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Featured Faculty: Yair Shahak

Yair Shahak is a beloved Hebrew Instructor at Yeshiva College. Recently, Shahak was the champion of the 2014 United States National Bible Contest for Adults and also represented the United States in the International Chidon Hatanach in Jerusalem. He sat down for a discussion with Yadin Teitz. (The transcription has been modified slightly.)


YT: First and foremost, let’s talk Tanakh.

YS: I've been interested in Tanakh since I was very young. I think that my primary connection to Tanakh is the Biblical Hebrew language it employs, particularly in the books of Isaiah, Job, and Proverbs. As I love languages, I was naturally drawn to the single most important Hebrew source available to us. Growing up, I also loved the different personality traits each biblical character displayed, from Yael to Yehu to Ya'azanyahu in the book of Ezekiel. My love for the language led me to study more Semitic languages, write poetry in Biblical and post-Biblical Hebrew (which was published in Hador: The Hebrew Annual of America), and begin work on an opera for which I am writing the music and the libretto—in Biblical Hebrew.

YT: What was the contest like? How did it feel to win the US competition?

YS: Winning the competition was a surreal experience. Going into the competition, I didn't know who my competitors would be; I only knew that they were the ones who scored the highest in the country on the preliminary exam. During the actual competition, I was fortunate enough to score all 50 points on the written exam portion, which helped maintain my lead to the end. It was not easy; my competitors knew Tanakh very well and it definitely showed. I was overjoyed, humbled, and honored to actually win.

YT: Congratulations on your win. You mentioned that you’ve been interested in Tanakh since you were young. Where were you raised? Where did you go to school?

YS: I was born in Brooklyn to an Israeli family. I went to a very Charedi yeshiva for elementary and high school, the latter of which focused heavily on Gemara—I think 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then 5:30-9/10 p.m. again. It certainly gave me a solid foundation for learning and understanding a blatt Gemara on my own, but I had to study (or review) many of the secular subjects outside the classroom, as learning them was not a priority within the 'system,' to say the least.

When I was studying at YU, I was in MYP, mainly in Rav Wieder's shiur. I triple-majored in Jewish Studies (with a concentration in Bible), Hebrew Language and Literature, and Music. While enrolled as an undergraduate, I started working towards an M.A. in Bible from Revel, and completed the requirements for both B.A.and M.A. at the same time. I was fortunate to have fantastic professors in these fields (and many others). I am currently in the process of studying for my final examinations within the Belz School of Jewish Music, where I plan on receiving a Cantorial Diploma at the end of next semester.

YT: Triple Major? Wow!

YS: YU has a lot of great programs and departments! In my opinion, YU could push, emphasize, and advertise their Jewish Studies program even more. The Jewish Studies department is really phenomenal and should be constantly highlighted and showcased.

YT: You’re in a unique position to reflect on how YU has changed since you were a student. What have you noticed?

YS: YU students—in line with the rest of the world—are spending a significant amount of time on their electronic devices, both in and out of the classroom. This is both a blessing and a curse. Technology lets us have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips, but it can also be very distracting. For me, I find that being away from the computer helps my productivity, but everyone's different. I also feel like the environment has changed subtly. Both the right and the left (politically, religiously, etc.) have become more polarized. Maybe this was just my experience, but when I was in YU I sensed a 'live and let live' vibe. Now, I think both sides have become slightly more, shall we say, entrenched in their beliefs.

YT: (laughing) That’s certainly true. And the Commentator has really become the outlet for those beliefs. How did you choose your career path?

YS: It's cliche, but you can say that the career chose me. During my final semester at YU, I was looking into working for the FBI as a contract linguist, but YU offered me a full-time position, and so I accepted it. However, I actually have three (arguably four) different careers. When I am not teaching at YU, I am a performing violinist in the tri-state area and beyond (I'm classically-trained). I am also a chazzan in two different shuls (year-round and for Yamim Noraim). And on the side, I'm involved with several part-time projects. For example, I was recently asked to translate a short document from English to German. Just last week, I was called upon to conduct a choir for an upcoming Shabbos performance (I had to turn it down, as I'll be in Israel). And so on. You can say I get around... it always seems funny to me when my worlds collide, such as when I see students of mine at a wedding I'm playing at, or two weeks ago, when a colleague from the music world surprised me and came to the Chidon. I also lecture on languages and the relationship between Tanakh and the Ancient Near East at a number of different institutions, most recently Cornell and Yale.

YT: Let’s talk about your job. What’s unique about teaching at YU?

YS: Something that's unique about teaching Hebrew at YU is that most of my students have already had extensive experience with the language, for better or for worse. This means that I generally don't need to start from scratch, but I usually do need to eliminate misconceptions about the language that some of them may have. Another thing that's unique about YU students and their relationship to the Hebrew language is that they find that studying Hebrew helps them understand davening (prayer), leining (Torah reading), and other related aspects of the Jewish liturgy.

YT: What’s your favorite aspect of teaching, and what’s your least favorite?

YS: My favorite aspect of teaching is when my students finally understand parts of Hebrew that they never have before. It's very heartening when students tell me that, for the first time in twelve years, they have understood what a binyan actually means, or the logic behind a daghesh in a letter. I try to draw upon other languages (primarily English) to explain the relevant concepts in Hebrew, and I find that they appreciate that approach to teaching the language.

A definite highlight of my time at YU, and my life, was winning the Professor of the Year Award in 2013. Being elected by the student body and the fact that Hebrew is—let's be honest—not most people's favorite subject, made it both very meaningful and humbling. It meant a great deal to me and made me strive to become an even better educator.

I think my least favorite aspect of teaching YU students—and this isn't their fault!—is that most, if not all, come to YU with preconceived notions (from their previous experiences learning the language) that Hebrew is a ridiculously complicated language, makes no sense, and, while there are certain rules, they're always broken and therefore unreliable. I therefore need to work hard to make them realize that Hebrew is not 'random,' that the language as a whole makes sense, that there's much more to it (or any language) than just charts of endless verbs, and so on.

YT: There’s been a lot of discussion of developing new ways to teach languages, instead of using traditional methods of memorization and grammar rules. What are your thoughts on this?

YS: This is an interesting question, as different people believe different things or have been taught in different ways. First off, studying grammar is immensely important, and no serious language teacher can get around that fact. Memorization plays a key role, as well. There are many people who disparage memorization, but it plays a key role in mastering any language, whether you use the Pimsleur technique (which I highly recommend), or spend hours each day conjugating verbs in charts. I believe that if you truly want to be able to speak a language (assuming that language is currently spoken, i.e. not a dead language), you need to immerse yourself in it as much as you can. Go to the country, speak to the people (don't be afraid; making mistakes is fine and won't be frowned upon by the natives of most countries), immerse yourself in the culture, and embrace the language.

If that's too expensive or impractical, create an environment of artificial immersion. Watch movies and shows with subtitles in the target language, find people online who want to learn English and offer to exchange language teaching with them in barter-style; there are plenty of resources out there. If you have limited time and still want to learn a new language, find yourself a good textbook supplemented by a well-designed oral program, such as Pimsleur. I found that for me, the combination of an oral program, plus a well-written textbook, plus one additional resource (such as busuu or Duolingo) worked rather well.

YT: What are your hobbies? How do you spend your free time?

YS: (smiling) Between teaching, my work with music and languages, and other day-to-day things that crop up, I am usually swamped with tasks I need to complete.

That being said, when I do have free time, I love playing games of logic and deduction such as chess and The Resistance, catching an episode of The Simpsons, and reading anything by J.R.R. Tolkien or Agatha Christie.

YT: With all that you do, what keeps you going?

YS: I've always had a strong desire to know more about the world and how it works. I went into YU (and for my first two years I was) thinking that I would major in chemistry, as I was fascinated by it. That didn't end up happening in the end, but the drive—the thirst to know more—has always been there in me. Knowing that there is always another book to read, another language to learn, another violin concerto to master, another person to learn from, etc., serves as an ongoing, personal motivation for me.

YT: What’s the best advice you can give students?

YS: In general, strive for perfection, but prioritize deadlines. Constantly push yourself to do more; you can. If you're an A student, don't freak out if you get a C once in a while. If you're not meant for an academic environment (and that's fine!), find something you're really good at and become the absolute best at it. Respect every person you meet.

For Hebrew students—I know that learning this language (for the tenth time) may seem frustrating, but please believe me when I say that Hebrew has a well-grounded internal logic and, if taught well, can be immensely rewarding.