A journalist congratulates Shadi Khalloul in Arabic on the birth of his second
son, Yaakov, with the salutation, “Mabruk!”
“In Aramaic,” Khalloul says with a
smile. “You say ‘Brihu.’” A Maronite Christian from the Galilee village of Jish,
37-year-old Khalloul became hooked on reviving the traditional Maronite language
of Aramaic after taking a three-month course for adults offered by Father
Bishara Suleiman, the Saint Maroun parish priest. Today the elderly clergyman
regularly teaches Aramaic as part of religious classes for the children of the
parish, an option that was not on offer when Khalloul was growing
With 65 percent of its residents belonging to the Maronite Church,
Jish is the only village in Israel with a majority Maronite population. Muslims
constitute about 35 percent of the residents, with a smattering of Melkite
Christians making up the tiny remainder.
When Father Suleiman’s course
ended, a small group of students continued learning the language on their own.
Soon they connected with Aramaic-speaking communities in Sweden and Holland,
seeking guidance and learning materials.
“This is our Maronite Aramaic
heritage,” Khalloul tells The Jerusalem Report. “A nation without a language and
without his forefathers’ language has no future.”
Like Eliezer Ben
Yehudah – considered the father of modern Hebrew for his efforts in the late
1800s to transform the ancient language of Jewish prayers into a modern spoken
language – Khalloul only talks to his 2-year-old son, Aram, in Aramaic (Ben
Yehudah communicated with his son solely in Hebrew). Khalloul is also quick to
point out that others, such as the Welsh and the Catalans, have also had varying
degrees of success in reviving their traditional languages.
Aramaic, the root language of all Semitic languages, has a long and
treasured place in history. Jesus preached in it, and parts of the Old Testament
and rabbinical literature were written in it. Following the Arab conquest in the
7th century, the use of the language began to decline in favor of Arabic, but it
is preserved in parts of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon – and even by elderly Jews
originating from a certain region of Kurdistan.
Yet the spoken tradition
has been virtually lost in the Galilee, where some 10,000 Maronite Christians
use the language solely for prayer, many without understanding much of what they
are saying. Today their daily interactions take place in Arabic, as does much of
their liturgical mass, which is a combination of Arabic and Aramaic.
Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman
Catholic Vatican in Rome.
The community was founded by Saint Maroun, a
5th century Syriac monk.
During the Muslim invasion of the 7th century,
many Maronites fled to Mount Lebanon, which became their stronghold.
Maronites today emphasize the non-Arab, Syriac roots of their identity, noting
their long presence in the region prior to the Arab Muslim
Today, there are as many as a million people worldwide who still
use Aramaic as their vernacular, while another 15 million use it solely as a
holy language, says Khalloul.
He points out that it was the Galilean
dialect of Aramaic, known as Western Aramaic, which was spoken by Jesus,
affording further significance to the resurrection of the language in the
“It is Jesus’ language. We should not forget that,” says
Khalloul, who also serves as chairman of the Aramaic Maronite Center.
center’s stated goals are to revitalize Aramaic Syriac as an everyday spoken
language, unite all Christians in the Middle East as “one strong nation,”
educate their children about their forefathers, heritage, and history, and to
fight for their rights in Israel and prevent Christian emigration.
majority of Maronites in the Middle East now live in Lebanon, where they were
once the majority and where there are reportedly still some 300,000 Maronites.
There are significant Maronite communities in Cyprus, Syria and Israel.
large Diaspora community also exists in Brazil and other parts of Central and
South America, as well as in the United States.
population increased significantly following Israel’s withdrawal from southern
Lebanon in May 2000, when several thousand members of the Israel-allied South
Lebanese Army, mostly Maronites, fled to northern Israel with their families.
Many former SLA members and their families settled in Jish, known in Hebrew as
Forty percent of the Maronite families living in Jish today
fled there during the 1948 War of Independence as refugees from Biram, the only
all-Maronite village within Israel’s borders. The villagers of Biram, which was
built on the site of an ancient Jewish village of the same name, were asked by
Israel to withdraw from their homes with the promise that they would be able to
return two weeks later. Despite documents, statements of support from
politicians and court rulings in their favor, the villagers are still waiting to
return to their land. They declined an offer by the Israeli government over a
decade ago because it included only half a dunam of land for four sons of every
refugee to return. Kibbutz Baram and Moshav Dovev now stand on parts of the
Old-timers like Maroun Alam, 77, still remember using
Aramaic on a daily basis at home, and that the weekly mass recited in the
village church was only in Aramaic. His voice rings out clear as he chants a
prayer from his childhood, the words vaguely reminiscent of Hebrew.
mother taught me Aramaic when I was small. In the church we always spoke
Aramaic. When we came to church to pray we would divide ourselves into two
sections and we would sing. These are our roots. I want our roots to continue to
spread. Arabic is not our roots,” Alam says.
The next generation
new school term in September, some 110 students at Jish Elementary School will
begin their fifth year of Aramaic language studies, following years of
negotiations between Khalloul and the Ministry of Education. Having initiated
his own after-school classes for youngsters, Khalloul began discussions with the
Ministry of Education to include Aramaic as part of the formal school
curriculum. It wasn’t until Reem Khatieb-Zuabi, the new Muslim principal of the
school, stepped in that the project took off.
The ministry provides funds
for the classes through the eighth grade, as part of an existing enrichment
program. For now, it is the only such project in Israel. A parallel art class is
on offer for those who do not wish to study Aramaic, but almost 90 percent of
the Christian students have elected to attend the Aramaic classes, says
Khatieb-Zuabi. And although there was some initial opposition to the lessons by
parents and others in the village, who felt it might become a nationalist issue,
the classes have proven to be a matter of pride for the school and even some
Muslim students are taking the class.“It is a language that is about to
disappear,” Khatieb-Zuabi says. “A culture is something precious, history is
very precious to me and we can’t erase history and build a new culture. You have
to understand where you come from.”
Curiously, Sweden has the strongest
Aramaic teaching programs, supported by the government; therefore, textbooks are
imported from Sweden and Holland, while others are brought in from Lebanon by
high-ranking Maronite clergy. There are also some that Khalloul’s brother, Amir,
has put together himself.
“Hopefully, the students will use it to
communicate among themselves in their forefathers’ language,” adds
Khalloul. “Imagine, in 10 years we will have 110 children speaking
In order to drum up interest in the language and Maronite
culture, the Aramaic Center also hosts groups who want to learn about the
Aramaic language and the Maronite community.
In May, the First Communion
ceremony at the church was held completely in Aramaic, for the first time in
decades and by request of the children, and much to Khalloul’s
“Before I used to wonder how I would get through the one and a
half hours at church. Sometimes we would even laugh at how the priest was
praying,” recalls 9-year-old Carla Issa, who has studied Aramaic at the school
for two years. “But now I understand what I am saying. I love it.”