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I Have a Confession: I Can’t Pray in Hebrew

Not knowing Hebrew feels like a barrier in the Orthodox world, one that separates me from everyone else.
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March 9, 2022

From the outside, I look like a typical observant Jew. Every Saturday morning, you’ll find me in shul. I cover my hair, I keep kosher and I send my daughter to gan. 

But on the inside, I don’t feel like I’m fully integrated into my community. Why? I don’t know Hebrew.  

In shul, when everyone is singing in Hebrew, I cannot. When I go to someone’s house and we say the grace after meals, I have to ask for a transliterated bencher. When I’m at a Jewish wedding and everyone is happily singing Israeli songs, I feel left out.

I know the aleph bet and can read Hebrew, slowly, if the vowels are underneath the letters. However, if I were to pray exclusively in Hebrew, I’d be in shul hours after everyone had already left. Also, I don’t know what most of the words I’m saying actually mean. 

I’ve taken Hebrew lessons and did well with them, but always stopped because I could never make progress past a certain point. My husband doesn’t speak it regularly, and I don’t have Israeli friends I can converse with.

Most of the time, I don’t feel like a convert, or an outsider – until I have to read or speak Hebrew… I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in my struggles with Hebrew. You truly never know what’s going on with people, no matter what it looks like on the outside.

Not knowing Hebrew feels like a barrier in the Orthodox world, one that separates me from everyone else. In addition to not fully knowing the language, I’m a convert. Most of the time, I don’t feel like a convert, or an outsider – until I have to read or speak Hebrew. 

When I was feeling very down about it recently, I posted on a Facebook group that I belong to for Orthodox women. I asked how they learned to speak and read in Hebrew because I cannot, and disclosed that it made me feel upset. Many of the women in this group are baal teshuvas; they were born Jewish but became religious as adults. I get along great with BTs, because like converts, they had to learn everything on their own. 

The response I received was overwhelmingly supportive. To my surprise, many of the women in the group also pray in English. They offered me tips on how to learn the prayers, including finding out the tunes of songs. They provided me with support and talked about how it was difficult for them, too. 

I discussed this with other people who became religious later in life, and many admitted that they pray in Hebrew but don’t know the meanings of the words. I asked my rabbi if it’s better to pray in English, which I understand, or Hebrew, which I don’t understand. Since Hebrew is a holy language, that’s preferred, but praying in your native tongue is by no means wrong. In fact, if you understand the words in your language and not in Hebrew, it could be better to pray in your own language until you learn Hebrew. It’s all about creating a connection with God, and whichever language makes that happen, that’s the one you should use. 

I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in my struggles with Hebrew. You truly never know what’s going on with people, no matter what it looks like on the outside. I’m glad I revealed my secret because in the process I helped others feel less alone as well. 

Now, I’m taking davening very slowly — one line at a time. I didn’t become observant overnight, so I shouldn’t expect to learn how to read Hebrew so quickly either. 

One thing I know I’m doing right is I send my daughter to a daycare where the teachers only speak Hebrew. That hopefully guarantees that by the time she’s my age, she’s going to speak and read fluent Hebrew. So far, she understands what her teachers say and she even speaks a little. Her favorite word is…“Bamba.”


Kylie Ora Lobell is the Community and Arts Editor of the Jewish Journal.

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