Yale Daily News

At the beginning of each semester, former Director of the Modern Hebrew Language Program and Senior Lector II of Hebrew Ayala Dvoretzky asked students in her Hebrew classes to start a journal. Students filled the first few pages with the Hebrew alphabet and the few words of the language they knew. As the students progressed through the Hebrew program at Yale, the pages of their journals evolved, both a product and cause of their improvement in the Hebrew language.

To Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of the Center for Language Study, these journals not only traced the growth of students’ Hebrew abilities but also revealed the deep relationship students developed with the language over time.

Dvoretzky, who retired in spring 2016 after 31 years of teaching at Yale, died earlier this month at the age of 72, after an eight-month struggle with illness. But the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department’s Modern Hebrew Program at Yale is thriving today because of her, according to her colleagues.

Dvoretzky was “basically” the founder of the program, said senior lector I of Hebrew Dina Roginsky. When she came to Yale in 1985, the Modern Hebrew curriculum consisted of a one-semester course in simple conversation. Under her guidance and leadership, the program grew into what Van Deusen-Scholl called a “model program” and one of the strongest language programs at Yale, with a rich sequence of offerings in literature, film, print and electronic media. Juliana Ramos-Ruano, senior lector I in Spanish who audited several of Dvoretzky’s Hebrew classes, said the Modern Hebrew program at Yale is Dvoretzky’s legacy, adding that her creation of the program “from scratch” is even more impressive given that it is difficult to implement programs and initiatives as a lector.

According to Professor of NELC Benjamin Foster, Dvoretzky was one of the first language lectors to take an active role in both departmental and university administration. In a speech dedicated to Dvoretzky in honor of her retirement in the fall of 2016, Foster said that Dvoretzky was a “voice of reason, integrity and common sense” in departmental affairs. At a time when it was unconventional for instructional faculty, also known as non-ladder faculty, to attend departmental meetings, Dvoretzky never missed a NELC meeting and consistently advocated for Yale’s Hebrew program.

When the University was considering reducing the number of Hebrew lector positions from two to one and a half in the 2004-2005 academic year, Dvoretzky worked with Religious Studies professor Christine Hayes to produce a 33-page report recommending sweeping changes to revitalize the Hebrew program at Yale. The report not only dissuaded the University from reducing the number of lectors but also convinced the University to expand the program to three lectors and a graduate student instructor.

“I think it’s really really important that Yale acknowledges the contributions of the instructional faculty. She was such a big part of not only the Hebrew program but [also] the [NELC] department,” said Christina Kraus, a classics professor and former chair of the NELC department.

After she retired, Dvoretzky volunteered to come back to Yale weekly to have office hours with both students and colleagues. Current Director of the Modern Hebrew Program Shiri Goren said that even from her hospital bed, Dvoretzky continued to discuss the Hebrew program and its future with Goren.

A beloved teacher, Dvoretzky won the Yale Teaching Prize in 1993. Karen Foster, lecturer in the NELC and History of Art Departments praised Dvoretzky, her colleague and friend for over 30 years, for “the joy she took in her students.”

“Her eyes would light up as she told of this one’s intellectual curiosity, that one’s talents outside of the classroom, or another one’s puns made in Hebrew and English,” Foster said. “Beyond her profound knowledge of modern Hebrew and Israel, she knew and appreciated her students as people.”

Van Deusen-Scholl said Dvoretzky had a “huge” impact on the wider language community at Yale as well, serving as a mentor for lectors teaching other languages. Ramos-Ruano said that despite the fact that they taught different languages, she learned from Dvoretzky the importance of making her students feel welcomed and the power of infusing culture, music and poems into the language learning process.

Beyond her contributions to the Modern Hebrew Program, Dvoretzky will be remembered for her warm and loving personality, her colleagues said.

“It was impossible not to love her. There was charisma in her as a person,” Ramos-Ruano. “It’s difficult for me to be on campus and not see her face.”

Goren said her favorite memory of Dvoretzky dates back to 2006, when she was interviewing for a position at Yale. A graduate student at the time, she expressed concern to Dvoretzky, the chair of the search committee, about her English and Israeli accent.

But Dvoretzky calmed her fears, saying, “Hebrew is a language program in a department with many other language programs … We don’t need to have a perfect English and we all have accents — it’s part of our job.”

“To me, Ayala’s statement illustrated already then a clear professional identity and articulated ethics that I share,” Goren said. “Her words stressed the internationality of our Yale community and modeled the tolerance and diversity I was looking for. I remember thinking to myself that I’d be fortunate to work in a place like this. And even after 12 years of teaching at Yale, I still think that.”

When senior lector in Arabic Sarab Al Ani came to Yale in 2009, Dvoretzky helped her navigate the administrative aspects of teaching at Yale. Al Ani described Dvoretzky as “loving” and “motherly.” Every Mother’s Day, she would send Dvoretzky an electronic Mother’s Day card.

Roginsky said Dvoretzky’s generosity, wisdom and kindness helped her feel at home at Yale.

“She was the one who gave me a feeling of home at Yale, due to her generosity and wisdom,” Roginsky said. “I wish I will be able to pass on her legacy to our students in the future years of the Hebrew program.”

Donations may be made to support a memorial fund in Dvoretzky’s honor to Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu