Yale professors and Hebrew teachers from across the country gathered in New Haven Saturday night to celebrate Ayala Dvoretzky, senior lector II of Hebrew and coordinator of the Modern Hebrew Program, who retired in the spring after 31 years at the University.
The celebration was a part of the annual Hebrew Pedagogy Seminar, a professional development event that has taken place for the past 14 years at various locations. The conference, which ran Friday afternoon through Sunday morning and drew 47 Hebrew educators to Yale, included an evening reception at Luce Hall in Dvoretzky’s honor. Participants heard speeches from Dvoretzky’s colleagues and students past and present praising her contributions to the Hebrew program and her warm personality.
“[Dvoretzky] has served the Yale community in a variety of pedagogical, curricular, administrative and professional capacities,” Religious Studies professor and department chair Christine Hayes said in her speech at the event. “She has done so with energy and vision, with deep intelligence and sound judgment, with unfailing grace and good humor — even when things looked bleak — and she has been rewarded with tremendous success.”
Dvoretzky arrived at Yale in 1985 to teach an introductory Hebrew course, when classroom technology was limited to chalk, scratchy tape cassettes and “the last working mimeograph machine at Yale,” according to Benjamin Foster, a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations who worked alongside Dvoretzky for decades during his time as department chair. In his speech, Foster credited Dvoretzky with transforming and expanding the Hebrew program.
Dvoretzky told the News that upon her arrival, she decided to incorporate music and culture into her classes, finding it “boring” to only teach grammar and syntax. Dvoretzky would listen to pop songs broadcast on a shortwave radio from Israel, pick relevant songs and transcribe the lyrics to compile into a booklet for students. Dvoretzky added that she put together tapes with about 25 songs per semester until she was able to get funding from the University to buy better technology, such as double tape recorders and a television with multiple broadcast systems for American and Israeli channels.
Dvoretzky, who won a Yale College Teaching Prize in 1993, shared an anecdote about a former student — now a physician in Ohio — who emailed her several years ago asking if she still produced the tapes, because the student’s own young children listen to them. Dvoretzky sent her upgraded recordings.
This exchange is just one example of Dvoretzky’s care for her students, according to students interviewed and those who spoke at the reception.
“It’s not that I decided to be the instructor who is personal,” Dvoretzky told the News. “I guess it’s my character. I find students to be so interesting and I realized very soon after I came here that each person that walks into class is not just a Hebrew class member, but a person who was admitted to Yale because he can do a whole lot of other interesting things.”
Former student Sarah Strong ’16 said Dvoretzky introduced her to the Modern Hebrew Program, from which she took seven classes in three years. Robert Proner ’19 said Dvoretzky’s introductory Hebrew class got him interested not only in the language, but also in the cultural and social nuances of Israel.
NELC major Abigail Elder ’17 said her time in Dvoretzky’s class shaped her interest in the Middle Eastern region, adding that taking Dvoretzky’s class as a freshman was an “incredible” start to college because the students in her small class became, and have stayed, close. Elder assisted the Hebrew program in collecting submissions for a memory book for Dvoretzky that was presented to her at the reception and contained more than 45 notes from students.
“You could tell she truly was invested in each of her students on an emotional level,” Proner said. “While we would joke that she was our collective savta [Jewish grandmother], she really does feel like that wise relative who’s looking out for you and just wants the best for you.”
Strong added that Dvoretzky was the “driving force” behind the Hebrew program, which Dvoretzky’s colleagues echoed in their speeches. Dvoretzky expanded the number, variety and level of Hebrew courses offered, Hebrew senior lector II and Hebrew Program Director Shiri Goren said.
Goren said several years ago, when Yale voted to reduce the language requirement from four to three semesters, Dvoretzky’s vision helped the department recruit and retain students, especially in advanced classes.
In her speech, Hayes recalled her experience working with Dvoretzky in the 2004–2005 academic year when the University was considering reducing the number of Hebrew lector positions from two to one and a half. The two produced a 33-page single-spaced report that persuaded the administration to expand the program to three lectors and a graduate student instructor. Hayes added that two years after the program expansion, Hebrew language enrollments were up 40 percent.
“It wasn’t customary in those days for nonladder faculty members to attend meetings with the department,” Foster told the News. “[Dvoretzky] was one of the first … She was always safeguarding her program, wanting to make sure that Hebrew was alive and well and strong. I don’t believe she ever missed a meeting.”
Dvoretzky’s three decades of contribution to the University serve as a reminder of the “significant, professional and meaningful” work done by nonladder faculty every day, Goren said. Dvoretzky said that as a nonladder faculty member, she was never permitted to take a sabbatical — something she plans to do now that she has retired. And beyond supporting existing Hebrew faculty, Dvoretzky said she has no plans other than auditing University courses and reading for pleasure, rather than for curriculum building.
Dvoretzky added that she hopes her legacy will be sparking students’ personal identity discovery through language study.
“If I can spark the beginning of that journey, I think I’m very blessed for people to allow me to access that in them,” Dvoretzky said. “I don’t take it for granted just because I walk in the door and you sit there and I tell you something and you do homework that I have the right to tell you more than that. … I’m very sad to leave because I like teaching and I’ll miss the students and the process of give and take. I think I’ll miss it forever.”
Dvoretzky added that she will miss her colleagues in the Hebrew and other departments, but she knows that she is leaving the department in capable hands.
The reception was planned so that Hebrew professors both from home — Yale and New Haven — and colleagues in the field from as far away as Colorado could celebrate Dvoretzky’s career and discuss the future of pedagogy, Goren said.
“Ezra Stiles once opined that knowledge of Hebrew would allow Yale students, when they went to heaven, to understand what the angels were singing,” Foster concluded in his speech. “The goals of Yale’s Hebrew curriculum have considerably diversified since then, and we salute you, our long-time friend and colleague, Ayala Dvoretzky, for making this happen.”