September 25, 2003
I have had a love affair with words ever since I can recall. As a little girl I would whisper words to myself just to hear the sounds of them; magical words like canopy, arithmetic and Ethiopia. As an adult, I have relied upon words as the tools I use to make meaning in my world. In my work, my family, my relationships and my inner life, words accompany me throughout the day, enabling me to bring to life the images, ideas and beliefs that shape who I am.
This is not to say that all words come easily to me. I have never been able to say orangutan without adding a "g" at the end and I still say "head egg" instead of headache when under stress. And foreign languages really throw me for a loop. My theory in high school Spanish has remained true to this day: If you add an "o" or an "ita" to any English word, the chance is it will sound Spanish enough that you will be understood. For example, "Can you help-o me find-ita the school-o?" will definitely lead you to a school, or at the very least a building with windows.
So you can imagine my fear when I enrolled in a Hebrew course at the age of 43 at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, ready to conquer the intricacies of a language that had frustrated me since Matt Berman threw eraser tips at me in Hebrew school. I enthusiastically entered the class only to find a room of lethargic college students, most of whom were more interested in concerts and bars than verb conjugation and tenses.
I became obsessed with learning Hebrew, spending every hour of the day -- in the classroom, on the streets, at home, even in my sleep -- trying to speak the language. I was brazen and I was shameless. I insisted on speaking Hebrew to anyone and everyone who would listen, including a group of Japanese-speaking tourists who wanted directions to the Israel Museum.
Some people never leave home without a credit card; I never left home without my Hebrew-English dictionary. Such determination and diligence, while hastening my comprehension and ability to speak, came with a price. I became a walking, talking malaprop in Hebrew, the originator of more bloopers than Jerusalem has synagogues.
My family's first dining experience in Jerusalem began the parade of horribles. I proudly requested the menu in Hebrew and began ordering more food than we could possibly eat in a week. I was quite pleased with myself until my son asked for some ice for his drink.
"No problem," I said confidently turning to our middle-aged waiter, a man with absolutely no hair and a wide, open smile.
"Sir, may I have some ice please?" I asked in my finest Hebrew.
He looked startled, then hurt as he scurried off. My Hebrew radar detector indicated immediate distress. What could I have possibly done to insult this gentle soul?
When a new waiter came to deliver the food, I knew I was in trouble. Slipping away from our table on the pretext of finding the bathroom, I headed straight for the dictionary hidden in my purse. It was on those worn pages that I discovered the error of my ways.
The trouble was that the Hebrew word for ice and the Hebrew word for bald are almost identical. I had told our unsuspecting waiter that I wanted him -- and I wanted him bald! I was desperate to make amends and returned to the table with renewed faith that I could set things right. I motioned to our hairless waiter and with a smile as big as Montana, asked for a masrek. Now he wasn't wounded but outraged. An Israeli called out, "She means a masleg, not a masrek!" This time I had asked the poor guy for a comb instead of a fork.
I might have thrown in the Hebrew towel if there hadn't been a breakthrough one Friday evening at the shul we attended. After several months, I still hadn't noticed much change in my ability to understand the Hebrew prayers. Even though I knew them by heart, they were really just words I recited in order to be a part of the synagogue community. Slowly I felt it, like a soft shiver running through my soul. I realized that for the first time in my life I actually understood the meaning of the Hebrew words of "Yedid Nefesh," the prayer we say to welcome the Sabbath. I heard the passion, understood the poetry, clung to the description of love between man and God which are found within it. No longer were these words mere sounds; they were Hebrew words I understood because I had made them my own.
Hot tears rolled down my cheeks when we began to sing the "Shema" and I understood for the very first time the words that I had recited by memory my entire life. The "Shema" itself is a commandment to hear, to listen and to understand. I realized that in my efforts to learn Hebrew I had gained much more than mere knowledge of the aleph-bet. In learning Hebrew I had enabled myself to understand the true meaning of Jewish prayer and to give these words personal meaning. In learning Hebrew, I had begun to make traditional Hebrew prayers my own.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson, Ariz., with her husband and two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.