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A Love Affair with the Holy Tongue

Today my kids join me as we choose a Hebrew script for the new Torah Congregation Or Ami will scribe next year. Picking a script is akin to picking a computer font: each scribe has a unique way of writing letters, designing the crowns atop them. Some more ancient, some more modern. Decorative or simple. Which is easier to read, which one is more pleasing to look at? Many people will offer input into the choice of the scrip, but there is a unique pleasure in sitting with my kinder (kids) – each of whom can read and speak modern Hebrew on various levels – as we harken back to ancient times to bring to life Holy Letters to life. It led me to recall my many encounters to with the Holy Tongue of our people:

I remember reading Hebrew from Torah when I became a Bar Mitzvah. Like all BM kids, I found it very, very cool to read without vowels, from our most sacred ritual object.

I remember sitting in my rabbi’s office – Gary Glickstein, then of Temple Sinai in Worcester, MA – secretly learning conversational Hebrew to prepare for an upcoming trip to Israel. I wanted to be able to speak the holy tongue like they did in the Israeli street.

I remember sitting in Ulpan – an intensive immersion Hebrew program – in Israel during my post-High School, pre-College summer on the Reform Leadership Machon. Daily, for three hours, we spoke only Hebrew, learning grammar and vocab. We read songs and poetry, stories and Eton l’Matcheeleem (a newspaper for beginners). It was frsutratingly slow, yet – in those in-between moments when I reflected upon it – so meaningful to learn to speak in the ancient language now reborn. I felt like I was walking (or talking) in the ways of Ben Yehuda (the early Israeli pioneer who, in his quest to revive the language, spoke only Hebrew to his family).

I remember making Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, learning Hebrew in its multiple forms – modern language, Biblical and Mishnaic varieties, Aramaic even (a Hebrew/Arabic mix, which was the street language and study language of Mishnah and Talmudic times). Whole swaths of the Jewish past came alive as I continued to crack open the basics of each Hebrew varietal.

These past years I have watched my children begin to call the Holy Tongue their own. The older two learned their Torah portion like you and I would practice reading an article in the newspaper. When my eldest and I together read (and translated) her parasha for the first time while I was running on the treadmill (since she already knew Hebrew, it wasn’t so difficult to guide her through this study). They work on their Jewish Day School Hebrew homework alongside Math, Science and English. Its just what we do. Hebrew is part of their/our lives.

Last January, during a sabbatical from the synagogue, I hired a Hebrew tutor- Belle Michael – to help me improve my conversational Hebrew. Paired with another course studying a Medieval Midrash in ancient Hebrew, I was immersing myself again. We meet regularly at local coffee shops – catch me Wednesday or Friday mornings at Corner Bakery or Barnes and Noble’s coffeeshop. Speaking about religion, life, children, politics – all in Hebrew. Sometimes I work through sermon ideas. Sometimes we read from an adult-level collection of modern Israeli anecdotes. I am so energized to spend one full hour rak b’ivrit – only in Hebrew.

How far have I come? I started reading my first modern Israeli novel in only Hebrew last night. I even smiled when my daughter – impressed as she was with my progress – noted that she read this book in ninth grade. Overnight, in my dreams, I recall thinking about the characters and ideas presented in the book. NOT sounding out the words. I didn’t struggle with the meaning. No, I was reading a modern novel in the language of our people. Truth be told, this version of the book was simplified somewhat for learners, nonetheless, I was reading a book in Hebrew. It felt like another momentous step on a long love affair with our Hebrew Holy Tongue.

I’m reading an Israeli novel. In The Holy Tongue, come alive again! How cool is that!

One comment

  1. Good to read about your excitement about reading a novel in Hebrew. Eliezer ben Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, had a similar experience when as a young boy, he was given a copy of Robinson Crusoe in Hebrew. Until that time, he had only thought Hebrew was good for ancient texts and nothing else. Suddenly he realized Hebrew has always been a living language, spoken by everyone in the Bible for thousands of years, so why should it not be spoken again? He made that dream come alive, all through reading his first Hebrew novel…

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