October 27, 2013
American Jews believe in education. I know that seems like a generalization, but I can’t think of a single American Jewish person who would say that education should not be a priority for their children. So let’s say that an American Jewish child comes home to their parents from a tough day in Middle School and says that they want to quit Beginning Algebra. Few parents would allow their children to stop or to say just finish Middle School and you’ll never have to learn Math ever again. Therefore, it seems puzzling to me that those same American Jewish Parents seem to allow their children to quit learning Hebrew at exactly that same point in their life.
Hebrew is the lifeline of our religion. It is the language of the Torah. It is the language of our people. We are so intertwined with those boxy letters that when Zionism and the Modern State of Israel took hold within the worldwide Jewish community, modern Hebrew was reborn as a living language. Simply put, Hebrew is inextricable from any aspect of the Jewish narrative. Even when Hebrew wasn’t spoken casually, it was because Hebrew was held on a pedestal as the “Lashon Kodesh” or the Holy Language.
Much of Rabbinical School feels to me like a Graduate Program in Linguistics. First, learn Hebrew. Then, learn Babylonian Aramaic. Then, learn to read the thousand years of writing when people spoke neither language but insisted on writing in them to remain within the tradition.
When I arrived in Israel with my wife and kids, I was happily surprised that my wife Blair decided to enroll in an Ulpan (a ten day crash course in Hebrew). She hadn’t learned Hebrew since her Bat-Mitzvah. And although English is spoken in Israel, especially when seeing Israel through a tourist perspective, Hebrew is required to ride in local cabs, shop in local supermarkets, read labels on groceries and a whole lot more. Ten days in her Hebrew Intensive hasn’t made Blair fluent but I am so proud that she can order in a restaurant, she can understand a Taxi driver – and has once again entered our two-thousand-year-old conversation, which has always been spoken (and argued) in Hebrew.
My friends often ask why Judaism fascinates me to the point that I want to study it with such intensity. After all, they all studied Judaism as well before their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I often respond by saying that it would be difficult to find literature engaging as an adult if one stopped reading at the age of twelve or thirteen. (I use that metaphor for writers, but it works for any profession.)
I spend so much time around teachers of Torah, Talmud and Halacha that I often forget to recognize my greatest teachers in life. Last week when Blair texted me the picture of herself holding the Diploma from her Ulpan, I suddenly remembered why I was studying the Sugya of Gemora I had in front of me at that moment. The two-thousand-year-old conversation cannot end. Education in all things, even Jewish education, must continue throughout one’s life and not be limited to a specific time window.
Blair is not only my teacher, she is also a teacher for our children. And this message about Hebrew is one I have always dreamed of teaching them. They were so proud of her. I invite you to follow her example and reenter our generations old conversation as a religion and as a people. If you know Hebrew, try to read a new Hebrew book. If you don’t know Hebrew, try to learn it even in your adulthood.
What is the last truly new and challenging thing that you have learned? If you can’t think of an answer quickly, go find a teacher. Spend some time with that teacher and broaden yourself. I promise it will be both exhilarating and frustrating and reinvigorate your life. And then thank the teacher. And if you’re lucky enough, marry her so that she can pass her Ulpan Diploma around the table at dinnertime.
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