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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).


  1. Donna Barwald says:

    If you really want to practice your Hebrew, you should come to my husband’s family Seder where the conversation, the arguments, the gossip, AND the Seder itself are all in Hebrew. After participating in a mostly Hebrew seder for 10 years, I even read my part in Hebrew because the English sounds so ordinary and boring compared to lashon hakodesh. I think most Americans miss out on the poetry, the rhyme, the songs, and the alliteration that the Seder in Hebrew contains.

    That said, my 7 year old (and I suspect my 3 year old as well) understands and speaks more modern Hebrew than I do, because we made the decision years ago that in order to participate fully in Jewish (and our family) life, they needed to be fluent in Hebrew. So we’ve spent thousands of dollars sending them to Hebrew gans and Jewish day school.

  2. Thanks for your post. I learned Hebrew through Ulpan Akiva in Israel, which was a 5 or 6 month intensive course, then worked in Israel for many years after that. I know exactly what you mean about steadily increasing your understanding of Hebrew, and starting to understand more and more of what is happening around you in Israel. Opening up the Tanakh and realizing that you can now understand what you read in Hebrew is such an exciting experience, like coming alive after being dead.

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