Rivka Halperin: Hebrew, Rediscovering a Jewish Past

Rediscovering a Jewish Past

Source: NYT, 5-6-11

When a Franciscan priest first contacted a Hebrew-language professor in New York about teaching the language of the Bible at a new Hebrew college in this Polish city, her first reaction was “Turin — Italy, great!”

“I had no idea what Torun was,” confesses Rivka Halperin, a longtime resident of New York who previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at Princeton University. “I did not understand why they needed Hebrew here.”

She could be forgiven.

Where exactly does Hebrew, not to mention Jewish history studies, fit into this medieval city, a three-hour drive north of Warsaw that is best known as the birthplace of Copernicus and for its gingerbread.

That there should be a Copernicus University here and a Copernicus Museum, as well as a Copernicus café, Copernicus taxis and Copernicus bakery is to be expected. But a Hebrew school?

The spanking new building that is home to the Higher School of Hebrew Philology, a three-year college for the study of Hebrew and the history of Judaism, lies adjacent to a Franciscan monastery that runs the school. In fact, before the ultramodern Hebrew school building opened last autumn, the studies took place in the monastery itself, with a crucifix and menorah at the back of the classroom.

“For a long time, I did not understand what I was doing here, what the students were doing here, and what was the connection between the church and the school,” Halperin, who serves as the school’s director of Hebrew language, said. Indeed, none of the college’s 35 students are Jewish, which is not a surprise in a predominantly Catholic country whose Jewish population was decimated by the Nazis.

But following the fall of Communism more than two decades ago, a new generation of young Poles is growing up with a newfound interest in their country’s Jewish past, some because of Jewish ancestry, others because of interest in Israel, Jewish culture, religion — or reasons they can’t define…READ MORE

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