A Maronite revival in Israel

Members of the Christian community in Israel are bringing back an ancient language spoken by Jesus, and are finding fellow speakers in unexpected parts of the world.

teaching Aramaic in a Jish classroom 521 (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
teaching Aramaic in a Jish classroom 521
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
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 up.
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.
The language of Jesus
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.
The 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.
Many Maronites today emphasize the non-Arab, Syriac roots of their identity, noting their long presence in the region prior to the Arab Muslim arrival.
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 region.
“It is Jesus’ language. We should not forget that,” says Khalloul, who also serves as chairman of the Aramaic Maronite Center.
The 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.
The 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.
A large Diaspora community also exists in Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, as well as in the United States.
Israel’s Maronite 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 Gush Halav.
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 village’s lands.
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.
“My 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
Come the 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 Aramaic.”
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 delight.
“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.”