Sunday, October 05, 2008

Hebrew Lessons

How well I remember my first Hebrew class. I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter and determined to get started with this language that sounded so utterly foreign to me.

I had converted to Judaism several years before and attended services only on the High Holy Days, much as the wayward Christians who attend Christmas and Easter services. I missed being in a choir. I missed understanding what was going on. I was constantly frustrated by not being able to even follow the Hebrew in the prayer book, much less understand it or speak it.

It finally hit me that I was going to be some role model for my children, a newcomer to their religion of birth, but one who was woefully ignorant.

Then I met the young, energetic female rabbi at Temple Beth El. Amy Perlin was the perfect first teacher for me, as I joined a bunch of other adults in her class.

Unfortunately for me they had all grown up hearing and singing the prayers, even though they might not have understood a word of what they said. I read like a first grader, checking each vowel and cautiously sounding out the words, as they zipped through the prayers. It was at least a beginning.

Then just as I was getting drawn into the congregation, they fired her. It wasn’t announced that way, but that is in effect what happened. Her popularity had eclipsed that of the senior rabbi, plain and simple.

So she left to start a new congregation, taking many members with her. It was not at all convenient for us, so we languished at Beth El. The choir I longed for never took off. The rabbi was found to be having an adulterous affair with a congregant. I became further disenchanted as time went by.

Our children had their bar/bat mitzvahs there and then promptly became Jewish dropouts.

It was only when I found Temple Micah and joined the volunteer choir and studied Hebrew once again that my interest in Judaism rebounded.

I was reminded of this just this week for two reasons. I read excerpts of Amy Perlin’s Rosh Hashanah sermon in the September 27 Washington Post. I remembered how smart this Princeton grad was. I remembered that she had a great sense of humor. I remembered how she had kindled a flame in me that almost went out after she left.

The second reason was an experiment in helping a new convert-to-be in Florida learn Hebrew. I know only too well what she is up against. So I bought the book she is using and had my husband make some recordings for her so she can practice. It’s not ideal to give language help long-distance, but technology has made it easier. She is learning as a part of her conversion process, which seems infinitely more extensive and demanding than mine was.

Our wonderful female rabbi Toby at Temple Micah shares the same spunky, upbeat commitment to Judaism that Amy Perlin had. It has been a privilege to know both of these women.


Blogger Pauline said...

I don't know many people who are as outright helpful as you!

8:41 AM  
Blogger Adrianne said...

I think it's great that you have found a place of worship that suits your needs so well. I was never able to find that. Maybe that is why I dropped out of organized religion altogether. I'm happy with my non-church-going status at the moment, but I do miss the music sometimes.

10:22 AM  
Blogger e said...

Wow, Barbara---Thanks again!

11:11 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- Sometimes it doesn't take much to lend a helping hand. In this case, my husband did most of the work because he is a Hebrew guru!

Adrianne -- Forced or pretended religion makes no sense and brings no peace of mind. Some day a religious practice may appeal to you, but until then you seem to be doing just fine with your Buddhist inclinations. There's plenty of good music in non-religious settings!

E -- You are welcome. By the time your conversion is complete, you are going to be a Hebrew expert!

11:58 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

What a gift you've given, and what a gift you have.

5:21 PM  
Blogger e said...

Hebrew expert? Nah...

After two hours of this review, I have a headache!

I feel like I should know the letters we've learned by sight now, but I keep having to look them up to be sure...

5:26 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- The interesting thing about Hebrew is that it is one of the oldest continuously spoken languages in the world. It really is a fairly simple language gramatically, but the Hebrew alphabet takes some getting used to.

E -- And how long have you been at this? Make or buy some flash cards. They always help when learning a language.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Cyndy said...

I sang the Chichester Psalms a couple of times when I was in college, but I guess that wasn't the real thing because it didn't use the Hebrew alphabet. But I really did like the sound of the language and, of course, the music. It's kind of cool to attend a service and still recognize quite a few of the words. Unfortunately I don't remember what they mean anymore.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Cyndy -- I too have loved singing the Chichester Psalms. It is definitely the real thing, just transliterated since Hebrew goes right to left and music goes left to right. I'm curious to know how they deal with this in Israel where the people aren't necessarily trained to read English transliteration!

We do the 23rd Psalm (from the Chichester) on Yom Kippur. It always gives me goose bumps because it is so beautiful.

5:58 AM  

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