Speaking their mind

‘Linguistic challenges and riddles’ at Hebrew Language Olympics

Some 3,700 youth participate in annual contest inaugurated by Tel Aviv University in 2021; after final round last weekend, winners to be announced at June awards ceremony

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Students at the Tel Aviv University campus for the Hebrew Language Olympics, on April 5, 2023. (courtesy)
Students at the Tel Aviv University campus for the Hebrew Language Olympics, on April 5, 2023. (courtesy)

The third annual Tel Aviv University-sponsored Hebrew Language Olympics drew to a close this past weekend, with hundreds of teenage participants from Israel and around the world taking part in the final rounds of the relatively new language contest, which takes the shape of written tests.

The competition for middle school and high school students is an effort to expose participating youth to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew language by using “linguistic challenges and unusual riddles,” as well as “ciphers, word interpretations, idioms and more,” the organizers said in a statement this week.

“Our goal is to encourage children to love the Hebrew language, which is not a class generally loved in schools,” explained organizer Dr. Einat Gonen, senior lecturer at the Tel Aviv University Hebrew Language Department.

“We want to give it a place and show that it’s cool, our goal is to have children come from all kinds of backgrounds to see the beauty of Hebrew. It’s important,” Gonen said, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone.

Experts designed the various exams and quizzes to engage the youths and be “far away from all the usual ways” Hebrew is taught in schools, she stressed.

The contest, which Gonen said has grown tremendously since it was inaugurated in 2021, is much different than the long-running National Bible Contest, traditionally held on Israel’s Independence Day, which stresses “memory and knowledge,” but not “thinking skills,” she added.

Some 3,700 students participated in the first phase of the contest in January, which was held online, and over 400 made it to the just-completed final stage, which took place at Tel Aviv University. The winners will be announced in June at a gala ceremony on the university campus.

Students at Tel Aviv University taking the final quiz in the Hebrew Language Olympics, on April 5, 2023. (courtesy)

For the first time this year, a group of ultra-Orthodox girls participated, and next year is planned to include ultra-Orthodox boys, communities who received slightly different exam questions due to their cultural sensitivities, Gonen said.

The contest also featured the participation of students from around the world, who are mostly children of Israelis who live abroad. Those who participated in the final stage took the exams in person at local universities.

In one case, Gonen related, a father called to tell her that his son was taking the Hebrew language exam at UC Berkeley while a large anti-Israeli demonstration was taking place.

The Hebrew Language Olympics is a project of the Koret Center for Jewish Civilization, part of TAU, and also received support from Check Point Software Technologies and Final, two Israeli high-tech companies.

Most Popular
read more: