Jerusalem Ulpan: A Candid Review

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Now a few days out from ulpan, it seems as good a time as any to look back, assess my experience, and offer a few words of wisdom for anyone who might be interested in the program.

For those who have not been following my dispatches, for the last five and a half weeks, I have been enrolled in the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s “Jerusalem Ulpan” program. This 140 hour program is shorter than their “Summer Ulpan” (200 hours) which runs from the beginning of August to nearly the end of September. Both programs require 5.5 hours of classroom time a day, 5 days a week (Sunday-Thursday). Unlike the Summer Ulpan, the timeframe of the Jerusalem Ulpan does not allow for a completion of an entire level of Hebrew instruction. Levels for both sessions range from Ramat Aleph (elementary) to Ramat Vav (upper advanced).

During my ulpan, I was enrolled in Ramat Gimmel. A bit about my educational background in Hebrew to put my placement in context. Growing up I learned the absolute basics of Hebrew, i.e. the aleph-bet, reading with nekudot (vowels), writing, but little to no comprehension. In college, I took one year of modern Hebrew and a one year introduction to Biblical Hebrew. While at Northwestern University as a doctoral student, I took one year of introductory Hebrew and one quarter of second year Hebrew.

Coming into ulpan, I was fairly well versed in basic grammar and could “get by” conversationally but had a very limited vocabulary. From my performance on the placement exam, it was determined that I was either in an advanced level of Bet or at a basic level of Gimmel. Two written essays, one before arriving in Jerusalem and one during my enrollment on campus, placed me into Gimmel. As such, I was keenly aware that my comprehension of the language was on the lower end relative to the rest of the class.

Our curriculum was roughly divided between two teachers with whom we typically met on alternating days. One focused on verb forms, conjugation, and usage while the other focused on other grammatical rules such as definiteness and indefiniteness, singular and plural noun and adjective forms, preposition forms and usages, and temporality and tenses when not applied to verbs. Both teachers ran us through exercises involving reading, listening to, and analyzing texts, newspapers, and songs. This division of labor actually worked well for me. Given that we had so much information thrown at us every day, it was at least somewhat helpful to be able to switch tracks every other day so as not to get too mentally worn down. It also gave us a bit more time when needed to get homework done for the respective teachers.

Much of our homework, which generally took me about 1.5 to 2 hours a night to complete, was drawn from our two required textbooks: הפועל ללומדי עברית (The Verb: For Hebrew Lessons) and אגדה של שפה (roughly: Stories of Language). The first text was absolutely invaluable. It is meticulously and rationally organized by verb form, introduces and reviews their usages through multiple exercises, and has special sections devoted to basic irregular forms. This is the sort of text that you could pick up on your own without being enrolled in an ulpan from which you could still learn a considerable amount.

Our second text, on the other hand, most of the time felt less than useless. Aside from a few stories we drew from book for analysis and a very few exercises we completed, this book was a complete waste of money. We could have easily have read these stories in photocopy or simply selected other stories which would have served similar purposes. The book itself is considerably more difficult to follow, and we used it so infrequently that I never got a sense of its rhyme or reason. My advice to Hebrew University: dump the text. My advice to future ulpan students should they retain the text: buy the book with a friend or several friends, and simply photocopy the stories.

Now to the class itself. Hebrew University prides itself on providing a real Hebrew ulpan in real Hebrew. What does that mean? The teachers will not teach in English (or any other language), they will not speak to you in English, they will not clarify points or define words in English (except in cases of extreme confusion), nor will they provide feedback on your homework in English (Friends in Ramat Aleph tell me that they are less strict in this regard at lower levels, so this should not scare off beginners.). The few times our teachers did have something to say in English, it sounds truly out of place, like I was hearing someone speak I had never seen or heard before.

As a result of being in this complete immersion environment, in the first week or so, I had a great deal of trouble understanding instructions and the finer points of our lessons. However by the second to third week, after stumbling along and studying hard every night, things just started to make sense. I still will not claim that I understood everything that occurred in class (many jokes went right over my head) but my Hebrew just gelled. It was a great feeling to finally get it.

At the same time, even though I was surrounded by Hebrew in the classroom and did a lot of listening, I felt that there was not enough emphasis on actually speaking. I may feel this way because my Hebrew just wasn’t as strong as others in the class so I did less speaking and it may be because a few key people in the class monopolized the talking space with little regard for others. That said, the teachers definitely could have done a better job of encouraging those of us who spoke less to speak up and toning down those who just wouldn’t shut up.

Another drawback is that once you leave the classroom, providing you live in student housing, you are immediately immersed in an predominantly English speaking environment. Some people in class avoided this problem by living elsewhere, but their commute was prohibitive enough that I do not believe it would have been worth it for me. Still, some of the best use of Hebrew I had during my time in ulpan was when I left campus to go shopping or dining downtown. The shuk on Mahane Yehuda is an excellent place to practice your street Hebrew. I strongly recommend a weekly trip.

One other element of class worth mentioning are the weekly tests. I am not going to lie, they are really difficult and I found preparation for them to be equally difficult. Imagine that you are required to take something akin to a university-level midterm examination every seven days for which you only truly know what is one the exam one day before; not fun. For someone at my level of knowledge, I found it to be nearly impossible to crunch everything we learned in a week into a comprehensible, regurgitatable mass on a night’s notice. I would say that studying well ahead of time is helpful, but I did almost nothing but study most evenings and still found I could not retain it all. Much of what is required in the exams is a solid knowledge of vocabulary, followed by their grammatically proper application. I found that I was so nervous trying to remember what the words themselves meant that even when I did figure them out I stumbled on their proper application.

This raises an important question: Are the tests an important learning tool? On this, my opinion is divided. Many other ulpans in Israel do not require exams except perhaps for a level exam at the completion of the course. The logic behind this is clear: if you are learning a language, it is less important that you can regurgitate vocabulary and more important that you can actually use it. That said, having a test for which you must perform well is an incentive to study harder, even if the benefit in the end in terms of performance may be marginal. You do learn something along the way regardless.

My attitude (assisted by the fact that I did not need to take the course for any formal university credit) was that my performance on the exams was not a marker of my performance in the language. Yet by the end of the course, I definitely understood what was being asked of us in the exams, which is certainly a marker of progress. For those of you thinking about taking a course like this for credit, I recommend the pass/fail option.

Last but not least, I must make mention of our quasi-extracurricular programs. Approximately once a week, we either went on a tour of parts of campus or the city, saw a movie, or had a special lecture given by someone on faculty at Hebrew University about a variety of fascinating topics, all in Hebrew of course. Among the highlights for me was a tour of Rekhov HaNivi’im, a lecture on representations of Israeli and Jerusalem in maps, a lecture on the origins of Hebrew, and a viewing of one of my favorite Israeli movies, The Policeman. Follow any of those links to see what I had to say about those engagements. These were definitely the highlights of my ulpan experience. It was not so much that I learned Hebrew from attending them but that they confirmed that I had in fact learned quite a lot such that I could understand what our presenters had to say about important and often complex subjects.

In all, I am truly happy that I enrolled in the Jerusalem Ulpan, and with my few reservations, I would really recommend it to anyone serious about improving their Hebrew language comprehension. Since arriving in Israel nearly six weeks ago, my Hebrew skills have improved dramatically and I am confident that they will only improve as I continue my year of doctoral research in Israel. If you found this review off a search engine, I hope that you have found it to be useful, and if you’re a regular reader, hopefully it was at least a bit entertaining. Thank you as always for reading, and of course thank you to both the Northwestern University Graduate School’s Summer Language Grant program and the David L. Zemsky (z’l) Scholarship fund for making it possible for me to travel to Israel and enroll in this ulpan.

4 Responses to Jerusalem Ulpan: A Candid Review

  1. Lazurus says:

    I completed the course last September. I lived off campus and yes, the commute was difficult, but well worth it.
    Thanks for your article, it brought back some good memories.

  2. Daniel says:

    Very nice review.

    I am considering enrolling next year October in HU but my Hebrew I would have to improve alot before getting to the point of comprehending whats going on in class. My reading ability is quite alright though its mainly Bible and commentaries and halachic texts that I try to read. I would have about 6 months prior to the start of the university year to improve my Hebrew, do you think its reasonable within that timeframe to go from Gimmel to Ptor?

    Kind regards,

    Daniel

    • arielzellman says:

      Hi Daniel,
      thanks for reading. Ulpan is really a challenge but if you’ve been doing well in traditional texts, you are probably already well set in terms of dikduk (grammar). I am sure that if you can make it through Gemarra, you’ll place highly in ulpan.
      The challenge of ulpan is the sheer volume of vocabulary you learn in a short period of time. I would suggest picking up newspapers, following hebrew news online, etc. I am sure that would help you prepare considerably.
      In terms of time frame, I think people who are really quite good with languages have no challenge getting through the lower levels quickly, and even get through gimmel and dalet in about 2 months each. Hey and Vav, I imagine, are considerably more difficult.
      Hope this helps!
      -Ariel

  3. Daniel says:

    Thank you for your reply. I was actually more referring to the medieval commentators on the Chumash, Gemara is not quite within my reach. I have contacted someone at Hebrew University to see what the possibilities are and whether he considers it reasonable.
    Kind regards,
    Daniel

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