A boy’s life and the birth of modern Hebrew

cov-angels-copyA new illustrated children’s book tells the story of a Jewish boy who has no friends and whose parents won’t let him play with anyone, fearful that other children actually may talk to him. He doesn’t speak until he’s 4 years old, and when he does, it is in response to his father’s anger at his mother for trying to soothe the boy by singing a soft Russian lullaby.

It’s a true story, and the boy at the center of it grows up to be Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yeduda, the founder of modern Hebrew.

Prolific children’s author Richard Michelson chooses well in “The Language of Angels” by focusing the story of the reinvention of the Hebrew language on Ben-Yehuda’s young son. At birth in 1882, Itamar was named Ben-Zion (he later changed it), and his parents wanted him to hear and speak Hebrew exclusively. Their intent was to raise the first Hebrew-speaking child in modern history.

When Ben-Yehuda and his wife, Devorah, immigrated to Palestine in 1881, Hebrew was only a written language and recited solely in the synagogue. But it was clear that as Jews from other countries arrived to Eretz Yisrael in large numbers at the end of the 19th century, they would need a common language, and Ben-Yehuda was devoted to making that happen.

Itamar’s family story is fascinating and unique. As an adult, he wrote an autobiography, from which Michelson takes much of his source material, and it translates well to the picture-book format.

Bright, folk-tinged illustrations by Karla Gudeon are enhanced by clever placement of Hebrew words and letters that seem to fly off the page joyously. Children are at first drawn into a possibly sad story of a boy who has no friends, spending much of his younger years fending off bullies who think he is desecrating Hebrew as the holy tongue. But the excitement builds when Itamar wants ice cream but doesn’t know how to ask for it.

“Because ice cream didn’t exist two thousand years ago, no one in history has ever asked for it in Hebrew,” Michelson writes in the book. After a bit of research, Itamar’s abba makes up the word “glida” on the spot, but, by then, the author tells us, “the glida had melted.”

Eventually, Itamar makes many friends and they compete with one another to make up new words for his father’s brilliant Hebrew dictionary. As Hebrew is taught at school to children as a first language, and easy-to-read newspapers help spread the word to adults, the Ben-Yehuda family experiment served as proof that it was possible to achieve the miracle of reviving an ancient language that had not been spoken for centuries.

‘The Story of Hebrew’ is a scholarly, engaging history of the language

kirsch-hebrew-copyOne of the curiosities in “The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press) is that the author manages to write a history of the Hebrew language without using a single Hebrew letter in the text, although Hebrew appears in the illustrations, including a page from Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebook. Indeed, Glinert announces at the outset of his richly detailed and wholly fascinating book that it is “not much a book about what Hebrew words mean as about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.”

Another curiosity is to be found in the fact that Hebrew started out as one of the languages of ordinary life in the ancient Middle East, was preserved in the holy texts of the Jewish people, and was reinvented to serve as the lingua franca of the modern Jewish homeland. To be sure, the most observant Jews still regard Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh, a language so holy that they insist on using Yiddish for everyday transactions. And yet, as Glinert points out, Hebrew is also “the language of secular Jewish culture,” and the revival of Hebrew was one of the great successes of the Zionist project: “Whether religious or national in spirit, or both, creativity has driven the Hebrew language and its literature to ever-new vistas and forms.”

Glinert, a renowned linguist and professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, is willing to entertain a pious question: “What language, then, did God speak?”  He points out that Jewish mystics proposed that “God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so,” and that Maimonides regarded all speech attributed to God in the Bible as purely metaphorical. History and science, however, offer a different explanation: “Scholars have long insisted that Hebrew was simply one of many Canaanite dialects, albeit one that happened to survive into the Common Era.”

The watershed moment, Glinert explains, was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Hebrew disappeared in various places around the Diaspora, and many Jewish communities required Aramaic and Greek translations in order to understand what is written in the Torah. But the leadership of the exiles who later returned to Judea, “in a remarkable textual act of spiritual resistance,” embraced Hebrew as the language in which the Midrash, the Mishnah and the liturgy were to be expressed: “Out of this grew a great corpus of Hebrew literature, embodying the religion and culture of the Jews down to modern times.”

“The Story of Hebrew” is deeply rooted in scholarship, but Glinert is an engaging storyteller, always lucid, wry and accessible. Thus, for example, he explains the intricacies and inner workings of Hebrew liturgy as it developed in antiquity, showing how “the poets were tempted to produce extravagant flights of fancy, building new words from old in ways even native speakers would have been unlikely to attempt.” And then he sums up: “Could the average worshipper fathom it all? Probably not. (Most modern Israelis can’t, either.)”

Throughout the book, the author reminds us that the survival of Hebrew over several millennia of history is remarkable in itself, although we can thank the generations of translators known as Masoretes for what might seem wholly miraculous. “They preserved both the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew and the biblical text itself as canonized by the Rabbis two thousand years ago,” he writes. “Thus they ensured that Jews across the Diaspora would study from (more or less) identical copies.”

Yet Hebrew itself changed over time. In that sense, “The Story of Hebrew” is actually a story of the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and throughout the Diaspora. For a thousand years or so, between the completion of the Talmud and the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, “Hebrew was primarily a religious language.” Once the Jews began to leave the ghettos and enter the secular world, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern national language. “It was not only necessary to invent words denoting [the] locomotive, telegraph, or parliament; the language would also need to express such conceptual distinctions as people, nation, and state.”

Hebraists turned to “the lucid, no-nonsense rabbinic style of Rashi and Maimonides” to coin the new words they needed. While Theodor Herzl assumed that German would be the national language of the Jewish homeland, lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and their like-minded colleagues devoted themselves to nothing less than the remaking of the Hebrew language.

Significantly, Glinert always finds a way to make these facts of history come fully alive for his readers, which is why “The Story of Hebrew” is both an eye-opening study of the Hebrew language and an extraordinarily pleasurable reading experience. For example, the author describes how Ben-Yehuda and his first wife, Dvora, resolved to speak only Hebrew when they arrived in Palestine — “an agreement that initially bound her to silence since she knew none.”

The rule was still in place when their first child was born. “Dire warnings by fellow Zionists that the child might grow up retarded seemed confirmed when he turned 3 without yet uttering a word — until one day Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby and flew into a rage, when suddenly the frightened child blurted out Abba, Abba! (Daddy, Daddy!).”

Hebrew Word of the Week: gas(s)

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Hebrew Word of the Week: sliHah

A major concept of the High Holy Days is forgiveness. What do we do when we forgive? The English word “forgive” (German vergeben) meant “give wholeheartedly, grant, allow; remit (a debt completely), pardon (an offense); give up (with no grudge)” and “give in marriage (graciously).” 

The Hebrew salaH “forgive, be indulgent toward” is perhaps related to Semitic root s-l-y “toss aside, shake off, make light, forget about (a grudge, sin)”* and perhaps s-l-l “lift up, pave, cover smoothly,” which is semantically similar to kipper “cover; atone” and nasa’ “lift up, remove (sin).” 

Other derived words: God is known as sallaH “ready to forgive” (Psalms 86:5) and eloah sliHot “God of forgivings” (Nehemiah 9:17 and High Holy Days prayer book); salHan/solHan “forgiver”; salHani “forgiving”; saliaH “forgivable; fit for pardoning”; and sliHot “penitential prayers.”  

*Compare the tashlich ritual to “cast away (sins)”; Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad: ishlikhu binTilah, “cast it away, forget it (at the ritual hand-washing).”

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Can’t or won’t learn Hebrew?

Novelist Dara Horn recently asked, “Why don’t more American Jews learn Hebrew?” Her answer: “The reason American Jews don’t learn Hebrew is because they think they can’t.”

Horn believes that this failure stems from a lack of confidence. Even Horn, who tells us in this recent article that she grew up familiar with Hebrew words and that she was one of those rare, truly engaged students in the supplemental Hebrew schooling of her youth, was convinced that she “could never actually learn Hebrew” as a real language. In her mind, fluent Hebrew was something only Israelis or Orthodox Jews were capable of achieving. And so, even though she spent her teens and 20s reading Hebrew literature, it wasn’t until the age of 32 (a number which, by a lovely coincidence, is rendered in Hebrew by the word for “heart”) that she dared plunge directly, at an international writers conference in Israel, into the world of spoken Hebrew without the perpetual crutch of English translation.

It’s an inspiring story, but I respectfully suggest that she’s wrong about her premise. It’s not that American Jews think they can’t learn Hebrew, but that they actively won’t. After all, American Jews are hardly known for their lack of confidence, certainly when it comes to intellectual pursuits. We are surrounded by American Jews who learn languages and expect their children to learn languages: Spanish, Mandarin, JavaScript. And, as Horn notes, we now live with apps and iPads and streaming video on demand. A language is easier to learn and enjoy than at any time in human history.

The stubborn American-Jewish refusal — even by many Jews who are active in Jewish life, and who mouth Hebrew words as sounds week after week in synagogue — to treat Hebrew as a language that can be learned, spoken and used is nothing short of bizarre.

What we see in this is not an absence, then, of confidence or resources. It is a presence: the active pressure of the American-Jewish psyche. American-Jewish identity is based on feeling outside, on the threshold knocking at the door but never quite entering. Knocking at the door of Jewish identity, knocking at the door of American identity. To enter fully would be to lose one’s identity and become something different, unthinkable for most American Jews. For them, the front stoop has become home.

The reasons for this mainly have to do with the historical and psychological nature of the mass migration from Eastern Europe a century ago, and the new Jewish identity that those immigrants and their children invented for themselves in the United States. Even today, this odd, ironclad commitment to ambivalence — to that eternal door-knocking — takes myriad forms in American Jewish life and behavior. The point here for our purposes, though, is that learning Hebrew for most American Jews is psychologically impossible. (A similar dynamic applies, as it happens, to learning Yiddish.)

Where you do find American Jews who are more emotionally capable of learning Hebrew are among populations that are distant from the Eastern European mass migration and the American Jewish mainstream it produced, for example, Orthodox Jews, converts, Soviet immigrants, Mizrahi Jews, etc.

But for most American Jews, Hebrew must remain somewhat obscure, talismanic, at best liturgical, but never transparent or normal. If those Jews ever stopped knocking and instead opened the door themselves and stepped inside — well, there is no telling what they might find.

Michael Weingrad is associate professor at Portland State University. He is the author of “American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States” (Syracuse University Press, 2011).

This article was originally published at jewishstudies.washington.edu and appears here with permission. 

Ben Yehuda’s nightmare

In Israel, every crappy situation can be turned into an opportunity.  A gunman on the loose in central Tel Aviv allows me to spend several extra hours at home with my three kids, only one of whom demands to return immediately to the U.S., where the shootings in our neighborhood are typically of a drug-related nature–and we made sure to stay on good terms with those guys.  When my friend Rafi fell asleep in the middle of a sentence (mine), I could have taken offense or helped myself to the homemade kubeh his Iraqi mother supplied him with for the week.  Instead, I looked forward to the discussion I planned to initiate when he woke up, about the recent advances in neuroscience that have led to the ability to turn off our nightmares like a light switch, but at the cost of simultaneously snuffing out our dreams. 

“Mr. Levy fell asleep,” I said when Rafi’s eyes opened.  A new immigrant to Israel with limited Hebrew, I knew the word for dream, but not nightmare. 

“Did you fall asleep too?” Rafi asked.

“I didn’t fall asleep,” I said, the conjugation of that tricky Hebrew verb nearly complete. 

So we had a grammar lesson instead of a science one, my thoughts of the day thwarted by the unavailability of a dictionary in the room.  I tried to convince myself that was simply a lateral move, and hoped that Rafi would stop accommodating his other friend Inbal’s Reverse Sleep Disorder schedule–which compelled her to stay awake at night and conk out during the day–and start paying more attention to mine.  But Inbal is a Sabra, and speaks in complete sentences.  On Rafi’s birthday she wrote him a card, while I gave him chocolates.     

When we lived in Virginia and my youngest son was in first grade, his teacher taught the class a poem which, had the gist of it been, We may have different colored skin, but inside we’re all the same, would have been bad enough.  But that wasn’t the gist; those were the actual words.  Until that bright idea, my son had never noticed different colored skin.  Now, suddenly, Adin’s friend Hector’s arms were decidedly brown.  I cursed all bad poetry that day, and when my own words fell short while stuttering something to Adin about the benefits of public school but the superfluity of first grade, I cursed those too.  

Last week I went to Jerusalem to visit an artist friend who is so absorbed by images, he can’t walk two steps without stopping to study something. (For most Jerusalemites, it usually takes three.)  After contemplating a nut that had fallen from a tree next to an ancient tomb on Alfasi Street, Ilan asked if I wanted to see his portfolio of furniture that he designed while studying at Bezalel.  What a question!

A new immigrant to Israel with limited Hebrew, I was looking forward to sitting in complete silence and letting my eyes feast on what I could not find the language to praise.  Encouraged by the widening of my pupils, Ilan spent the next half hour describing the structural frames of his chairs, the grain patterns on his coffee tables that folded into stools, the steam box he used to create waves in the wood for his kick-ass bookshelves.  Or something along those lines.  I can’t say for sure.  I was having a bad Hebrew day.

And then he grew quiet, and closed the portfolio.

“The last piece I designed was for a friend who replaced me when I was called up for reserve duty and couldn’t come in,” he said.  “It was during the Second Lebanon War.”

“And what did you make?”

“A prosthetic leg.”

It is known that Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, yelled at his wife when he overheard her crooning a Russian lullaby to their infant son.  “The Hebrew language can live only if we revive the nation,” he wrote in 1881, a statement I couldn’t agree with more.

Lucky for me, a new immigrant to Israel with minimal Hebrew, the people of this land are a restful, resourceful bunch, prone to extralingual communication and improvisation.  Give them a dead language, and they will write a dictionary to resurrect it.  Put them in a pickle, and they will fight their way out of it until they have discovered how to convert a table into a chair, a piece of metal into a leg that can later run marathons, which Ilan’s friend does every year.

There are some situations that require the aid of a dictionary, and some words that can’t be found in one.  Ilan and I went for a walk then, stopping outside a photography store that featured a blown up, black and white portrait of a Jewish family from Poland, where Ilan’s great-grandfather, a rabbi, perished for refusing to vacate his synagogue before it was set on fire.   

“Tistakli,” Ilan said.  Look.

Honing Hebrew hilariously

Even the most ardent supporters of Israel might wish at times that its inhabitants had chosen an easier language … like, say, English.

However, because the linguistic choice of our common ancestors appears irreversible, two Israeli expats have come up with the idea of applying English phrases as memory cues to make Hebrew words stick in their minds. The result is a slim, richly illustrated and frequently funny pocket book by Yael Breuer and Eyal Shavit titled “Hilarious Hebrew” and billed as “the fun and fast way to learn the language.”

For instance, a cartoon shows a mountain climber and his unhappy dog getting soaked in the rain, with the man exclaiming, “OH, HELL. We forgot the TENT.” Below is the linguistic link: “The Hebrew word for ‘TENT’ is … OHEL.” The final word is spelled out in both English and Hebrew letters.

Another example is a freezing driver in an icicle-encrusted car, who notes, “It’s COLD in my CAR.” This is followed by, “The Hebrew word for ‘COLD’ is … KAR.”

Sometimes, the authors have to stretch for a connection: “The fastest car in the world belongs to BARACK Obama. It goes like lightning,” accompanied by a drawing of the smiling president clutching the wheel of a car. Beneath is the explanation, “The Hebrew word for ‘LIGHTNING’ is BAH’RAK.”

The originator of “Hilarious Hebrew” is Breuer, born in the Israeli university town of Rehovot and a former tank instructor in the country’s army. She now lives in Brighton, the popular seaside resort on the English Channel, and teaches modern Hebrew, coordinates events for youth programs and freelances as a journalist.

She soon shared her bilingual wordplay ideas with her friend Shavit, a pop-rock singer and guitarist, as well as a fellow Brighton-based Israeli, originally from Kibbutz Kfar Szold.

Although Brighton is hardly a major center of Israeli expats, there are about 100 of them, according to Breuer. They meet monthly in a Brighton pub for “Hebrew-only” get-togethers.

Breuer and Shavit started exchanging ideas and sentences and, in a few months, accumulated several hundred examples. They decided to turn their hobby into a book, and enlisted Aubrey Smith (also of Brighton) to do the illustrations, formed their own publishing company and, after two years, put the book on the market.

Describing the authors’ collaborative process, Breuer said, “Both of us come up with ideas, but I think Eyal’s are funnier than mine. Mine tend to be straight and simple, whereas his are quirkier.”

The first to test the efficacy of the authors’ teaching method was Smith, a gentile Brit, who absorbed many Hebrew words while doing the illustrations for the book.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is divided into sections under such rubrics as “Holidays,” “Family & Friends,” “On the Job,” “How Are You Feeling” and so forth. Also included is a listing of Hebrew letters and vowels and their English equivalents.

Breuer said she is perhaps proudest of the comment from a student she had tutored 22 years earlier and had recently met again. “She recited the English phrases I had given her two decades earlier to link them to Hebrew words, and she said they were still completely ingrained in her brain,” Breuer said.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is distributed in the United States by Gefen Publishing House.

The book is available through ” target=”_blank”>www.hilarioushebrew.com

Walker refuses to authorize Hebrew ‘Color Purple’

The author of the “Color Purple” refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her prize-winning work, citing what she called Israel’s “Apartheid state.”

In a June 9 letter to Yedioth Books, Alice Walker said she would not allow the publication of the book into Hebrew because “Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.”

In her letter, posted Sunday by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on its website, Walker supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and offered her hope that the BDS movement “will have enough of an impact on Israeli civilian society to change the situation.”

It was not clear when Yedioth Books, an imprint of the daily Yedioth Achronoth newspaper, made the request, or whether Walker could in fact stop translation of the book. At least one version of the book has already appeared in Hebrew translation, in the 1980s.

Walker said Israelis policies were “worse” than the segregation she suffered as an American youth and said South Africans had told her it was worse than Apartheid.

The Color Purple, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was adapted into a movie in 1985 directed by Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

The novel and the film, which was nominated for 11 Oscars, treat racism in the American south in the first part of the 20th century and sexism among blacks.

Walker has intensified her anti-Israel activism in recent years, traveling to the Gaza Strip to advocate on behalf of the Palestinians.

Hebrew Bible published In Eskimo language

After a 34-year translation project, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were published for the first time this week in an Eskimo language.

A group of Inuit Christians in the Canadian territory Nunavut completed the task of translating the texts into the local Inuktitut, according to Haaretz.

Plant and animal names were among the biggest difficulties and often the word “tree” was used for them. In some cases, English words such as “camel” were used. One surprising difficulty was the complete absence of a term for “peace” in Inuktitut. That forced the translators to use complete sentences to get the idea across to readers.

There are approximately 50,000 Inuits in Canada.

The translation project was funded by the Canadian Bible Society and the Anglican Church at a cost of $ 1.7 million. The translation will be launched in a ceremony at the igloo-shaped St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital on June 3.

Hollywood gets lessons in the nuances of Hebrew

Some time ago, I was invited to a dinner here in Israel attended by a delegation of film people from Los Angeles. During the meal, one successful documentary director asked me a question: Could I think of any Hebrew words that have no equivalent in English?

An excellent question, and even though I was sure there were many such words, the only two I could think of actually do have English equivalents, except that in Hebrew — or maybe it would be more accurate to say “in Israeli” — they carry completely different values.

The first is balagan, which came into Hebrew from Yiddish.

Balagan means “total chaos.” But this word is unique, because contrary to the implied negative value the concept has in other languages, the subtext of balagan is positive. True, that positiveness is not overt — a bit like a proud parent trying to hide a smile from his mischief-making son — but it is completely there. But chaos for a society that is itself full of balagan is nothing less than proof of vitality and passion. In a place where people push and shove in line, where children insist on drawing on walls and not on paper, where a briefcase holds stained income tax reports lying between a pastrami sandwich and a piece of graph paper with the beginnings of a poem on it, that’s where you’ll find human liberty, the liberty that both Yiddish and Hebrew have always held sacred.

The second word that came to mind was dugree, a word taken from Arabic that means “direct, honest talk.” Just like chaos, directness is a valued attribute in Israeli society. So dugree people will always tell you that you’ve gotten fat, that your wife is ugly, that the film you made is so-so, and — come to think of it — they never did manage to get through any of your books. They don’t do it because they have a need to enlighten you, but because for them saying anything else would be hypocritical. Of course, they know they could just smile and save you from some of that honesty, but then they wouldn’t be completely dugree. And so, genuinely dugree people will call you two hours after you’ve said goodbye and add that in all the excitement, they forgot to mention that your son seems underdeveloped for his age and your skin looks terrible.

If the concept of balagan only slightly aroused the intellectual curiosity of the visitors from Los Angeles, the concept of dugree managed to get their full attention. They tried to think of a time when someone came up to them after a screening with a negative comment and couldn’t. “Maybe your movies were simply great,” one of the Israeli hosts said, trying to pay an extremely non-dugree compliment.

“No,” said the director, “that’s not it. It’s just that in L.A., when a film isn’t good, your colleagues come over and say things like, ‘It was so brave of you to do this film,’ or ‘I really liked the dog.'”

“And if the film is really terrible?” I asked. “If someone suffered through every frame of it?”

“Oh,” said a producer. “In that case, chances are he’ll come over wearing a big, toothy smile and say, ‘Good for you.'”

In the taxi on the way back from dinner, I pictured the toothy smiles of all the people who said how much they loved my book during that fabulous book tour on the West Coast in 2001.

Now, when I think about it, many of them did tell me how brave I was to write that book, and there’d been a tall, thin woman from Berkeley who shook my hand warmly and said that she really loved the dog. In retrospect — to be dugree with myself — that should have made me suspicious right then because there was no dog in the book.

On a more positive note, it may have taken me six years, but I did finally get it. Good for me.

Etgar Keret is the author of “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” “The Nimrod Flipout” and “Missing Kissinger.”

More options available locally for people who want to learn Hebrew

As tourists flock this year to the Israel to celebrate the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary, they may find themselves thumbing through Hebrew phrasebooks to order at a restaurant, to haggle in a shuck or to figure out how to get back to the hotel.

And while interest in learning modern Hebrew is expected to bloom in advance of such trips, Hebrew instructors say there is more to learning the language than simply studying vocabulary and grammar. In addition to learning to read (and write) in cursive Hebrew and without vowels, there’s the mastery of idiomatic expressions and understanding cultural nuances. And let’s not forget that telltale American accent.

In addition to tourism, reasons for wanting to learn the language can be as diverse as the names on the Hebrew class rosters. For some it’s a deep-seated expression of Jewish pride, while others see it as a practical first step toward making aliyah — immigrating — to Israel.

Also known as Israeli Hebrew, new Hebrew or standard Hebrew, the spoken language of modern Hebrew was revived during the 19th-century movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people and won out in a tug-of-war with Yiddish. The modern interpretation of the biblical language uses Sephardic pronunciation as well as borrowed American, European and Arabic terms.

Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at UCLA, says that the Jewish community should focus more attention on greater Hebrew literacy, because it has the greatest potential to unify diverse Jewish communities.

“Hebrew should be on the agenda,” he said.

While Jews represent the majority of students taking Hebrew at the university level, non-Jewish Asian, Arab, black and Latino students have been known to take a year or two to meet their language requirement. Some do it as a change of pace, while others are focused on adding a skill for professional development. Today’s university Hebrew students include professors and graduate students studying the language for academic reasons, as well as a minority of Christians and Muslims who want to learn the language to better understand Israel.

Rivka Dori, director of Hebrew studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles and an instructor at USC, says she has one student who recently joined her class because he signed to play with Tel Aviv’s Maccabi Elite basketball team.

Among the Jews who take Dori’s class, she says, some are seeking to truly expand their knowledge and connect with their roots. “The others think it’s going to be an easy grade, and they discover two weeks into the semester that it’s not the case,” she said.

In continuing adult education programs, the majority of learners want to pick up Hebrew to communicate with friends or colleagues, read Israeli publications or use the language while on vacation in Israel. Some are converts who are enthusiastic about their Jewish identity, while others are seeking to make aliyah in the coming years and want to be ready to integrate themselves into Israeli society when they arrive.

Still others are the children of Israeli American parents who want to take their language skills beyond the basic conversational level.

And while some non-Jews attend modern Hebrew classes after studying biblical Hebrew, another segment of the non-Jewish community has developed an interest in the language because of contact with Israeli American friends.

Based on experience, Yair Nardi no longer assumes people in Los Angeles don’t speak or understand a little Hebrew. The Calabasas Hebrew High teacher and tutor says that non-Jewish friends of Israeli Americans frequently pick up phrases over time, and that there’s no telling who can understand what he’s saying when he uses Hebrew in public.

Once when he was at a mall, he remarked in Hebrew to his son about how a woman’s dog was ugly.

“She turned around and said, ‘It’s not an ugly dog and it’s not nice what you said,'” Nardi recalled. “You really have to watch it.”

Nardi believes we are living at a unique time, because more non-Jews are learning and using modern Hebrew than at any other point in history.

As far as how long it will take for a novice learner to begin speaking the language, teachers say most students can expect to know rudimentary phrases within a few months. Anything more depends on a variety of factors, including previous exposure to the language, the age of the student and time devoted to study.

Undergraduate and graduate university programs typically meet five hours each week with the addition of a language lab, while continuing education efforts like the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education or the Israel Aliyah Center/Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles’ Hebrew Ulpan for Adults meet once a week for about two to three hours.

Most adult modern Hebrew programs today conduct classes using an immersion — or ulpan — method, in which Hebrew is the only language spoken after the first or second class.

“The brain has to think in Hebrew,” said Ziva Plattner, who has taught at the Hebrew Ulpan for Adults for eight years “It’s like building a building. You have to start from a foundation and work up.”

The point of the system is to acquire vocabulary quickly and learn to use it without consciously thinking about conjugation or rules like subject-verb agreement.

“What’s important is to remember how it is used in the language within the pattern they are learning and then they transfer this knowledge to other sentences and they construct the vocabulary,” said Liora Alkalay, Hebrew coordinator at the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. “And gradually, after a year, most of our students are speaking Hebrew quite learnedly.”

HUC-JIR’s Rivka refers to the method as “language elegance.”

“Grammar is a nasty word in the field. It’s not a way to study language,” she said. “You can study about a language, but not internalize any of it. So you can know about a language, including the linguistic aspects, but still not have any functionality in the language. What Hebrew educators are trying to do is teach students to be functional in the language.”

Class sizes in an ulpan setting are kept purposefully small, typically about six to 10 students, to ensure greater interaction between teacher and students.

Left Coast peacemakers mourn 9/11 in many languages

Five years and 3,000 miles from the site of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the mournful strains of calls to prayer in Hebrew and Arabic open the Islamic Center of Southern California’s fourth annual commemoration of the attacks of Sept. 11.

The audience, dressed in saris, suits, skirts or slacks, bareheaded, or wearing head scarves, kippahs, kufis or turbans, gathered to pray together and to honor three religious leaders, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, who were to receive Peace Awards for their continuing work toward interfaith understanding.

One of the recipients, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, told the group how terror had come close to his life.

Last July, he and his wife were awakened by a call from their teenage daughter to assure them that she was all right. She was in London and had gotten off a bus moments before it turned the corner and exploded.

Now a year later, the rabbi urged a recommitment to truly care for one another’s children, by walking together toward healing and understanding.

“If we can truly change the way we are with one another, we will create a world in which no one would consider dying for Judaism, Islam or any other religion and killing others in the process,” he said.

Comess-Daniels urged ongoing dialogue, a cause at the heart of the organizations that sponsored the Peace Award, the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council and the Interreligious Council of Southern California.

Jihad Turk, the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center, also presented Peace Awards to the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guilbord of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

In the keynote address, Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center, denounced extremists’ twisted theology of death and destruction, while urging vigilance in the preservation of democracy — the protection of civil liberties and the Constitution.

“It would be sad if we save the buildings and lose the soul,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Tikvah, offered the first prayer. “To stand in the ruins of New York or Beirut, or the desolated areas of Palestine is to know that what doesn’t happen in the Middle East is happening here. We are talking to each other.”

The service continued with prayers from a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Baha’i, and concluded with a musical offering from representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As the group adjourned for cheese, crackers, fruit and baklava, Turk explained that this memorial service is part of the Islamic Center’s mission.

“Muslim Americans are on the front line in the war against terror in that we are charged with making sure that our institutions do not become dens of hate speech and extremist rhetoric nor recruiting grounds for extremists, terrorists or anyone who would want to do this country harm,” he said.

As Turk was about to enter the prayer room, he was approached by Suzanne Rubin, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they had traveled together in March on an Abrahamic pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

She invited him and his family to a break fast after Yom Kippur.

“That’s during Ramadan, so we’ll be breaking fast as well,” he replied. “That should work.”

Thrown For A Loop

“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

Spectator – A Night at the Hebraic Opera

Opera fans don’t mind watching theater unfold in a foreign language. So perhaps Molière fans will enjoy seeing his work performed in Hebrew.

That’s one of the hopes of Ori Dinur, director of “The Imaginary Invalid,” Molière’s 17th century comedy about a hypochondriac and his machinations, playing in Hebrew at the University of Judaism on Feb. 16.

“If you know Hebrew a little bit or you just love theater and you want to enjoy something different, it’s enough to have synopsis in your hand,” said Dinur, 40. The Israeli writer-director-teacher adapted Natan Alterman’s complex translation into a simpler Hebrew play so that even more basic Hebrew speakers can understand it.

The cast is comprised of 11 Jewish actors of different backgrounds, including Iran, Yemen, Russia, Poland, Morocco, Gibraltar and the United States. All but one of the actors — Jordan Werner — are Israeli. The 31-year-old Floridian, just a year in Los Angeles, can read Hebrew from his Jewish day school upbringing but barely understands it. For his part, as the lover Cleante, Werner memorized all his lines with coaching from the rest of the cast; he still betrays an American accent thick on the “rrrs.”

“As an actor, I really believe you get the feeling from a connection with someone. And I have to look into their eyes and feel what they’re saying so it’s really a lesson to me, how to react to only what they feel,” Werner said.

“The Imaginary Invalid” is Dinur’s first project for her new organization, The Jewish-Hebrew Stage. Together with Yoram Najum The Jewish-Hebrew Stage plans to bring Hebrew and Israeli theater to Los Angeles, as well as teach Hebrew through drama.

“I notice there is awkwardness between Israelis and the American Jewish community here, a little alienation,” said Dinur, who has been living in the Valley for the last five years. “I’d very much like to create an atmosphere of creation that has to do with Israelis and Jewish Americans. We share so many things, and we can learn so much from people who lived here for generations — and they can learn so much from us, too.”

“The Imaginary Invalid” plays Feb. 16, at 8:30 p.m., at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mullholland Drive, Bel Air. For tickets, call (818) 763-7379.


The Lost Words

“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.

I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.

It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.

Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.

Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.

So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”

The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.

One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”

And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.

They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.

“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.

Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.

Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.

But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.

But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.

It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.

This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.


A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way

“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.

So, did I like this book, you ask?

Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)

Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.

Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).

The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.

The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.

Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.

God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).

Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”

Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.

Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:

Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.

Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”

The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.


All Hebrew, All the Time


Morah Safi Netter turns up the volume on her cellphone speaker. Twenty-two kindergartners stifle giggles and bounce expectantly on their knees as a distinctive foreign-sounding ringtone fills the room at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy in Los Angeles.

Netter’s father, Moshe, answers the phone in Rechovot, Israel. With good humor he obliges his daughter’s request for a weather report. He tells of the cold plaguing Israel and listens as the kids describe sunny but cool Los Angeles.

What is so unique about this transatlantic news exchange is that these all-American kids are conducting the entire conversation in Hebrew.

For up to three hours a day, these children will not hear an adult utter a single word in English — not even at recess or bathroom time or when a child needs disciplining.

Pressman is at the vanguard of a nationwide movement looking to preschools and kindergartens to confront a widely acknowledged problem in Jewish education: Kids spend more than 12 years in day school or Hebrew school and, with a few exceptions, are unable to carry on a fluent conversation in modern Hebrew.

That is already changing for the kids in Netter’s class. After the phone call to Israel they don warm hats and scarves and trek across the yard to a mock Israeli Mount Hermon, where they continue their unit on cold weather. Not one of them seems lost as they listen to instructions in Hebrew about the day’s projects involving ice cubes, powdered sugar and Styrofoam balls. They answer questions in well-pronounced, Hebrew-accented sentences.

These children are part of a groundbreaking Hebrew-immersion program. The idea behind immersion is that children and adults best learn a second language the same way they learned their first — by hearing it spoken without any translations, by using context or multisensory clues to decipher new words, and by using the language to function in everyday activities.

“The difference is before they only got vocabulary, and now they are getting the whole language,” said Tova Baichman-Kass, who has taught kindergarten at Pressman for 10 years and began immersion teaching this year. “We want them to think in Hebrew. We want them to know that aryeh is an aryeh, not a lion or anything else.”

When kids know that a teacher will translate what she has just said, the kids tune out the Hebrew and listen only for the English, noted Sigal Abukrat, who teaches first and second grade at Pressman.

Immersion in different languages has moved into the preschool arena in the last five years, and it seems to be a natural fit. Parents and academics have long observed that young children acquire language with great ease. Recent research indicates that very young kids learn a second language in the same network in the brain that holds the primary language, while older children or adults must develop a whole new network, a less efficient process.

The hope is that these American children will become as fluent as native speakers of Hebrew — a concept that could revolutionize Jewish education.

“To me, fluency with Hebrew language is the cornerstone for building Jewish learning and participation in Jewish life and a relationship with Israel,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy. “It raises the level of everything that goes on in school when you have a really strong foundation in Hebrew.”

Changing the Old Models

Malkus and principals at other schools are looking to bring the latest in research and teaching techniques, including immersion, to an educational arena that is thousands of years old. Many schools have bought more interesting and more educationally solid texts and curricula. They have brought more noise into the classroom, with music and group conversations replacing teacher talk, workbooks and spelling tests.

Schools are sending their teachers to language-acquisition training institutes or hiring Hebrew-language specialists. And there is a late-in-coming realization that being Israeli is not enough to qualify for the job of Hebrew teacher.

While these changes have been trickling up through the day school movement over the last 10 to 15 years, the success of Hebrew-language immersion in preschools is especially attracting attention.

“I have been teaching Hebrew for many years, but I have never seen instant results like this — and I can really call it instant,” said Miri Avraham, a preschool teacher at Pressman, who often hosts observers from other schools in her class. “When you talk to the children in the target language the whole time, they understand it better and they learn it better — and it’s fun for them when they realize they can understand.”

So far, parents are thrilled with the results.

“My oldest in seventh grade is coming to my little one to ask her for words,” said Sheryl Katchen, who has 6-year-old twins in immersion classes at Pressman.

Using Immersion

Language immersion, which began with a Spanish program in a Culver City School in 1971, has grown nationwide to almost 300 schools. Language learning in general, even in elementary grades, has been coming back into vogue in North American schools, which have historically postponed language classes until middle school and high school.

Immersion is only superficially related to traditional bilingual education, which has fallen out of favor in California. The goal of bilingual education was to use a foreign language, usually Spanish, to teach academic subjects to students who had only a limited command of English. These students were supposed to transition gradually to English. In immersion programs, the goal, by contrast, is fluency in a foreign language.

Many Jewish schools for decades have used the old European model of ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), where Judaic content is taught in Hebrew.

While immersion teaching is also content based, it utilizes a more systematic, consistent approach to language acquisition.

The advantage for preschoolers may go beyond merely learning a foreign language. European researchers reported in a 2004 Nature article that bilingual brains have denser gray matter than monolingual brains, and the earlier the language was learned the denser the gray matter.

Gray matter makes up the bulk of nerve cells in the brain and is associated with intellect. Research has also pointed to easier acquisition of additional languages, more creativity, problem-solving ability and even higher SAT scores among children who were bilingual at an earlier age.

Buttressed by such research and frustrated with the imperfect Hebrew of educated American Jews, Frieda Robins, a doctoral student in Jewish education at the New York City-based Jewish Theological Seminary, developed Maalah (Hebrew for benefit, merit and upward). The program, which was launched in 2003 — thanks to a two-year $150,000 seed grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation and matching funds from the Jewish Theological Seminary — works with local Bureaus of Jewish Education to train early childhood teachers and help preschools develop immersion classrooms.

Maalah is a teaching technique (not a curriculum with texts) that combines methods used to teach young children with those used to teach languages. These involve constant repetition, body language and tasks that require students to get up and do something. Maalah structures thematic units around works of Israeli children’s literature, and the program adapts methods from special education, relying on more than one modality to reach students who might have trouble with visual or audio cues.

“We know that the vocabulary a child comes with into first grade will determine not only his or her reading comprehension at the end of first grade, but also at the end of 12th grade,” Robins said.

Difficult Transitions, Huge Payoff

Pressman is one of four schools locally and 13 nationwide participating in Maalah. Temple Judea West and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, both in West Hills, have preschool classes with 3- and 4-year-olds utilizing Maalah, as does the preschool at Valley Beth Shalom day school in Encino. Two other day schools, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, are signed on for next year.

Starting this summer, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angles, will take over local Maalah training and support.

Adopting Maalah has cost Pressman about $17,000, including paying for consultants, new materials and paying teachers extra for developing their own units. Pressman also received a $3,000 federal Title One grant, through which private schools can develop nonreligious programming.

To bring parents on board, schools have presented model lessons at orientation and provided vocabulary lists so parents can understand their children. They’ve even begun adult Hebrew classes.

“There are parents who are afraid of this, who think their kids will be lost or their English will not develop properly if they learn things in Hebrew,” said Aviva Kadosh, director of Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education. “I collect articles that say it isn’t so.”

Kadosh explains that what children are learning in the early years is concepts, not words, so that they understand the idea of something being round whether it is called a circle or an igul. Kids function in English outside of those few hours a day, so they won’t fall behind in English.

Avraham, who has been teaching immersion for the last two of her nine years at Pressman, acknowledges that the transition is hard, but kids catch on within weeks. At this point in the year, the children not only understand but are comfortable expressing themselves in Hebrew.

On a recent morning in Avraham’s class, the 4-year-olds were near the end of a unit on plants and vegetables that coincided with the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. As they had been doing for several weeks, the children played games identifying pictures of cucumbers, models of plastic peppers or fragrant heads of garlic. They made and ate a salad, painted with broccoli at art tables lined with Hebrew newspapers and read a book about a neighborhood salad-making party.

Teachers encouraged the kids to speak in Hebrew even among themselves, and if a child got stuck, Avraham helped out with choices, so the kids always came up with the right word eventually. Body language, charade-type motions and pointing helped.

Parents who are worried about children losing out on grammar or writing skills should not be, according to experts. Immersion programs incorporate reading and writing in older grades, and the grammar comes with speaking in a safe environment where expression is encouraged and correction of mistakes is applied strategically.

When it comes to these programs, the students may have the easier part. An immersion program limits the pool of teachers to those fluent in Hebrew. Teachers have to redesign curricula and teaching styles.

“It has been tough for the teachers,” said Jessica Green, director of education at Shomrei Torah. “These are veteran teachers who are training to do this, and they told me it is as if they are brand new teachers and have to start from scratch.”

They also have to be willing, at least at first, to give up some content. Abstract concepts — such as Rosh Hashanah being a new year, or saying sorry on Yom Kippur — have to be saved for older grades, since the 3- and 4-year-olds might not yet have the vocabulary for it.

Moving Up Through the Grades

Pressman has brought immersion as far as second grade, and plans to add a grade per year until the entire school is speaking Hebrew. It will also adapt the program for religious school students, who only attend one or two days a week.

Shomrei Torah, too, plans to bring immersion gradually to the upper grades of Hebrew school.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy hopes eventually to teach all Judaic studies in Hebrew, in addition to having Hebrew-immersion periods every day.

“We feel that if our children receive this at the age of 4 or 5, it will serve as a tremendous foundation for when we begin to teach them more formal Hebrew,” said Rabbi Baruch Sufrin, who heads the school.

For Ginni Rosenfeld’s family, the benefit already extends beyond the classroom.

“Just this week my daughter got into the car and spoke to me in flawless Hebrew, saying, ‘Ima, ani rotzah lachzor habaytah [Mom, I want to go home],'” said Rosenfeld, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Pressman. “It was seven o’clock at night. She was coming from a place where no one was speaking Hebrew, but this was just natural to her.”

Summer School for Hebrew Teachers

Kathryn Paul had put two kids through day school, and while their Hebrew was OK, she knew it could be better. And as the assistant director of the Language Resource Center at UCLA’s International Institute, she could do something about it.
And not just for her own children.
She wanted to create a summer program to teach day school Hebrew teachers how to be better teachers. She submitted a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation, which awarded her program $50,000. UCLA put in another $15,000.
The program, offered in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education, has 10 slots for day school teachers in two six-week, for-credit classes in UCLA’s Applied Linguistics Department.
The courses cover the latest in theories and practice of foreign language teaching.
The program includes help at applying what’s being taught through observations of the day school teachers in their own classrooms.
“Our thinking is that these teachers will rise to the challenge,” Paul said. “They are very committed and love what they do, but they haven’t had the opportunity to take courses like this.”

The deadline for applications is April 1. To download a form or for more information go to www.international.ucla.edu/lrc/jcf/ or call (310) 825-2510. — JGF

Divining Prayer

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 alederman@cox.net

On The Road

Here’s what you miss when you go on an organized mission to Israel: You miss the closed-top market in Rosh Ayin, where sellers out-shout
each other over megaphones, "Underwear, girls’ underwear, three for 10 shekels."

If you participate in an "emergency weeklong mission" — where you eat in your hotel and other tourist spots — you might miss the fresh souk limonana (a thick, icy, Slurpee lemonade with grated spearmint) and the toasted cheese and tomato sandwich cobbled together on fake kosher-for-Passover "bread" made from matzah meal, and the guy who sells them to you while making fun of your Hebrew — which has somehow deteriorated to your first-grade teacher’s bad American accent.

"Are you a new immigrant?" he asks, and you’re amazed at his chuzpah-like optimism, his complete faith that even at times like these he believes — perhaps correctly? — someone would still move to Israel in its perpetual state of war. You want to tell him you’re a tourist, because you hope it would make him feel almost as good to know that at least people are still visiting Israel, but it’s more complicated than that.

"I used to live here, but now I live in Los Angeles."

"You lived here? What happened to your Hebrew?"

"It will come back soon," you tell him, and hope that like your sleeping pattern, somehow, your language will adjust.

If you went on a "solidarity" mission to visit terror victims/Hebron/Ramallah — depending on which political group you’d like to bolster — you might miss the sandwich guy’s friend, who takes you by the elbow and steers you to the bitan ha’lo ye’uman (the unbelievable stand) of cloths from India. He has gauzy, colorful curtains, tablecloths, napkins and runners embroidered in gold and silver, which sell for $100 at Pottery Barn in the United States, but are on sale today for 20 shekels ($5). You quickly buy the last red ones before the Israeli woman does, and convince the busy merchant (who’s eyeing the two teenage girls on Pesach vacation) to sell you the blue-and-gold pillowcase without the bulky pillow.

"But it’s my last one," he says.

"Exactly, then why do you need a floor sample?" you think is what you said in Hebrew.

You hand him the 30 shekels even though you’re positive he’s ripping you off; despite what Eric Idle says to Graham Chapman in "The Life of Brian," Middle Easterners don’t like to bargain all that much. But you have to leave the incredible booth before your house will look like Calcutta, and because you have to catch the train to Tel Aviv since you promised people at home you wouldn’t take buses.

If you were on a tight security mission to Israel to meet with mayors and ministers and hear the speeches of the particular group that sponsored you, you might miss the experience of trying to tremp (hitchhike) from the gas station where your friend drops you at instead of leaving you at the deserted train station. You might not know that rush of excitement at the possibility of getting a free ride with a cool couple or family and learning the secret of what Israelis talk about these days. But you wouldn’t miss much because the only people stopping are skeezy Israeli men who ask as their car slows, "Where do you want to go?" because they’d probably go out of their way to take the American girl in the short dress even if it wasn’t en route. No thanks, you tell the third guy and flag a cab.

If you spent your week in Israel visiting tourist sites in a van, you would definitely miss the Yemenite cab driver in Rosh Ayin who tells you he has 10 children — eight daughters and two sons – and 21 grandchildren, who all came to his big house (four bedrooms!) for Pesach, where he had his yearly custom of slaughtering a sheep for the seder.

"The sheep costs 400 shekels ($85) and it’s worth it," he explains at your exclamation of horror as he discusses the different parts of the sheep. "I give the head to the slaughterer, as a reward," he tells you, adding that for himself he keeps the innards — kidneys, liver, etc.

He came to Israel from Yemen with his parents ("May they rest in peace") when he was 6, and moved to Rosh Ayin, which was mostly Yemenite, until foreigners started moving in some 10 years ago. "At first there were big conflicts," he explains to you, dangerously taking his eyes and hands off the wheel to turn around and gesture the clasped hands sign of confrontation, "because they always think they know better than us, but in the end we learned to live together."

The kippah-wearing driver doesn’t talk about politics with you except to say that some of his kids are religious, some aren’t, but he doesn’t care, "as long as they’re happy." Maybe he would have talked politics, if you hadn’t already arrived in Tel Aviv.

If you went on one of the many missions to Israel, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, though you’d probably miss out on actually experiencing Israel — but I guess it would certainly be better than not going at all.

Exploring Past Finds Power of Choices

The Hebrew language is not famous for its curse words. There
is one, however, emach she’mo, meaning, “may his name be erased.”

In our tradition, it is a horrible curse to be erased from
human memory. For example, Hitler, emach she’mo: Even as we remember him, we
remember to forget him. Those who evoke our most horrible memories are those
who most deserve to be forgotten.

Conversely, what happens if we take deserving people from
our personal past and return them to human memory? What happens when we can
identify people about whom we knew little or nothing and make the effort to
flesh out their lives, study the choices they made and learn from the
challenges they faced? Doesn’t this process bless our ancestors for being
remembered and bless us for pulling those memories out from history’s ashes?

These are some of the questions that inspired me when I
first discussed this exhibit with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
in 1996. About two minutes into my pitch, he stopped me and said, “Let’s make
it happen.” And, for the next six years and more than a quarter-million miles,
I had the privilege of searching for the ancestors of Maya Angelou, Billy
Crystal, Carlos Santana, Joe Torre and others.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the further back in time
we go among culturally diverse people, the less these people have in common.
Our experience was quite different.

The power of certain commonly shared values seemed to grow
stronger as we went back in time. The narratives, documents and images from all
these families painted a picture of people who associated their joy — even
their own sense of identity — with acts of giving and self-sacrifice.

My journey was fascinating and sometimes humorous.

I arrived in Italy wearing rimless glasses, a closely
cropped beard and a Universal Studios cap. In Petina, Joe Torre’s ancestral
family home near the Amalfi Coast, people stopped me on the street with bottles
of homemade raspberry liquor. They insisted that we drink a toast because noi
amiamo i suoi film, what I eventually learned to mean, “we love your movies.” A
rumor had spread among the locals that I was Steven Spielberg.

For Jews living in the 21st century, it may not seem
newsworthy to admire non-Jewish wisdom. To do so, however, with the specific
intention of performing a mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) and recognizing a Jewish
value, is a truly humbling experience. Listening to Dr. Maya Angelou’s powerful
insights gave me an opportunity to say the Hebrew blessing that ends, “Who has
given his knowledge to human beings.”

My grandmother told me many stories about her family in the
Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, and how they overcame great hardships and
challenges. This memory was most powerfully rekindled while researching the
life of Margaret Torre (Joe’s mother) in Italy. There is a Chasidic folk
saying, “Be a master of your will and a servant of your conscience.” Margaret
Torre may not have been familiar with the expression, but this is how she

In Mexico, Carlos Santana’s aunts spoke about the meaning of
family and the importance of giving back to the world. Sitting in their parlor
in a tiny village near Manzanillo, I realized I could have been in Los Angeles,
Brooklyn or Jerusalem.

Carlos’ mother is a heroic figure who reminds us of
America’s debt to the courage of immigrants. The message is clear: We have the
power and responsibility to transform our lives, reminding me of Anne Frank’s
writing: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before
starting to improve the world.”

By now, it should be clear that one of the reoccurring
themes in “Finding Our Families Finding Ourselves” is the power of choices.
Nothing shapes our lives as powerfully as the choices we make.

There are many bad jokes about the seductive power of the
entertainment industry and “what it does” to people. Janice and Billy Crystal —
with whom I have had the privilege of working for many years thanks to Los
Angeles’ own Dr. David and Andrea Sherman — are a convincing and reassuring
reminder that people are who they choose to be, regardless of external

While the exhibit explores the typical “how-to” questions of
the genealogical quest, it also addresses the “why-to” part of the experience.
Who can we become when we learn more about how we came to be? I wish you great
success on your journey. Â

Rafael Guber is founder of the Sepia Guild, a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors” and co-creator of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves.”

My Yiddische Papa

Educator Yakob Basner will tell you that if you want to learn about a people, study their language.

“You cannot learn or know the history of the Jewish people without learning Yiddish,” Basner said. “There are words you can not translate into English.”

“Yiddish is our language; it’s our culture,” he continued. “Before the war, 12 million Jews spoke it. And the last words spoken by the Jews in the Holocaust before they were killed was in Yiddish.”

Basner, a survivor of four concentration camps, has made it his lifelong mission to connect new generations of Jews to their past by teaching Yiddish language and literature. The Long Beach resident, who for 15 years has taught Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles, which preserves and promotes Yiddish culture, will receive the organization’s Yidishkayt Award during the Nov. 10 luncheon at the Fairmont-Miramar in Santa Monica that will celebrate the Southern California chapter’s 95th anniversary.

Basner has been vital to the continuance of the Yiddish tradition in the local Yiddish-speaking community, from Los Angeles’ Workmen’s Circle to Beverly Hills High School Adult School, where he has taught Yiddish for the past decade.

Basner, who turns 75 in December, has been speaking the language — an amalgam of German, Hebrew and European dialects — “from the beginning. I soaked it in from my mother’s milk.”

The Yiddish expert has lived most of his life before and after WWII in his birthplace, Riga, Latvia. He lost his father, mother, brother and sister in the Shoah. His brother was executed on a death march just a day before liberation.

At 17, Basner was liberated in 1945 from Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. He returned to Riga, where he worked in the leather-cutting trade while studying linguistics. By 20, he had reconnected with and married Doba, a girl he had known since he was 7. They have been married for 54 years.

“She was hiding in Riga throughout the war,” Basner said, “and I met her on the street.

After a decade of struggle to leave Latvia, which the Soviet Union occupied during World War II, the Basners and their two daughters finally reached California in 1980. The Basners have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Since 1987, Basner has taught Yiddish to thousands of students, including Eric Gordon, director of Workmen’s Circle.

In the fall of 1995, Gordon took Basner’s advanced Yiddish class. Two months later, Gordon became Basner’s boss at the Workmen’s Circle.

Gordon, a Yiddishkayt aficionado since his Yale days in the ’60s, has spearheaded a variety of chapter projects. His contributions include a mural on the headquarters’ Horner Street wall in the Pico-Robertson area, an art gallery, a monthly newsletter and programs co-sponsored with various organizations, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Democrats for Israel.

Gordon wants to continue to draw young people. A Jewish poetry slam is scheduled for late November, as is the formation of a Jewish artists group and a gay and lesbian group.

“Younger people are finding here what our older members have found in the past: a Jewish community and home,” Gordon said.

Social action and justice are still top priorities at Workmen’s Circle, which recently drafted anti-war resolutions.

“We stand for a national health-care system, labor rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, a land for peace solution to the Middle East conflict,” continued Gordon, explaining the platform of the Workmen’s Circle’s 50-plus North American affiliates. “It’s tied to the social action that in the past was conducted by unions, the Bundt and other organizations. It’s part of that whole tradition.”

Tradition is the key word.

“The Circle,” Basner said, “is an organization that has understood since the beginning of the 20th century to preserve the Yiddish culture, to help keep Jews connected.”

Basner has mastered English, Russian, Latvian, Hebrew and German. But it is Yiddish that remains closest to his heart.

“It’s a very rich, fun language,” Basner said. “A lot of idioms, proverbs, expressions. You not only get to teach the language, you have the opportunity to teach all the sayings and expressions.”

Although Yiddish is 1,000 years old, it still thrives with new works of literature released every year. Basner, whose Holocaust odyssey was chronicled in the English-language book, “The Unfinished Road: Jewish Survivors of Latvia Look Back” (Brager, 1991), still obtains much hanoe (joy) from teaching Yiddish.

“I feel that Yiddish will stay alive,” Basner said, “because it’s very stubborn, like the Jewish people. It will survive.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s annual awards banquet, emceed by “Freaks and Geeks” stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, will be held Nov. 10 at the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Tom Hayden and members Judy Silver and Frances Friedman will receive awards. Mit Gezang Yiddish Choir will perform. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.circle.org.

Mitzvah Day

Imagine the possibility of having restricted access to your own religion and culture without even realizing it, whether you attend synagogue and study sessions faithfully or not. Such a phenomenon actually exists, and it’s doing its disturbing work in our own Jewish community. I am referring to the inability to read and interpret the Hebrew language – the original mode of communication of the Torah, rabbis, biblical scholars and personas, and thousands of years of Judaism. I call this disability Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy.

The term illiteracy most often conjures up those stereotypical images of people far outside the walls of our own community. Prima facie, no one would associate this handicap with the People of the Book. Yet it is a fact that most Jewish Americans do not possess the bilingual skills necessary in which to truly live up to their name. Yes, being a fully expressed Jew actually does have something to do with the Hebrew language. Generally speaking, Jewish Americans, due to a language barrier, are incapable of fully connecting with the bread and butter of their faith – biblical and rabbinic texts. These repositories of our collective ancient wisdom and spirituality remain, for most, largely unapproachable, and yet they form the basis of what it means to be Jewish. And whereas the concept of Jewish literacy means much more than just reading and writing in a particular language, on the most fundamental level it certainly must start there.

You can’t just take somebody else’s word for what thousands of years of Judaism have to say. The availability of the many excellent English translations of classical Jewish writings simply does not do the job. First of all, for every English language Torah book, there remain thousands still available only in the original Hebrew. Buyer demand has created a steady supply of English Bibles, prayer books, Talmuds, philosophical guides, Rashis, etc. But try getting your hands on a sufficient number of the layers upon layers of classical commentaries in English that make the aforementioned works user-friendly and truly accessible. Commentaries, whose job is to elucidate, create access to the primary evidence they are interpreting. Lose the commentaries, and you lose real touch with the source material. Certainly, there are numerous modern scholars who offer valuable thoughts in English on the Bible, liturgy and Jewish law. But no collection of modern theories and formulas can take the place of centuries of Jewish thought and scholarship. At the current pace, we might never see the finish of the massive job of translating the necessary books of ages past.

Moreover, English translations are often, though not always, misleading, emphasizing a conceptual understanding rather than a literal one. The final product ends up being a processed explanation rather than a true and careful translation, so you end up studying the translator and not the original author. In addition, even if a given translation is extremely precise, each Hebrew word can mean different things to the various classical scholars. Since it is rare to find a complete consensus, a typical English Bible, let us say, will have to resort to something like offering one scholar’s view in its translation of one word and another sage’s opinion for a different term. Technically, such renditions, when viewed as a whole, do not satisfy any one opinion of those original biblical exegetes; instead they are a hodgepodge of them all. Only upon learning the Hebrew language can we effectively sift through all the evidence and see how Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, Rabbi David Kimchi, and the Maharal of Prague would each independently translate that same Bible.Finally, only a small percentage of the English-language Jewish books in publication today are dedicated to the task of translation at all. New-age authors have their own valuable ideas to communicate. Yet, somehow, year after year, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s 14th century magnum opus – the Tur, a compendium of Jewish law and the actual precursor to the monumental Shulchan Aruch – remains a mystery for the masses due to an ever-present language barrier.

The problem of Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy is by no means new, but it is particularly virulent in its modern form due to the dynamics of today’s Jewish landscape. The incredible availability of certain excellent Jewish works in English is really both a blessing and a curse in its propensity to solve one problem and exacerbate another. Fifty years ago, most of these books weren’t even available in English. Now we have little incentive to actually master the fundamentals of the Hebrew language. We are undoubtedly the first generation in history to produce individuals who have studied the entire Talmud and who cannot translate a single word of it. Today’s synagogues and Jewish institutions largely add to the problem by simply not acknowledging it – most rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, give sound-bite oriented lectures, which demand zero textual skills on the part of their audiences. Jewish organizations continue to boast of their large constituencies who remain virtual outsiders when faced with the basic task of praying in Hebrew. (I make no attempt to use this phenomenon to measure anyone’s spirituality; I am addressing our potential for complete Jewish literacy.) And so it continues to be a world of haves and have-nots: Jewish children quickly surpass their own parents’ Hebrew ability, and Jewish adults continue to stare at the letters of the alef-bet as if it were hieroglyphics.

There is a viable solution. We need to adopt a more proactive attitude by demanding more opportunities for Hebrew language empowerment. We need to study Judaism more efficiently and learn how to learn. We, instead of the teacher, must be seated in the driver’s seat with an open book in front of us armed with the mission of improving our textual skills. For some, the answer may be as simple as signing up for an ulpan or a Hebrew grammar course; others may prefer the time-proven method of poring over the material with an advanced study partner (chavruta). All of this may seem hard at first, but as with any other skill, the reward is commensurate with the effort; the Talmudic giant Rabbi Akiba began his Hebrew linguistic adventure at age 40. I truly believe that Mark Twain’s words put many of these issues in proper perspective: “Don’t explain your author; read him right, and he explains himself.”

Free Hebrew Courses

North Valley JCC, the Jewish Home for the Aging, Westwood Kehilla and Jewish Learning Exchange are just a few of the Southland locations that will host a free Hebrew class during November for the Third Annual Read Hebrew America, a program organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP).The classes, designed for Jews with little or no background in Hebrew, will concentrate on the Hebrew alphabet and basic reading skills. A level-two program will be available for those interested in advancing their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills.

NJOP’s primer, “Hebrew Reading Crash Courses,” will be available in English, Russian and Spanish, and a French version will be published next year. As a bonus, students who complete this year’s course will receive a mezuzah designed by world-renowned artist Yaacov Agam.

NJOP, which also spearheads Shabbat Across America, estimates that more than 15,000 unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews will participate in this year’s classes nationwide. Since 1987, NJOP has taught more than 215,000 North American Jews to read Hebrew.

To find the location and date of the class nearest you, visit the NJOP Web site at www.njop.org or call (800) 44-HEBREW. – Staff Report

Alive and Kicking

Aaron Paley, 41, grew up living and breathing Yiddish.

His world was a community of leftist Jews who considered the radical Workmen’s Circle the reichte, the right wing. Paley attended the collectively-run Yiddish Kindershule and Mittelshule in Van Nuys, where he studied labor history and Sholem Aleichem. He marched with his parents in anti-Vietnam rallies and was riveted by tales of sweatshop workers who became union organizers. For the Paleys and their friends, Yiddish was always associated with struggle and liberation; Aaron grew up an activist in his own right, promoting artists through his Community Arts Resources and organizing festivals devoted to “cultural democracy.”

By the early ’90s, however, Paley became distressed about the state of Yiddish in Los Angeles. The native speakers were dying out; Hebrew had replaced Yiddish as the Jewish language; and Paley’s beloved shule had closed down. &’009;

But a fledgling Yiddish revival was sweeping the country, spearheaded in part by another activist, Aaron Lansky, who had founded the National Yiddish Book Center to rescue Yiddish tomes from the dumpster.

Paley, too, decided to take action, inspired by a theater piece he viewed deep in the woods outside a Belarussian shtetl in 1994. As a performance artist recreated Yiddish life in a manner that was neither maudlin nor mournful, Paley decided to launch an organization and a festival to do the same in L.A.

“Yiddishkayt Los Angeles” began with a one-day festival in 1995; it is returning this month with an eight-day fete, “Yiddishkayt! A Celebration for All Ages — The New Face of an Enduring Culture,” Oct. 18-25. With more than 24 events from the Skirball to Self-Help Graphics, the festival will include plays, cabaret, symphonic music, films and an art exhibit. It will be perhaps the largest event of its kind ever in the U.S.

“I want to show people that Yiddish and Yiddish culture is not dead, kitchy, moribund, tinged with sugary nostalgia or regret about the Holocaust,” Paley explains. “I want them to see that it provides a foundation of ideas and creativity that people can draw on today. You can’t throw away 1,000 years of history; Yiddish is in the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews.”

The festival’s focus, therefore, is not on Bubbe and Zayde, but on artists who are reinterpreting Yiddish culture to create new, contemporary works. The New York avant-garde theater collective, Great Small Works, will present the U.S. premiere of “The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln,” a cutting-edge music-theater piece based on the Yiddish-language diary of a spirited, 17th century widow.

“Ghetto Tango: Music in Extremis” will focus on artists who worked in makeshift ghetto theaters during the Holocaust; “Viva Klezmer-L’khayim Mariachi!” will feature klezmer and mariachi musicians; the L.A. Jewish Symphony will perform Shostakovich’s song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry;” the Workmen’s Circle will dedicate its new, vibrantly colored mural; and Yankev Lewin will present his one-man show based on the classic play, “200,000,” by Sholem Aleichem, with English subtitles. Sabell Bender directs this surprisingly modern piece about a man who wins the lottery and loses it all to sleazy film producers.

Bender, chair of the festival committee, grew up in Boyle Heights when Yiddish was the language of daily conversation. She described how the first Yiddish-speakers came to Los Angeles, early in this century, from the Jewish enclaves of the East Coast. During the L.A. Yiddish heydey from the 1930s to the ’50s, they supported dozens of Yiddish organizations and shules, some socialist, some Labor Zionist, some apolitical, some communist.

There were two local Yiddish theater companies, including the L.A. Yiddish Folks Bineh (The People’s Theater); union meetings were conducted in Yiddish and so were the lectures at the Soto-Michigan Jewish community center in Boyle Heights.

But as second- and third-generation American Jews moved west and assimilated, Yiddish began dying in Los Angeles. Only Chassidic Jews kept on speaking Yiddish in daily life.

The secular Yiddish revival began here and around the country only after Hebrew was firmly established as the language of Israel, says Eric Gordon, director of the Southern California district Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. It began only after anti-Semitism had declined and Jews felt secure in America. Then, Ashkenazi Jews openly expressed the hunger to return to their roots.

Today, the Yiddish Renaissance is palpable. The National Yiddish Book Center has just opened an $8-million complex in Amherst, Mass., and is planning to digitally scan every page of every Yiddish book ever published, Lansky told The Journal. There is a KlezKemp for klezmer enthusiasts; and mainstream artists are appropriating Yiddish culture as source material (note Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s rendition of “The Dybbuk.”)

Here in L.A., there are dozens of Yiddish-language classes and clubs; a literary journal; at least four professional klezmer bands; a Laemmle Theatres Yiddish film day; and a KCRW-FM series of Yiddish short stories performed by actors such as Leonard Nimoy.

The upcoming Yiddishkayt Festival, which Paley hopes will become a biennial event, is part and parcel of the Renaissance. “I want people to realize that Yiddish is relevant and has a place in L.A. in 1998,” Paley says.

For information and a festival schedule, call (323) 692-8151.