest in Hebrew classes and, more generally, dismayed by “the plight of the humanities,” she said.

But the longtime Hebrew language and literature professor at Washington University received a boost last month when she was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for her latest work, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What It Means to Americans).” She edited the book with Naomi Sokoloff, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“We are really hoping that people get excited about the prospect of learning Hebrew or the idea of learning Hebrew,” Berg said in her office on the Washington University campus last week.

Berg, who is Jewish and attends Kol Rinah, grew up in Boston but has taught at the school in St. Louis since 1990. She became interested in Hebrew, she said, because “of the backstory. The story of the revival of Hebrew is like none other. It’s a linguistic feat that is unparalleled.”

The language had not been used for everyday conversations for centuries before Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a lexicographer and newspaper editor, in 1881 in Jerusalem set out to make Hebrew the language of Jews who immigrated to what was then Palestine. It has since, of course, become the official language of Israel.

“To see Israeli literature and Israeli culture created in real time and to see what people can do with Hebrew now when you think of it as a language that had been pretty much dormant for 2,000 years is just extraordinary,” Berg said. 

But while interest in Hebrew in the United States also grew, it has since waned. The Forward reported last year that the number of U.S. college students enrolled in a modern Hebrew course had declined from 9,620 in 2006 to 5,521 in 2016, according to a report from the Modern Languages Association. Enrollment in biblical Hebrew decreased to 9,587 in 2016 from 14,000 students in 2006.

Part of that trend follows a general decline in foreign language programs. The Modern Languages Association reported that from 2013 to 2016, 651 foreign language programs at U.S. colleges ended. 

“The humanities are not valued as highly as they have been in the past, and they are not valued as highly as they should or could be,” Berg said. “Pragmatically speaking, when college tuitions are so high, it’s hard to argue with students’ parents who want their kids to come out with a career.”

On why interest in Hebrew in particular has declined, Berg cites a number of factors. When she was in college, it was unusual for Jewish students to take Arabic but very common for them to take Hebrew.

“Today, fortunately, there is not a taboo on learning Arabic, and there has been a flourishing, and that’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s been at the expense of learning Hebrew, which is less wonderful,” Berg said.

She also says the issues in supplementary Hebrew school education for K-12 students — finding “strong Hebraists who are good at teaching languages and managing classrooms” (when kids may not want to be there) — has a trickle-down effect.

“If a student has been studying Hebrew for however many years they are in religious school or in day school and have never become fluent, they have little motivation to continue at the university,” Berg said.

In 2016, Berg helped organize a symposium, “Hebrew and the Humanities: Present Tense,” with Sokoloff in Seattle in which Berg asked attendees to contribute artifacts — souvenirs, for example, that they brought home from Israel — for a pop-up museum that would illuminate the role Hebrew plays in their lives and in the United States.

“At first it was more for fun, and then it gained meaning,” Berg said. 

Afterward, the two editors invited a dozen scholars to submit a chapter to a book examining the place of Hebrew in the United States. 

Nancy Berg book

Washington University professor Nancy Berg and Naomi Sokoloff received a National Jewish Book Award for their book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Hebrew (And What It Means To Americans).

Berg and Sokoloff wrote the introduction, “Can Hebrew Save the Humanities?” and Berg contributed a second essay, “The Anxiety of Authenticity: Hebrew, Sushi and Suspicious Objects.”

In the opening, the two academics write: 

“It is unlikely that Hebrew studies can save the humanities. We can barely save our own academic programs these days. The title of our introduction, an ironic overstatement of our fondest wishes, no doubt will remain a provocative and exaggerated plea. Nonetheless, our work here is based on solid conviction that Hebrew studies are neither narrow nor parochial. We cannot save the humanities, but we can try to indicate, through essays in this book, why Hebrew studies merit saving, as well as why they warrant a more widely recognized place of honor in the humanities.”

Berg said that she and Sokoloff have received a greater response to this book than anything either had written previously. She has received letters from people who said the book inspired them to go back and work on their Hebrew skills.

“Nothing is going to make a teacher happier than that,” Berg said.

The two professors are working on a new book, “Since 1948: Israeli Literature in the Making,” meant to take stock of and celebrate Israeli literature, Berg said. 

The idea stemmed from the academic tradition of celebrating a professor when the person turns 70 by compiling volumes of their work or staging a conference in their honor. Berg wanted to do the same thing with Israel.

It’s scheduled to be published in the fall.