Location: United States

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A boyhood with Hebrew.

Since I was a young man I have been exposed to Hebrew.

My parents sent me to a Hebrew school for many years during my pre-teen and teen years. I would finish public school and then go to this school which was held in a local synagogue two to three times a week.

Few of the teachers had any background in teaching. Or, at least, this was my impression. However, they all seemed very supportive of the students and this counted for a lot. As teachers they realized that most of us really didn't want to be there. We would much rather have been doing something, anything else except be in this place where we had to learn things that seemed to have little relevance to our immediate lives as kids.

But we had no choice in the matter. Our parents decided and we complied.

Hebrew was part of Jewish religious life. All of our prayers were in this language. Of course, the various holidays all were interwoven with Hebrew; their names were in Hebrew. So we came in contact with this language in different ways even though we were not necessarily aware of it.

Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and other holidays all had Hebrew names. We never paid any attention to their derivations or linguistic significance. We just knew what they were and that was sufficient. In fact, for many years, before I took any particular interest in language per se, I used these terms simply because there were no other terms that indicated these concepts.

We never said Festival of atonement. We just would say, Yom Kippur. No one ever used the English translation for Sukkot, Feast of Tabernacles. We just said, Sukkos ( the European or Ashkenazi pronunciation of Sukkot). If you had asked me what was a tabernacle I certainly wouldn't have known the answer.

When was the last time you used the word tabernacle in daily conversation?

When I was bar mitzvahed at age 13, I chanted the Torah passage ( Pentateuch or first five books of the Torah or Bible) for that week. Afterwards, I also chanted a Haftorah, the passage from the Prophets and Writings of the Torah or Old Testament ( Bible) associated with that week's Torah portion. They were entirely in Hebrew.

I had absolutely no idea of what I was reading or chanting. I had memorized the entire thing.

To say that I was nervous, doing this in front of a large audience, thirteen years old, dressed in a suit and tie, would be an understatement.

My associations with this language were mostly unpleasant. No one I knew used it except for religious and cultural purposes.

I vaguely knew that Hebrew was the official language of the Jewish homeland, Israel. However, I had never met anyone from there and heard them speaking it or so I thought. I certainly had never visited there.

Later, I discovered that many of our teachers were Israelis living in our area who worked as teachers to earn money on the side. However, at the time this never registered.

My grandparents had visited Israel and had given us momentos of their trip, Israeli coins. These were framed and sat in our living room.

My grandfather also collected Israeli postage stamps. He made sure that my father and uncle received all new issues of these stamps and we still have the albums containing these stamps.

My father is now 95. He no longer collects stamps. My uncle and grandfather are both dead. The albums sit in a closet gathering dust.

For years I could not read the language written on those stamps, Hebrew.

Then, one day, in a burst of intellectual curiosity I decided to finally learn Hebrew.

( to be continued)

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The book sickness. Part Two.

The first part of The book sickness was published on this blog in February, 2007.



Mr. Turetz had a daughter.

She would appear occasionally. They didn't get along at all. The daughter wore a cotton print dress, had dark hair, a small moustache, a face adorned with glasses in a cheap black frame and smelled of body odor. She was plump without being fat. Around her neck hung a slender silver chain. Imagine a pug wearing glasses and a silver chain and you will begin to approximate her likeness.

I didn't like her. Whenever I walked in and saw her I knew that I would have a hard time buying anything. She was basically greedy and always demanded a lot more for the books than Mr. Turetz. Her father often told her that she was wasting their money on drink and worthless men. She would then yell at him.

Little love was exchanged between the two when I was present.

Mr. Turetz was often away buying stock for the store. I used to wonder about this and would question him about how he got the materials. He just muttered that he got them and that was that. He clearly wasn't as taken with his work as much as I was.

For me, the shop was a magical place.

It is hard to adequately describe the joy of finding books, magazines, catalogues from the nineteenth century, and so many other things that just happened to be in some pile at my feet. I imagined sleeping in the store, forever mining it for new riches. I never wanted to leave but eventually I had to or the sun would set and I would get hit by a car and my books would all be lost.

The things I discovered there still remain in my head, the treasures of boyhood. While other boys were out chasing girls and getting stoned I was slowly making my way though an urban gold mine.

The store didn't seem to have many customers when I was there. Probably much of that was because its contents were so haphazardly arranged. To say that they were arranged would be an overstatement.

They were hastily thrown together in wild approximations of bizarre relationships that came out of the mind of the owner. Cook books were interspersed with tomes on toxicology and poisons. Maybe this was a comment on the daughter's cooking. I do not know and probably will never know this. The magic books, for there were quite a few of them, were in a large, wooden orange crate in front of what was probably a bathroom at one point but now was hermetically sealed by thousands of old books. There were books in many foreign languages as well as thick 78 rpm recordings for immigrants in the 1920's issued in various languages by long gone, arcane record labels. I bought several for my listening pleasure. They are now all gone the result of my parents attempts to clean out their home.

At the time I created my own radio station in my basement bedroom.

The station lacked a transmitter, a microphone and anything else that might qualify it as a radio station. However, it did have a phonograph which played both 33 and 78 rpm records all of which came from the book store in Morristown.

I would carefully arrange the records by language and ethnicity. Then I would sit at my wooden student desk and design elaborate schedules for various programmes. For example, I had a Czech program. Why? Because I had a two-sided 78 rpm recording of Czech ( Bohemian) polkas. Then I would read aloud from NY Listy, a Czech paper from Manhattan which I had purchased on one of my trips into the city. Whether I pronounced the words right never crossed my mind.
I was a Czech-language announcer while my friends, of whom I had none, got laid.
In my world everything was proceeding according to plan. What the plan was I never discovered but I enjoyed the trip while I transmitted in various languages to a universe of disincarnate beings.

I also had a 33 rpm recording of Lichtensteiner Polka sung in lusty German. This was the sole recording of the German sendung. For this programme I read aloud from the NY Staats-Zeitung, the local German rag. I read the same news over and over again. Since I understood none of it it really wasn't a problem from my end. What the listeners thought I can't say. Since they never provided any feedback this made things even easier.

It made for a perfect relationship which repeated itself innumerable times over much of the rest of my life.

(to be continued)

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