Image: A golden key. Public domain.
What single thing could most strongly improve the quality of your Jewish experience? It’s simple: learn some Hebrew.
Hebrew is as essential to Jewish citizenship as English is to American citizenship. Sure, there are American citizens who don’t speak English well, but much of the American experience is closed to them. The same is true for Jews and Hebrew: a person can certainly be a good Jew and not be able to read a word of Hebrew, but they will forever be on the outside looking in.
Total fluency takes time and effort. Fortunately, every little bit you learn has a big payoff:
Learn the alef-bet and reap these rewards:
- The letters will cease to be squiggles and become familiar.
- You will have the essential tool to move forward.
Learn a few greetings, and you will:
- Be able to exchange greetings with fellow Jews from all over the world.
- Have something to say to any Israeli you meet.
- Begin to feel more connected to Jews everywhere.
Learn to read and understand a few simple phrases and you will:
- Be able to order coffee on Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv.
- Know more Hebrew than most American Jews.
Take a conversational Modern Hebrew class and you will:
- Be able to visit Israel and feel like mishpachah [family], rather than a tayar [tourist.]
- Have the tools for ever-expanding conversational skills – just keep at it!
- Open the door to Modern Hebrew literature.
Take a Prayer Book Hebrew class and you will:
- Understand prayers, rather than just mouth them.
- Be able to follow along as the Torah and Haftarah are chanted.
- Open the doors to Jewish spirituality.
Take a Biblical Hebrew class and you will:
- Discover that there’s much, much more to those stories in Genesis.
- Begin to enjoy the rich poetry in every line of Hebrew.
- Hold your own in any discussion about “what the Bible really says.”
Keep on studying and the vast universe of Jewish texts and experiences will open to you!
“But I’m not talented at languages!”
So what? You have probably learned many things in your life without being “talented” at them. One can learn to make toast without being a “talented” cook.
In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis tell us that one good deed leads to another. So too, with Hebrew, every bit of progress leads to more progress. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will learn your letters and their rewards will begin!
6 thoughts on “The One (Best) Key to Jewish Experiences”
As a child from the ages of 8 – 12 I studied Biblical Hebrew in preparation for my Bat Mitzvah and though it gave me some conversational Hebrew knowledge I am not nearly as fluent as I would like to be. Your suggestion to take a conversational class has awakened that idea and I am going to seek one locally as the Temple I currently attend does not offer one. Thank you for these great ideas!
As a perennial remedial Hebrew student, I can attest to everything you say! When I realized my relationship with Hebrew would never be one of fluency and that there were many layers of understanding to be had, I relaxed back and decided to simply relish in the slow, ongoing pleasure of working through different books with different emphases. I became comfortable with where I was at, wherever that was, and the constant was just to keep learning. In addition to my little Hebrew chavurah where four or five of us sit around a kitchen table and do exercises out of the wonderful Aleph isn’t Tough series (I’m finally on book 3, having done the first two several times), I’m going back and working through the children’s Mitkadem series so I can help kids work toward their Bar/Bat Mitzvoth. It’s an ongoing thrill of insights into our people, our history, and the spiritual mystical beauty of the language we developed along the way.
Ophira’s Prayerbook Hebrew classes at Sinai were my first real step toward engaging with Judaism. I didn’t have a lot of time available, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted a more formal affiliation with Judaism and definitely wasn’t ready to think about conversion, and most of the other class offerings were at times that didn’t mesh with my musician’s night and weekend calendar, but I did have one hour a week at noon on Wednesdays, and I’ve never regretted it!
Yesterday I experienced that wonderful feeling of randomly being able to read something without niqqud. Okay, I had a hint: צדקה on a wooden box in a synagogue gives me a clue. Still, it was a nice feeling knowing I could read the word.
Exactly! Every letter is a clue, when they become letters and cease to be squibbles. Every consonant is like Ked to sounds that you already know, if you are at all engaged in a Jewish organization. Congratulations on reading “tzedakah” without nikud (vowel markings) !!!
“One can learn to make toast without being a “talented” cook.”
So funny. And who can argue otherwise?!