לחנך את שימעון – הדרך לעברית
I started learning Hebrew in earnest back in 2008 or so, around the time I began the formal part of my journey towards a Jewish life
But the story starts much earlier, only months after I was born. My father, a Navy man, was sent to an American base on a lonely Portuguese island in the North Atlantic. It was a place of grinding poverty, one where a young enlisted guy with a wife and four children could afford a maid, Lucia.
Lucia adored me, I am told. She spoke little English, so I was her macaco, her monkey, and for my first eighteen months life, until we were moved back to the States, I lived in what amounted to a bilingual environment. I’m convinced that left me extraordinarily attuned to language, drawn to it very primally ever since.
That helped when it came time for Hebrew. But there’s a lot more to the story, even some mildly spooky parts.
Rewind. Roll Tape from Reagan-Era Redneck Country.
Strictly speaking, my Jewish journey began around 1986. My parents had settled in rural northern Florida, which was the perfect environment for them — few people, affordable houses, and lots of land. I was fifteen, the overthinking eccentric I am today — hungry for an intellectual life and, in the pre-Internet world, as lonely as the day was long.
I snapped up whatever I could from furtive trips to libraries and bookstores and from the bootleg satellite dish in the backyard, which one day brought me the movie adaptation of Yentl.
This is mostly a laugh line for today’s readers. I even heard Isaac Bashevis Singer, the author of the original story, hated the film.
But for me, it was electrifying. There, in the fictional Polish yeshiva, was the life I wanted. One in which thinkers were valued, not just tolerated by bemused parents and teachers. And oh, the way the characters interacted with their G-d — intimate, intense, and through words. I wanted that.
On one of my trips to a used book store, I had come across an out-of-place little volume, Tausend Worte Hebräisch — ‘A Thousand Words of Hebrew’ — a textbook for German-speaking immigrants to Israel. I have no idea who it had belonged to or how it found its way into my world.
As it happens, I had started taking German in school and was at the start of one of those path-altering experiences that happen when the right teacher meets the right student. Frau Scheffer, as we called her, saw my ability and let me run with it.
As my Jewish explorations fizzled in their isolation, my love affair with German language and culture took off, took me through high school, college, graduate school, and eventually a tenure-track job as a professor of German. My passion for languages turned into an academic career as a linguist, eventually specializing in historical linguistics and second language acquisition.
But Back to the Timeline.
In 1988, I was living an exchange student in a village in northern Germany and found out that a nearby Volkshochschule — sort of an adult night school — was offering Modern Hebrew, so I signed up and joined a class with a gaggle of German pensioners getting ready for vacations in Israel. Our teacher was an Israeli, a member of the tiny Jewish community in Bremen, and on that first night, he introduced our textbook. In the first of what I used to think was just a chain of unlikely coincidences, it turned out to be Tausend Worte Hebräisch.
Hebrew didn’t come easily to me, the way I thought languages were supposed to. I didn’t do much homework, and halfway through the course, the neighbor I had been getting rides from died unexpectedly. So that was that.
But the years kept bringing me into contact with Hebrew. I went back to Germany in 1990 and wound up with a boyfriend whose parents, like a surprising number of other German families, had processed the Holocaust by embracing Israel, spending vacation after vacation there. On his own, he had made friends in the small Jewish community in Mannheim and took me there a few times. Ten years later, I found myself with a friend in a little shul in Toronto, realizing that I still knew about half the letters in their siddur.
Cut! Back to 2008
So when I started getting serious about learning Hebrew, I figured (and still do) that whether I wanted to concentrate on the Biblical or modern forms of the language, fluency is fluency, so I might as well have fun.
I reached for Tausend Worte Hebräisch. With all the possessions I’ve carelessly lost over the years, it’s a miracle this little book survived.
For months, I worked through chapter by chapter on my own. A few minutes here, half an hour there, working out the system until I could recognize words I knew and parse out unfamiliar ones– very, very slowly.
The letter tzadi drove me crazy. I tried to memorize it just by shape and sound like I’d done with a half dozen other alphabets, but it just kept slipping from my mind. So I pictured it as a branding iron that makes a tsssss… sound when it touches some poor cow’s hide.
Or the vowel marker called qubuts, which sits underneath a letter and tells you it is followed by the “oo” sound. I must have learned and forgotten it a dozen times before it stuck, which happened when I realized it looks like a trail of poo.
And don’t get me started on the actual words. The raw sequences of consonants and vowels were immensely hard to remember, and this is coming from the guy who could memorize whole vocabulary lists in German or Japanese after hearing them just once or twice.
Going at it as a deeply humbled learner, I started to make slow sense of it all, letter after blocky little letter. I started recognizing words in prayers and in our siddur, words that I knew vaguely from their sound, like the way a single chaf at the end of a word can give it the added meaning of “you” or “your,” taking elohim ‘G-d’ and making eloheicha ‘your G-d.’ Or the way shechinah, the word for G-d’s female aspect, relates to mishkan, the ‘Temple’ in Jerusalem or mishkenoteicha, ‘your dwelling places’ in one of our daily prayers.
I understand now that the whole time, what I was really learning was how to read with Semitic eyes and listen with Semitic ears. More on that in our next episode.