The Serial Tourist's Guide to Living in Jerusalem
Copyright 2013 by Morris Rosenthal
Copyright 2010 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
Learn Hebrew in Jerusalem Ulpan
Reading a newspaper is a great way to build vocabulary if you're stubborn enough to push through. I just did a page about Israeli newspapers, including the easy Hebrew newspaper which you can subscribe to by mail.
A Hebrew Ulpan is by definition an intensive course in Hebrew. However, there is a great deal of variation between different Ulpans, such as how often they meet, whether their focus is on spoken Hebrew or academic Hebrew, and how much Jewish content (if any) is part of the program. Most Ulpans are free for up to a half a year for new immigrants, while for tourists, the cost for a full time (5-days a week, 4 hours per day) program is standard at about $200 a month. Some Ulpans accept students into ongoing classes on a continual basis, others strictly conform to semester type schedules and refuse drop-in students. Most will allow you to sit-in for a day to see if the level and style are suitable.
Ulpans are all organized by level using the Hebrew alphabet , the Aleph-Bet. There is some variation in the lengths and content of these courses, placement is generally accomplished by a casual oral exam from the Ulpan Head (see specific Ulpan Info). A general description of levels follows.
Aleph - Starting with no Hebrew skills through limited reading ability with no comprehension (many American Jews fit in here). Students learn the Aleph-Bet, how to write, a very basic vocabulary with an emphasis on what you really need to get around. This includes the ever popular "Excuse me, how do I get to the Post Office/Central Bus Station", even though there's no chance in hell you'll understand the answer before level Gimel, unless they point. Learning how to tell time, however, is crucial, since the average pedestrian in Jerusalem will be asked the time by Israelis three or four times a day, even with no watch showing. Singing in class is popular. Course length 8 to 10 weeks or combined with Bet and Gimel in a five month program.
Bet - Starting with a vocabulary of a several hundred words, but very poor communications skills; no Israeli will talk Hebrew to you at this point unless you're related or have something they want. The main focus of Bet, beyond the ever present building vocabulary, is the verb system. Hebrew is about as verb based a language as you're likely to encounter, and the Bet level deals with present and past tense verbs, with minor excursions into future and imperative. Also, drills begin to take on some meaning, as you'll now be learning some sentences you might actually hear in regular conversation. The teacher is still speaking very slowly with a carefully selected vocabulary at this point, even though it may seem otherwise. Students at this point may be introduced to the "Easy Hebrew" newspaper, and special radio programs for immigrants. Course length 8 to 10 weeks or combined with Aleph and Gimel in a five month program.
Gimel - Starting with a reasonable vocabulary of every-day Hebrew, and the habit of trying to conjugate verbs when speaking them. The teacher begins to speak faster at this point, and you may begin reading a little from the regular newspapers, Maariv and Yediot Ahronot, both of which are supplied free to the Ulpans. Verbs are covered in the future tense, and the different structures of the verbs (passive, reflexive, causal, etc..) are introduced. The pace of learning the dread exceptions to the regular rules also picks up. On the plus side, you can get by on the street pretty good as long as the person you are talking to wants to communicate. I was near the end of Gimel Ulpan the first time a strange woman in the street tried arranging a date with her grand-daughter for me; at least I think that's what she wanted. Course length 8 weeks or combined with Aleph and Bet in a five month program.
Dalet - Starting with the sort of spoken ability, if not vocabulary, of foreign Asian university students in their first months in the States. Many immigrants have finished used up their education benefits or have decided to go to work by this point, so the selection of class start times and locations is dwindling. Dalet deals mainly with families of verbs and basic rules of grammer that you thought you knew, but were wrong. More focus on media, including newspapers, TV and radio, which means you're developing some ability to understand spoken Hebrew at the regular speed. More attention is given to writing and spelling skills, and political conversations become heated in Ulpans that emphasize speaking skills. Course length 8 weeks.
Hey - Students speak Hebrew at speeds approaching that of older Israelis, and can understand enough of the TV news to wish they didn't. Few Ulpans offer Hey, the remaining immigrants in class came to Israel with a good Hebrew background. Since students are learning vocabulary on their own by this point, the focus is on difficult verbs, constructs, and finer points of grammer. More slang and expressions that don't translate literally are introduced. Course length 6 to 8 weeks.
Vav - The highest level, students all speak and read more than good enough to get by. Composition and proper speech are stressed, along with understanding usages in literary Hebrew. As "sixth formers", Vav students can ask students in the lower classes to bring them coffee, or sharpen their pencils. Due to the language barrier, results vary. I've never attended a Vav (though I like to think I'd fit right in), so I'd be happy to get any comments I can include. Course length 6 to 8 weeks.
Jerusalem Ulpans by Name
Some Ulpans want you, some don't. It depends on your age, your level of commitment, who you are and what you are doing in Israel. Beit Ha-Am is by far the most liberal Ulpan, accepting walk in students at all times, and being the only Ulpan with significant numbers of Arab and other non-Jewish students. Beit-Noar offers the most levels (Aleph through Vav) in a tightly structured sequence, Etzion caters to young immigrants (under 35) with little Hebrew background. Milah and Pardes include liberal doses of Judaism, and are happy to bring you along if you're a little behind the Torah curve. Hebrew University offers a variety of flavors from the intensive summer Ulpan for new students, to night courses, all of which require a written exam for placement and can be taken for University credit, although the cost is appreciably higher than the rest of the Ulpans on a classroom hour basis.
Beit Ha-Am offers Aleph through Dalet (sometimes called Dalet/Hey), on the standard 8:00 AM to 12:30 PM schedule, Sunday to Thursday. Located on Bezalel Street in the same building as the main public library, five minutes from the Mahne Yehuda Shuk (outdoor market) and the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. Beit Ha-Am is the most liberal Ulpan in town, accepting large numbers of Jerusalem Arab students and tourists, which leads to some interesting classroom conversations. It also has the highest turnover, with students coming and going at will, and the structure of the single advanced class (Dalet/Hey) is entirely dependent on whoever is teaching. The ulpan includes an audio-tape lab which is open a few time a week for self study. Slackers can read the Jerusalem Post, Herald Tribune, or other English publication of their choice in the City Library which shares the building. Some Judaic content, mainly from a language and current holiday perspective.
Beit Noar is a bus ride for most people, while it's located on a main drag (Ha-Rav Herzog) in the Israeli equivalent of a Jewish Community Center, it's not near anything in particular. Levels Aleph through Vav are offered throughout the year, so while you may have to wait a couple weeks to get into a class, you can keep going all the way if you want. Learning is very organized with textbooks and a strong emphasis on drilling. The rooms are rather small and crowded (it's popular), so it's well worth asking to sit in a class before signing up for a month. Beit Noar seems to attract a large number of Western immigrants, though the percentage of religious is probably not much higher than Beit Ha-Am, maybe in the 20 - 30% range.
The summer ulpan at the Conservative Yeshiva in its 5th year or there-abouts, and is open to all comers. In other words, it's strictly about learning Hebrew, nobody is going to try to change the shul you do or don't pray in. They are shooting for five levels this summer, an Aleph all the way through to Hey, subject to fine tuning based on the students who register. They are expecting over 100 students in two summer sessions. If I wasn't stuck with a $1200/month house rental in the US for the summer, I'd consider going myself! Since I never attended the Ulpan but did take a summer Chumash class, I can only comment on the general quality of the Yeshiva, which is first rate, so give it a shot. Contact Rabbi Gail Diamond for details and tell her Morris sent you, maybe she'll give you a free verb!
This is the original Jerusalem Ulpan, founded for teaching Hebrew to immigrants in the best Zionist tradition. Etzion concentrates on early courses, nothing higher than Gimel, and starts only two or three times a year. Age is limited to under 35 and they don't want tourists. They will allow an immigrant to sit in and check it out, which I would suggest. Etzion is located on Gad Street in the Talpiyot area, about a 10 minute walk from the German Colony, a heavily American neighborhood. Not a bad location since the Talpiyot has gone from being the industrial district to the shopping district.
Milah is located fairly close to Beit Ha-Am, and has a religious affiliation I can't quite categorize; something between Conservative and Hassidic with a strain of positive thinking? They concentrate on night courses at all levels, starting at regular intervals, maybe five or six time a year. I never sat in a class here, but I was impressed that they had the only Hebrew Literature class (outside the University), a once a week deal. Milah is the organization that published the Maskilon, a highly useful, computer-organized, verb dictionary and usage book.
I've never even visited Morasha, but I recently heard from an enthusiastic student who wrote "they have a unique method of teaching that makes you speak." He probably just meant the standard Ulpan method, but who knows. In any case, if you live in the Morasha neighborhood it should be the first place you check out. From anywhere else, it's a couple busses or an interesting walk.
I've didn't attend Pardes but I've met several graduates. It seems to have the highest Judaic content of any of the mainstream Ulpans, though still the sort of students who would know what happened on Sienfeld last night. A brief visit this year taught that they are a 1 year (or more) study program that includes Ulpan, not the other way around
Hebrew University offers three different tracks for Ulpan students: An intensive summer program to prepare students to sit in regular University classes taught in Hebrew, regularly scheduled daily classes with up to 16 hours a week of class time, and night classes in the 6 to 8 hours per week range. Classes are taught on both campuses, Givat Ram (near the Kinnesset) and Har Ha-Tzofim, the original campus re-captured in the 1967 war. Placement in regular classes is done by written tests which must be take at the Har Ha-Tzofim Campus. Since courses are given for college credit and to prepare students to take academic subjects in Hebrew, the concentration is on reading , writing and understanding - as opposed to the standard Ulpan focus on speech. The night courses also follow this approach, since many of the students are in the workforce and using Hebrew on a daily basis. Finally, since the courses are charged for per credit/hour, I wouldn't suggest the regular classes for tourists. If anybody has attended their intensive ulpan, please clue me in.
(Following is an e-mail received from a Bennington College student)
I attended the Hebrew University summer Ulpan last year (1999) and loved it. It's tough stuff, only seven weeks but worth eight college credits. I learned so much and remember it all. There is an emphasis on reading and writing, as well as speaking. Recognition of words is taught without dots (vowels). Israeli history and culture are looked at from a non-religious viewpoint. Tours of various places around the city are included. If you can, try to find your own place to live, the dorms are rather uncomfortable and cut off from the city.
(Following is an e-mail received from a Brandeis University student)
The level heh Ulpan class that I attended at Hebrew U. was one of the oddest, most stressful and most interesting situations in which I have ever been. There were people from all over the world in my class :U.S., Canada, England, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Moracco, Syria, Turkey, Korea, Japan, and Arab parts of Israel. It was really interesting to be in a class with Arab Israelis. One of the Arabs was quite cynical. I suppose it was a way of dealing with the situation. It was truly wonderful to have class conversations with people from so many different walks of life.
I think that my Ulpan class was different than other Ulpan classes, but perhaps other have had similar experiences. At the beginning it was so stressful and tense I could hardly stand it. There seemed to be every kind of tension possible. There was so much tension you felt like you could cut it with a knife. We always seemed to read the most controversial things, which always split the class in half. For example, we read an article written by someone who "Chazar B'Sh'eilah," and basically the whole article was putting down Chareidim. Anytime there was something to laugh about in class, it was always nervous laughter. It was a microcosm of Israeli society. Religious-Non-Religious tension, Older-Younger tension, Jewish-Arab tension, American-European tension, People who call out during class-people who wait to be called on tension, to name a few.
The two main instructors were very different. One was Datti and the other was Chiloni. One is always so cheery, always smiling and putting everyone in a good mood, and has an air of innocence about her. She went though the exercises thoroughly and in such a clear way, answering everyone's question. Usually I dreaded going to the other teacher's class. You can always tell when a teacher doesn't enjoy his or her job, and that was definitely the case with this teacher. She never had a real smile, and did not explain things clearly. And she rolled her eyes when answering questions.
In addition to the regular main class for which we had two instructors, we had a "text" class where we read texts specific to an interest area of ours. The text class that I took was in Psychology. Out text class is nothing like the regular Ulpan class. There is an air of relaxation, eagerness to learn, and even when discussing things that could turn into something very controversial.
After taking level heh I needed a break from learning Hebrew, so I waited a semester to take level vav. Level vav was very difficult for me. The focus of the class was on insane grammar and vocabulary the kind that absolutely no one uses in every day conversation, but that you would read in Ha'aretz. It was expected that by the completion of level vav, you could write something on the level of Ha'aretz. Even though I did not do so well (I started out very poorly in the area of "insane grammar"), I have never learned so much Hebrew before or after those two classes.
(comment from anonymous)
I am enrolled in Level C of Hebrew Online currently. This is roughly equivalent to Bet-Gimmel from what I can tell so far. It has been fabulous. The software is user friendly, the technology works, and my teacher is great. The fact that their lessons are recorded is wonderful because if I miss one or want to go back over something I didn't quite catch it's very easy. Regarding their free trial, the deal is that you give them, I think 60 USD and they send the headset, book, and you get 2 lessons without committment. If you commit to the full term it is about 865 USD and the semester runs about 9 months with weekly hour long classes. As the class progresses I feel like I am not learning much but each week I look at the homework before the class and I don't understand what to do. After the class the homework seems very easy so I am able to see progress very quickly!
While I am at it I will also comment about Rosetta Stone. I've been using it for about 2 months and it's fabulous and economical. I think it cost about 200 USD which I was hesitant to spend but it has been well worth that and more. My 11 year old daughter also uses it and has made great strides. If you don't know how to read already (without comprehension) I'd imagine that it would be frustrating because the program does work on reading and spelling/writing/typing. Hebrew is presented without nikudot and only in block letters, no script. I like this because it gets me used to reading without nikudot and I already know script. The typing part is really helping with my spelling as well as my typing. Because we plan to make aliyah soon typing is actually important for me. Rosetta Stone allows you to record your voice and listen to it to compare it to the native speaker but doesn't (at least as far as Unit 4) ever ask you to construct your own sentences which is a deficit from my perspective. For this reason I am glad I am also enrolled in the Hebrew Online course because I can speak and have my mistakes corrected by the teacher.