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Learning Hebrew—at Last

Without knowing the language, there was no way to fully participate in my community—not in the way I wanted to

Roseanne Benjamin
October 10, 2019
Photo: Michel D'Anastasio/Flickr
Photo: Michel D’Anastasio/Flickr
Photo: Michel D'Anastasio/Flickr
Photo: Michel D’Anastasio/Flickr

I mostly liked Hebrew school. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1980s, we carpooled to our Conservative synagogue three times a week. It was a large Hebrew school, with its own building, and a bell when it was time to change classes. We carried heavy tote bags filled with books for our classes, and on Shabbat, we lugged a dark red book called Siddurenu, which had been written by our rabbi. We were called exclusively by our Hebrew names to the point that there were kids there whose English names I didn’t know. And I was an attentive and good student, winning prizes at each year-end assembly.

I liked Bible history and learning about the holidays. I was even OK with the kids’ Shabbat morning service, which in my head seemed mostly about standing and sitting, being quiet, and not leaning the Siddurenu on the seat in front of me. Sometimes I even glanced through it: V’Ahavta was an impenetrable black rectangle, but I admired the way Ein Keloheinu lined up symmetrically on the page. Mostly, I concentrated on holding up the book, trying to sing along with the prayers, and staring at the walls.

I couldn’t read the Hebrew. It’s not that they didn’t teach Hebrew well at my Hebrew school, because they did. I have vivid memories of the teacher drawing conjugation boxes on the blackboard, of learning infinitive forms, reciting possessives, writing words and sentences in script. I wasn’t in the highest-level group, the one with Mrs. Baram, the Israeli teacher who gave weekly vocabulary quizzes. The other kids in my carpool practiced their words on flashcards, and I listened in horror. I had the gentler teachers, the one who gave out orange jelly candies for good readings, the one who could be convinced to tell us about her latest diet. And when called on, I could dutifully move my fingers along the words and recite, “ha-sefer al ha-shulchan.” But whatever I learned in class didn’t translate well to reading the siddur.

My parents wanted me to have a Jewish identity and were less invested in my learning Hebrew, and I don’t think my teachers really knew. At my bat mitzvah, they noticed, but it was too late by then to do much. I wasn’t taught trope because I couldn’t read Hebrew. The cantor who taught haftarah was vaguely annoyed with me. He wrote out all the words for me in transliteration with arrows going up and down to represent trope. The older, founding cantor cared more that I could sing well and gave me three Torah portions on cassettes to learn. I transcribed them into transliteration and memorized them phonetically. He was pleased.

I spent two summers at Habonim-Dror Camp Galil, a Labor-Zionist kibbutz-modeled camp where we had a daily Ivrit lesson, and there were times of day when only Hebrew could be spoken. It was very light on prayer, but I learned a great deal of oral vocabulary, seemingly effortlessly, a vast change from Hebrew school. But I never saw the words and phrases that I heard and understood written down.

By the time I graduated from Hebrew school in 10th grade, I had moved on to exploring theater and singing, and I was relieved to finish my Jewish education. But I kept bumping up against what I hadn’t yet learned. When I tried to get involved Jewishly at college, most of the students I met were Orthodox with day-school upbringings. At a Shabbat dinner I’d been invited to, I didn’t know what it meant to “wash.” Everyone sang after dinner. I wanted to sing with them, but I didn’t know the songs and couldn’t read the bentcher.

A few years later, my much younger brother had his bar mitzvah, and the cantor unexpectedly pulled me onto the bimah and told me to lead Ashrei. I knew the melody but not the words, and I couldn’t read it. I stood there awkwardly while the cantor boomed out the leader lines behind me, and hissed in my ear, “why don’t you know this? I know you can sing!” while the congregation recited the alternate lines.

By my mid-20s, my observance had dwindled to visiting my parents on the High Holidays and attending my childhood synagogue. Bored, I sat next to my grandmother, who was scandalized I wouldn’t wear stockings to shul, and I entertained myself by singing along with the choir’s soprano harmony. I sang the parts I knew, and sang “la” for the other words. Abstractedly, I thought, I should really learn to read this.

But I didn’t do anything about it; there didn’t seem to be a point—learn Hebrew just to sing along with the High Holiday choir once a year?

I got married and had kids. Jewish preschool and Hebrew school followed. I added the occasional Shabbat dinner, Simchat Torah, and Purim to my synagogue attendance repertoire.

I probably could have gone on like that indefinitely, had my son Asher not reached bar mitzvah age in the spring of 2018. The cantor at our synagogue was going to be away the weekend of our event, and with some trepidation, I stepped in to lead, since I’d been trained as a singer. I had some doubts as to whether they’d let me lead the service, since I wasn’t much of a presence there, but it was a small, private afternoon bar mitzvah, and it wasn’t a problem. With only a month to go before the event, the cantor kindly wrote out all the transliteration for me, and, as I had done at my own bat mitzvah, I learned it by ear.

I loved leading that service. From the moment I first heard the cantor’s recording, the longing and the joy in the melodies woke something deep within me, reminding me of childhood, of things important to me a long time ago.

It could have ended with Asher’s bar mitzvah, but suddenly, I wanted to learn more services. At a rehearsal before the event, the associate rabbi pointed out to the cantor that I was a better singer than many of the lay leaders at our synagogue. “Do you want to lead Musaf?” she asked. I certainly did.

But I wanted to do more than lead Musaf: Asher’s bar mitzvah had inspired me to want to relearn my own bat mitzvah haftarah. I asked the cantor, and she was skeptical. “The thing is,” she said, “you’d need to read it in Hebrew, with the trope.” I hadn’t realized how seriously I’d have to commit.

I was afraid of Hebrew. Learn Hebrew, in my mid 40s? So I started very slowly last July, watching YouTube videos of the alphabet and vowels meant for children, trying to review the sounds. I moved on to an excellent online video series on reading biblical Hebrew that my dad bought me, and I started a daily Duolingo practice. I led Musaf twice last summer, first in transliteration, and then by matching the sounds I already knew to the actual letters.

My bat mitzvah do-over in September 2018 was a big deal for me. Learning haftarah had been a challenge. It was the first time I’d ever learned anything directly from Hebrew, and I’d also had to learn trope. The second day of Sukkot dawned gray and exceptionally wet, and we were all packed into my synagogue’s small chapel. I was nervous when the Torah service started, even with a friend sitting reassuringly next to me. The cantor jokingly called me to the Maftir aliyah as if I were a bat mitzvah. When the time came for the haftarah, I stepped proudly to the lectern with my Hebrew text. While I read the story of King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, I was shouting inside my head, look at me! I’m reading Hebrew! I’m really doing it! No one was as triumphant as I was afterward, when we left the overcrowded chapel for hakafot around the sanctuary. Later, at a friend’s apartment for Sukkot lunch, rained out of her sukkah, I couldn’t stop smiling.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed more. I still couldn’t read anything in real time, and the cantor had promised to continue working with me. When she began teaching me Torah trope, I moved on to learning Hebrew with a tutor.

I was a most reluctant student. As a divorced mom of three, both money and time are in short supply for me, and visions of Mrs. Baram’s notorious quizzes swam in my head. In October, I found an older Israeli woman named Ilana who was willing to meet with me in her apartment on Sundays twice a month when my kids were with their dad. Knowing it wasn’t completely true, I told her I knew absolutely nothing about Hebrew. She tested me on the first day, and was surprised at how much I did know. “This isn’t nothing,” she said encouragingly, as I stumbled through yeish and ein sentences and carefully wrote out the entire Hebrew alphabet in my best script. “It looks like someone a long time ago taught you very well,” she observed.

I purchased a copy of Hebrew from Scratch, and set out expectations for myself, to try to get through a chapter a week, in between the times I met with Ilana. I bought special mechanical pencils to encourage myself to write, and kept the book on my desk at work, something to do when my boss didn’t need me.

It was an effort to convince myself to keep going. Why now? I kept asking myself. And then I answered myself: Because this language belongs to me. Because this liturgy resonates with me. Because singing is vital to me. Because if I can learn Hebrew, I will be able to lead prayers.

When I had sung in transliteration, the words were affecting; in real Hebrew, they astounded me. Words suddenly leapt off the page, infused with meaning; I got chills the first time I realized I could follow along with the Torah service.

As I pressed on through the textbook, the cantor rewarded me with more things to sing: In November, the exquisite first aliyah of Vayetze, when Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels going up and down. In February, I read some more pedestrian aliyot in Terumah, the building of the Tabernacle. Reading Torah both strengthened my ability to read and introduced me to new vocabulary words.

Concurrently, I spent six months learning to lead Shacharit, and then I led it for the first time this past May. We have since moved on to learning Kabbalat Shabbat.

I never thought that reading Hebrew was necessary to my life. I thought that my identity as a Jew was complete without it. I could not have expressed it before, but now I know that without Hebrew, there was no way to fully participate in my community, not in the way I wanted to.

I have quietly decided I love Hebrew. The way the words telescope out from three-letter roots: If you can find the root in the word, you’ve solved the riddle of the meaning. There is something beautiful about that, something I never discovered back in Hebrew school. There is something powerful about being able to follow along with unfamiliar prayers. I never dreamed I might have that ability.

I just started the second book of Hebrew from Scratch, and I push on and on through Duolingo at ever higher levels—my kids have gotten used to the pinging of the app every morning. I am still learning, but I will say it: I can read and write Hebrew.

Over the course of a year, it came into focus slowly, like a Polaroid. The picture is becoming clear. And, like an optical trick, it occurs to me that now I will never not be able to read Hebrew again. I will see the words, and read them. I lived without knowing how for half my life. But I’ve still got a lot of years left in front of me.

Roseanne Benjamin is a freelance writer in Manhattan.