8 Things You Need to Know About…Nissim Behar

Sephardi Jewish educator

1. Nissim Behar, born in Jerusalem in 1848, is considered the father of modern Hebrew language education. He was the son of Rabbi Eliezer Behar, originally of Rumania, who taught him Talmud. But he learned modern Hebrew from Eliezer ben Yehudah [see my post of 2/16/13].

2. In 1863, the Behar family moved to Constantinople. There, Adolphe Cremieux [see my post of 2/19/14] spotted him as a gifted student and in 1867 arranged for him to go to Paris to study at the Ecole Orientale.

3. Having complete his studies, Behar returned east to organize schools on behalf of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Aleppo (1869), Bulgaria (1874) and Constantinople, where he headed the school (1873-82). In 1879 he authored a biography of Cremieux in Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino).

Nissim behar4. In 1882, he returned to Jerusalem, where he was involved in founding the Alliance Israelite Universelle. He both directed the school (1882-7) and taught there. He was a proponent of the “direct method” of language education, which involved submersion in the language. If you’ve studied Hebrew in an ulpan, you’re an indirect beneficiary of his work.

5. In 1901, having ended his teaching career, he moved to New York City to represent the Alliance.

6. In 1906, he founded the National Liberal Immigration League, the mission of which was to lobby against anti-immigration laws such as literacy tests. He was voluble, speaking before Congressional hearings and in other ways giving a public face to a cause that other Jewish organizations thought better handled behind the scenes. He was active in the league until 1924.

7. He was a founder of the Federation of Jewish Organizations, an editor of the Federation’s Review, and a founder, too, of the Jewish Big Brothers League.

8. Nissim Behar died and was buried in the US in 1931. The following year in Jerusalem, his remains were re-interred beside those of his father on the Mount of Olives.

 In Jerusalem, you’ll find Nissim Behar Street running north-south between Agrippas and Bezalel.

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