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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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