The joys and fun of Hebrew

Reviving the language was a basic Zionist aim. Not being part of this is not fully realizing the Zionist mission, and not enjoying its fruits.

AN ANCIENT Hebrew text is displayed at a museum. Was the patriarch Abraham one of the first Jewish lawyers, wonders the author. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ANCIENT Hebrew text is displayed at a museum. Was the patriarch Abraham one of the first Jewish lawyers, wonders the author.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
During this holiday period, the importance of knowing Hebrew is obvious. And if you love words, as most writers and many readers do, it can be fun. It can also bring many surprises.
Since we live in a child-centered society, not only Orthodox and traditional Jews build succot. And in most succot, the term “ushpizin” is the Hebrew word used for one of its central customs: “guests.” Thus each day is devoted to guests from the past: Abraham, Isaac and so on, who are invited into the succa with all due pomp and ceremony.
The word ushpizin is actually Aramaic. It was used in medieval times by kabbalistic masters, but the word itself is probably a spin-off from the Latin word for guest as well as for host. (See hospice, hospital and so on; just for fun you can think of other words related to this concept. Modern Hebrew used le-ashpez from this root, for to hospitalize.) Non-kabbalists often use the idea of inviting guests in another way. “Which person from past or present, family or non-family, would you ask to join us in the succa?” The replies can be fascinating, ranging from King David to Martin Luther King and from Ben-Gurion to Benny Goodman.
Here is another pertinent point. The closed sectors of our society always present the Jewish people throughout history as having been non-permeable culturally. That is they think paganism, Christianity, Islam and the languages of the country in which Jews lived were always separate from Jewish beliefs, customs and language.
But just take a look at all the Greek words and Hellenistic influences in the Talmud.
The great teacher and rabbi Prof. Saul Lieberman wrote two major books on this: Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, referring to Jewish Palestine in the first centuries C.E.
Skipping many centuries, note that the words “tateh” and “zaydeh” for example, Yiddish for father and grandfather, are pure Slavic. In today’s ultra-Orthodox communities, among the English-speakers, using these words are considered Yiddishkeit personified.
Well, well. You would have heard the pogromichks calling to one another that way too! Recently I wrote a column about the importance of knowing Hebrew. It offended or challenged many readers, including Ms. Joy Collins of Tel Mond and Prof. Sydney Eisen in Toronto. Ms. Collins pointed out that only “when we reach retirement age or older can we afford to make aliya. If, like me, one is an octogenarian, the memory box refuses to retain the newly acquired knowledge!” As one octogenarian to another, I understand her point. In order not to make this column an ad personam response, let’s talk about a theoretical Mr. and/or Mrs. Reuven (Rubin???) from Anglo-land, wherever that may be. They are coming to Israel for one or more of a few possible reasons.
Let’s begin with new immigrants who are ultra-Orthodox. They come here out of love of the Land, and also perhaps to enjoy the benefits in housing and education. If they belong to anti-Zionist streams, which run from Litvish (yeshivish) through most hassidic groups, they will speak Yiddish wherever possible, (and/or English as a kind of modern Yiddish replacement).
Since both men and women usually know written Hebrew quite well, the spoken language is quickly acquired for day-to-day contact in shops, government offices, travel queries and so on.
Some ultra-Orthodox groups like Breslov and Chabad (Lubavitch) may have non-Yiddish speakers, Sabras or others, who use Hebrew as their first and sometimes only language. The Shas ultra-orthodox have been “Ashkenazied” in dress and strictness but always knew Hebrew, along with Ladino or Persian or Judeo-Arabic.
Other categories of hypothetical immigrants from the West: Mr. and Mrs. Reuven have been Zionists since their youth and have dreamed of coming here, but circumstances (family, health, finances) delayed them until retirement. Or perhaps they were long-time Zionists and their children came on aliya. The stay-at-home parents might have bought a home in Israel to spend time close to their offspring Israelis. And then, when the time came, they made the move.
Either way, Mr. and Mrs. Reuven must have known for years that they would be moving to Israel. There were plenty of years to take Hebrew classes. There were ulpan classes in many overseas centers.
“Oh, but I had no time! I had to make a living.” This is another way of saying that Hebrew was not a priority. People who observe Shabbat for example, forgo a whole day’s work. I am sure that even they and certainly everyone else could find a few hours a week to learn Hebrew.
Those who don’t simply do not see it as a priority or a necessity. “Why make the effort when we can have a cozy life in an English-speaking cocoon?” At the Rothberg International (Overseas Students) School of the Hebrew University, I asked the director of Hebrew ulpanim to rank the students by their various tracks.
She ranked them: First, the arduous three-week-long summer courses. Summer course students come to Israel to study Hebrew on their own time and pay their own tuition fees. They are a self-selected group of the most highly motivated. Second, naturally, were the new immigrants, whose future depended on the language, and then the One-Year students.
Motivation was the key. Rabbis here who sermonize mostly in English (or even use English only) are doing their followers small service. To live in Israel without its daily language is not fully living here.
Reviving the language was a basic Zionist aim. Not being part of this is not fully realizing the Zionist mission, and not enjoying its fruits. In addition, it’s fun to hear the English words (some not so pretty) that have entered everyday Hebrew. Not to mention army slang – full of acronyms and short forms.
But, octogenarians, and others, let me offer some comfort. The founder of this daily, Gershon Agron, defined The Jerusalem Post as “a Hebrew newspaper in the English language.”
It is a bridge, but the Promised Land still awaits.
Avraham Avi-hai is a Jerusalem writer who has devoted many years to inculcating Zionist values abroad and in Israel. He was founding dean of the Rothberg International School, and world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. Write to: [email protected]