When I was in Kitah Dalet (fourth grade) in Hebrew school, our principal, Jacob Pecker (otherwise known as Jack or Chayim), decided to combine two grades, split the class in two, and teach one of them only in Hebrew.
This meant that every word Mr. Pecker spoke in class was in Hebrew, whether we understood it or not. And not only did Mr. Pecker speak only in Hebrew, but each student was expected to speak to him and to each other only in Hebrew, at least during class. Suddenly, any and all conversations, questions, instructions, teaching, or general bantering were conducted in Hebrew, no matter the context or subject matter. It was total immersion for several hours each week, and Mr. Pecker was unrelenting.
This edict extended beyond the borders of the classroom. If we encountered Mr. Pecker (we called him Mar Pecker — Mar is Hebrew for Mr.) in shul; on North Street, the main drag in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; in a social setting, or even when he visited my parents at our home, he spoke with us only in Hebrew, and we were expected to answer only in Hebrew.
After that class started, I never spoke another English word to Mar Pecker.
As a 9-year-old, I naively thought Mar Pecker’s method was almost cruel, and for that I secretly called him “Iron-Hearted Jack.” It turned out that he was a master teacher with a vision of what learning a language could look like. This was way before we studied ESL in junior high school and parroted the dialogue back to the tape in the language lab.
This was a real person teaching us the language through the Ein Breirah — there is no choice — method.
Jack Pecker was short and wiry, and he always seemed to have a half-smile. I picture him walking around in the less-than-ideal educational space of our community Hebrew school, stopping in his small office, which was dominated by two metal desks and a mimeograph machine that churned out reams of paper in purple ink. Those worksheets formed the basis of some of our learning. Mar Pecker smoked a pipe, and he always appeared deep in thought, yet he interacted with his teachers and each of us regularly on his meanderings.
Although small in stature, Mar Pecker more than filled the space of our learning center, and he implemented his creative ideas with a fervor. For me, the experience of being in his all-Hebrew class changed my life and allowed me to enjoy a lifelong love of the Hebrew language.
The Ein Breirah method produced an astonishing result. At the end of one year, every single student in Mar Pecker’s class was speaking in Hebrew sentences! The consequences for me were huge. When I attended Camp Ramah in Connecticut the summer after our Hebrew immersion course, I understood my counselor when she woke us up in the morning — “boker tov, banot, z’man lakum” or “Good morning, girls, time to get up” — and I comprehended the announcements made only in Hebrew in the chadar ochel — the dining hall. I found it thrilling to learn the songs for our edah — division — for the zimriah — the music festival — and a favorite game for my bunkmates and me was to mimic our Israeli rosh edah — our division head — talking to her young son in Hebrew.
Hebrew had become second nature to me. It was part of my thought process. And all because of Mar Pecker.
Six years later, when I went to Israel on Ramah Seminar, I was one of the fortunate campers who understood the tour guides who conducted all our tours in Hebrew. And when I spent my junior year abroad in Israel, I studied in ulpan. With the help of an Israeli boyfriend and a few non-English-speaking relatives, my Hebrew improved tremendously so that I could speak easily and have fun doing so. I tested my skills one evening going to hear an Israeli comedy trio, Hagashah Hachivere, and I actually understood some of the jokes!
When my friends and I traveled through Europe during our year abroad and the following summer, we spoke Hebrew all the time. We had our own slang, favorite expressions, and jokes, all in Hebrew. Hebrew had become an integral part of us and our spontaneous reactions to the world around us, all building on the foundation established by Mar Pecker. These Hebrew building blocks and our pleasure in speaking Hebrew were all due to his vision of how to teach and live a language so that it becomes part of you; you think in that language, and the words swirling around in your thoughts are Hebrew words.
What a visionary and revolutionary he was!
Jack Pecker died an untimely death in his early fifties, a tremendous loss to his family and to our community. On his tombstone his family quoted a poem by Chayim Nachman Bialik, the well-known Israeli writer and poet, that expresses the tragedy of Mar Pecker’s early death: “The song of his life was stopped in the middle. He had more songs of praise and joy to sing but the joyous songs are no longer and the melody is lost to him forever.”
The song, the melody, and the beautiful lyrics of Jack Pecker’s vision and talent as an educator are gone, but the ripples of the music he created live on in each one of his students.
Now, so many years later, I am writing to say thank you to Mar Pecker for the gift that he gave to each of us and that has lasted a lifetime for me, the gift that continues to give me pleasure when I daven, read Torah and Haftorah, and read or converse in Hebrew, using a language that continues to fascinate and delight me.
Thank you for giving me the tools to enjoy a lifetime of love and pleasure in the beauty of the Hebrew language.