I gave this as a sermon on Shabbat, April 22, 2023, preceding Israel's 75th anniversary of independence.
What I remember first about Mrs. Nussbaum’s Sunday School class is that everyone learned how to read a whole Hebrew word before I did.
I can remember coming and looking at the book and I saw nothing. I recognized individual letters; we had been learning those for a couple years. But while other kids were sounding out words I could not, I saw just overwhelming Scrabble racks on the page.
Well, the reason I was behind was that I had missed a class or two, being sick at the start of the year. And I can remember exactly how I was sitting in the JCC when suddenly it all snapped into focus. Dani b'veit haknesset, Nira b'veit haknesset... I can picture the table where I was, closer to the door than to the window looking out on St. Paul Avenue. With Dani and Nira, Mrs. Nussbaum, my friends David Glaser and Holly Brod and a few others, it was off to the races. And look at me now -- tistaklu alai achshav!
This is my love letter to the Hebrew language, and my thank you to the people who gave me Hebrew, as we get ready to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary this week and launch a season of celebration and learning too I hope from now through our May 21 New Hampshire-wide gathering.
Mrs. Nussbaum was our teacher at Shaare Shalom, a small group of maybe 50 families at its biggest. (She was the one who in first or second grade let me play the part of God in the paper bag puppet show about the binding of Isaac, so long as I and my bearded God would be hidden under the table.) She set us up to start in third grade at the Talmud Torah of St. Paul, which for a golden few decades from the ‘70s through the ‘90s especially was a city-wide supplementary school that all the Conservative and Reform students attended.
Again I can remember so much specific about third grade with G'veret Vlodaver. We got right to it with basic grammar so we could read things and write things -- kotev, kotevet, kotvim, kotvot. I remember the first songs we learned with Sh’ulah and her accordion -- yadaim l’ma’alah... mi ohev et hashabbat... The songs were simple and taught us some basic vocabulary and grammar.
And for me Hebrew was always simple for some reason. I don’t have a natural ear for language generally. I think for me it was partly because I’m a nerd and the structure was appealing to me. Three letter shorashim, roots, easy to plug into a chart. I may still have the blue mimeograph sheet from 3rd or 4th grade with the past tense -- katavti, katavta, katavt, I wrote you wrote... Even the irregular verbs in Hebrew have patterns, all the verbs that start with nun or yod. We had a Ben Yehuda small Hebrew English dictionary at home and a snapshot of me in fifth grade or so would be me studying the charts of the seven verb conjugations. I learned the terminology of subject and object, direct and indirect, active and passive, long before we learned grammar terms in public school. Somehow grammar was what I really wanted to get.
My parents were of course a big factor, and I have to ask them how much intention they had in setting up our home. My dad would be the doctor for a week at Herzl Camp, and we would be with the whole camp in what they called the chadar, the dining hall -- camp has its own Hebrew with its sometimes questionable relationship to actual Hebrew -- and that’s where we heard all the Israel songs, the Zionist songs, Bashanah Ha’ba’ah, which today are standards but back then were brand new. Dad would always steal some copies of the shiron, the song book, and we’d try to replicate those camp Shabbat meals on Friday nights just the four of us. A lot from transliteration, mangling the words I am sure. Later, Mom and Dad would play Hebrew records after Shabbat dinner -- from Debbie Friedman, or the Israeli Chasidic Song festival that had rolled into St. Paul when I was about ten.
I remember in those years especially, later in grade school and junior high, this sense that the songs’ meanings were on the tip of my tongue. I knew something like half the words, and for some reason didn’t apply myself to learning the other ones, I wonder why. But that tip of my tongue kept me going.
In my early Hebrew education, there was no sense of division between modern Hebrew, the Torah, and the Siddur (prayerbook). But apart from one or two rules about verbs, we could just as easily read and translate a verse of the Torah as a poem about a nad'nedah, a see-saw at a playground, with a basic lexicon of verbs and some basic grammar and a dictionary. I mean really, in the Torah what do people do other than talk, omer or daber, or eat, ochel, or give and go, ten and lech?
The revival of Hebrew as a living and creative language, of modern society and culture, came about in the past two hundred years and it was possible because of the unique story of the Hebrew language over the past three thousand years.
We know that Hebrew was the language of the Land of Israel during biblical times, and there were other languages in the land and in surrounding lands that were related Hebrew the way that Spanish and Italian are related. We know that there were dialects and accents even in ancient Israel. The English word “shibboleth” comes from a story in the book of Judges, where a group of Jews from the Gil’ad region were fighting a group from the tribal area of Ephraim, and the Ephramites were trying to pass through after losing the battle. The Gil'adim asked each one to say the word shibolet, which means the head of a stalk of grain, but the Ephramites could only say si-bolet, and let’s just say it didn’t end well for them.
As Jews were exiled to Mesopotamia, and then restored to Eretz Yisrael under imperial rule -- Persian, Hellenistic, Roman -- Hebrew itself was transformed, it took in so many words from the imperial languages, and Hebrew became less and less the spoken language of Judea, even though it continued to be a language of writing and accounts and sacred literature. The typical Jew in Roman Judea or Palestine would not have been monolingual in Hebrew, and probably spoke more Greek or Aramaic.
When the Temple was destroyed, Hebrew was concentrated by the early rabbis, who produced their work in a simple Hebrew style with a straightforward grammar of subject, verb, object. They took advantage of the basic patterns of Hebrew to pass along their teachings in very simplified and rhythmic Hebrew, one that could be spoken and repeated easily by students who weren’t speaking Hebrew in daily life. During the Middle Ages, some poets and composers took a kind of Rococo, almost Shakespearean path leading to some of the most complicated works in our prayerbook. But for even the typical literate person it was the simplified Hebrew of the Mishnah that they knew, with its labels for things of religious significance and mundane life. It was a slimmed down language for centuries, a kind of hibernation or preservation strategy in retrospect.
The idea of Hebrew as a primary language emerged during the Jewish Enlightenment, especially in the 1800s. First there was literature, a conscious effort to breathe life into Jews by escaping Talmudic Aramaic and shtetl Yiddish. Then came Zionism and the idea of speaking Hebrew as a primary language, as a way to be a new Jew. My favorite story about this relates to Eliezer Ben Yehudah, who was raised a traditional Jew in Belarus and made aliyah in the first modern wave in 1881 at the age of about 23. He lived in Jerusalem and dedicated himself to creating a fully functioning modern Hebrew. One day a religious Jew heard him giving instructions to his dog in Hebrew. This struck him as a sacrilige, how could you use the Lashon Hakodesh this way, the holy language of the Torah? And they killed Eliezer’s dog. But the dogs and their owners got the last word.
The Hebrew of today makes it easy to read the Hebrew of Maimonides from the Middle Ages, or the Torah itself, even as Hebrew has stretched to incorporate modern words from other languages, sometimes even into the classic three-consonant root form. I remember staring at a milk carton in Israel trying to figure about what m’hum’gan meant -- it’s "homogenized", in its exactly appropriate one of the seven verb conjugations.
For me, when I went to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin just before 9th grade, the placement test put me in the same group as kids from the Solomon Schechter Day School in suburban Chicago. I could understand everything they could learning Hebrew every day, about Maimonides’ teachings about tzedakah in the original or in our modern Hebrew class. But for the first time in my life, the sessions were ivrit b’ivrit, Hebrew learned by speaking Hebrew, and I hardly spoke a word all summer unlike the day school kids. That would be my mission eventually, to be able to speak.
Through junior high and high school the head of the Talmud Torah was Rabbi Yosi Gordon. Yosi was from Green Bay, Wisconsin, a Jewish cheese-head, and he was the one American we knew who both loved Hebrew and really knew it. He told us this story, about being a student at the Hebrew University on his year-abroad and really wanting to develop an Israeli accent. So he went to a tutor, worked on his r’esh’es and vowels, and the test was for him to go to this particular Jerusalem barber. You’d get your hair cut and talk, and the barber would try to figure out where you were from. The first time Yosi went the barber was challenged, and said he had narrowed it down to Romania or somewhere. Yosi said nothing, went back for more lessons, and eventually passed the barber test as Israeli.
Yosi was the one person in shul who davvened out loud. Even in high school, most of the right side of the Siddur was just overwhelming gibberish; I couldn’t just scan it. But I got the idea that you try maybe to recite something out loud, something you know, maybe something you don’t. At some point in high school I had that instant that had happened in Mrs. Nussbaum's classroom, where suddenly the page was phrases and sentences.
I came back from my trip to Israel the summer after eleventh grade and all I could think of was going back. I had this one cassette of songs by Naomi Shemer -- it went with me in the car everywhere, I am surprised I didn’t destroy it. Al kol eileh, etleynu bechatzer.... I had that tip of my tongue feeling that I sort of understood them, and I was in the car so couldn’t pull out my dictionary. But again it kept me motivated that one day, I’d be able to sing the songs and understand them one hundred percent.
Meanwhile for those of us who stuck it out in Hebrew High, twelve grade meant no more textbooks. We read poems by Yehuda Amichai and stories by Shai Agnon, with just our knowledge and dictionaries. I placed into third year Hebrew when I got to college, without spending a day in a day school or an ulpan. Granted, the X factor was me; not everyone in my cohort has the same story. But this is why I believe we can teach our kids read Hebrew right here where we are.
Finally I spent a whole year in Israel as a junior in college, and I made myself talk past my shyness and my uncertainty -- to get a kartisiya on the bus, a discount punch ticket; to haggle in a monit, a taxi. I developed occasionally this other persona, Israeli Jonatan, who might say things with a sharpness that Jon doesn’t usually have. I am ever grateful to the Israelis here -- to Ruti, to Sara, to Eitan, to Moshe and Etti -- who speak Hebrew slowly not just to me, and who seem to savor every word they form.
To my surprise I have come to love Hebrew not just for its system and not just for its concepts, but for its art. I love the rhythm, the same rhythm that locked down the language for safekeeping in the second century, the ah and oh-ness. Ahavah, love -- ahavah rabbah, boundless love. Glidah is so much more beautiful than ice cream. Sometimes Hebrew translations are even better than the original -- barad yarad bidrom Sfarad ba’erev -- the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain!
I have come to think of each Hebrew shoresh, each root, as a kind of atomic field, with a nucleus of meaning but like any small particle in physics you can’t quite pin it down. Chesed means lovingkindness, but it also means loyalty, doing your duty, and love in the most unbounded sense. Tzedek, tzedakah, is more than legal justice and charity, it’s giving with understanding and with a bigger picture, it’s relational and not just formal. One of my favorite ways to keep learning Hebrew is a podcast called Streetwise Hebrew, which takes what’s often a root or a word that’s familiar to you if you know some Hebrew, and shows how it’s stretched idiomatically in Israel today.
I want to celebrate Hebrew as we celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary. It unites us across everything, and it’s the key that unlocks everything from Torah to prayer to Israel. So in the weeks that come we’ll share Beth Abraham’s 75 favorite Hebrew words -- if you have one to nominate I’ll tell you how to record yourself or I’ll come and do that. If you learn just a bit of grammar and maybe 150 words, you’ll be amazed what you can read. Even if you’re not a language person, you’ll be astonished what you can internalize. And please make me speak and teach more, me and Sarit as well.
And as for me, I can’t thank enough Alice and Dalia and Yosi and Ruti and Yechiel and Earl and Sari and Aya and Anne and Roger and Jon-Jay and and and, and Mom and Dad, for bringing me the gift of Hebrew. It can be your gift, whether you’re just starting today or whether you have a story like mine which I’d love to hear. Who knows what the coming decades are bringing, to Israel, to Jewish life everywhere. Whatever it is, it will be coming in Hebrew.