Tag: Hebrew

Hebrew is Palpitating My Heart

There’s another aspect of being in Israel that palpitates my heart. Hebrew. Danny Siegel, poet and tzedakah (charitable giving) champion, once wrote the poem, Hebrew:

I’ll tell you how much I love Hebrew:
Read me anything Genesis,
or an ad in an Israeli paper, and watch my face.
I will make half sounds of ecstasy,
and my smile will be so enormously sweet
you would think some angels were singing Psalms
or God alone was reciting to me.
I am crazy for her Holiness
and each restaurant’s menu in Yerushalayim or Bialik poem
gives me peace no Dante or Milton or Goethe could give.
I have heard Iliads of poetry, Omar Khayyam in Farsi,
and Virgil sung as if the poet himself were coaching the reader.
And they move me
But not like the train schedule from Haifa to Tel Aviv
or a choppy unsyntaxed note from a student
who got half the grammar I taught him all wrong
but remembered to write with Alefs and Zayins and Shins.
That’s the way I am.
I’d rather hear the weather report on Kol Yisrael
than all the rhythms and music of Shakespeare.

This poem captures one scrumptious aspect of my trip to Israel. Being immersed in Hebrew. Having spent two full years in Israel (post-High School gap year, and first year of Rabbinic School), I learned enough Hebrew to be semi-fluent (at least as far as conversations about eating, politics, religion and day-to-day living). But I was self-conscious enough to let my Hebrew slide. Then, a year ago, I hired a Hebrew tutor to meet me once weekly at a local coffee shop, so that I could talk and hear Hebrew. We graduated to some reading of newspapers and stories. Then she brought me a book in simple Hebrew (Shlosha Yamim Vayeled – Three Days and a Boy) and I surprised myself by plowing through it very quickly. Now as I journey around Jerusalem and the rest of the country, I relish opportunities to speak, read and immerse myself in the Holy Tongue. (I recently wrote about my Love Affair with the Holy Tongue here).

It is important to me, as a Jew and a Rabbi, to be able to communicate in our people’s language. So I traded family histories with the taxi driver in Hebrew. I spent a morning studying with Israelis in the Pluralistic Beit Midrash (study session) all in Hebrew. I am tantalized by the Hebrew in the signs for auto parts or housewares. I find myself eavesdropping on the conversations in the Beit Café (coffee shop), because the Israelis’ Hebrew is finally becoming intelligible. The news on the radio, in Hebrew (speaking still a bit too quickly for me), challenges me to deepen my command of the language. Though most Israelis want to speak with me in English, I respond to them in Hebrew. I can pretty much get along solely in Hebrew. Very cool.

While English was the main language of the CCAR convention, but true to our commitment to the Holy Tongue, our program committee raised up the offerings in Hebrew. Our CCAR convention offered a plethora of opportunities to study texts in Hebrew, to interact with Israelis in Hebrew, and to pray only in Hebrew. In short, so many American Reform Rabbis are fluent in Hebrew – thanks to our mandatory first year of study in Jerusalem. Because we recognize that the Hebrew language connects Jews everywhere as one people.

By the way, the picture is of me and Rabbi Rick Winer (who blogs at Divrei Derech). I’m the good looking one (on the right).

Torah Alive!

My friend, Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg of Shir Tikvah in Troy, Michigan, reports that his congregation is about to celebrate the completion of a Torah they commissioned to have written. How amazing is that? According to the Detroit Free Press:

The project, called Torah Alive!, was started last year and includes the contributions of 500 people from the 750-member congregation; with the help of another artist, the individual members helped write part of the new scroll with their own hands, guided by his expert hands.”It’s an absolute joy to be part of this,” said Michael Silverstein, a Shir Tikvah member and co-chair of Torah Alive!

All involved say that scribing a Torah was both beautiful and meaningful:

“Her calligraphy happens to be outstanding,” said Sleutelberg, often called Rabbi Arnie. “We are receiving a phenomenal Torah scroll filled with grace, beauty and content.”

The Dec. 13 ceremony will feature many of the traditions seen at Jewish weddings. The scroll will be brought in under a canopy known as a chuppah, and there will be wedding music, the signing of a wedding document, the breaking of 35 glasses — even a wedding cake.

“We’re a very creative congregation,” said Rabbi Arnie. “The overriding intent is to create a holy convocation, both solemn and festive.”

How cool is that!?!

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!