Four months after I moved to the States in 2015, I stopped by a bookstore in Mill Valley, California, that was offering language classes for adults. I proposed a Hebrew class—and suggested that I, having recently immigrated from Israel, would be the perfect person to teach it. The store sent out an email advertising the class, but nobody signed up. I did, however, get a phone call from a very stressed director of a Hebrew school at an affluent congregation in Marin County. His Hebrew teacher had quit at the last minute, and he wondered if I’d be open to taking the job.
We met at the synagogue, a beautifully refurbished space a few miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. The pay, for barely five hours a week, was generous, and on Sundays the Hebrew school had “bagel nosh,” with lox! A week later, we signed a contract. I went to work excited: What could be nicer, I thought, than teaching eager American kids the language I myself acquired at their age—when I was an immigrant for the first time, having arrived in Israel from Russia when I was 8 years old—and now love?
It turned out, however, that the Hebrew taught at the congregation was not the kind of Hebrew I had grown passionate about. I wasn’t expected to teach the kids how to order in a restaurant or make small talk—the kind of things fast-talking Israelis do every day. Rather, I’d need to focus on reading from the Torah, so that one day my students could stand in front of the congregation for their bar or bat mitzvah and really know their stuff. The “big day” loomed large over the students’ heads, and fragile children’s voices could be heard, practicing the chants, across hallways during breaks. For the next two years, I’d see the kids Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings, which we’d spend in a roomy but windowless classroom, battling punctuation, odd letter shapes, and ancient prayer texts that had very little to do with the modern spoken language. On Sundays, before class and after the much anticipated bagel nosh, we’d gather in the sanctuary, parents included, and pray to Elohim in a language many of the congregants did not understand.
Gradually, uneasiness settled in; looking at the faces of parents and students, glowing with delight as they bowed before the Ark and mispronounced the prayer words, I started thinking that my connection to Hebrew—and my brand of Judaism—wasn’t what the director had in mind. When I immigrated to Israel back in 1991, my knowledge of Hebrew was essential to my survival in a new environment; every phrase had meaning, every wrongly uttered word was a reason to be teased by my new Israeli classmates. At these kids’ age, I had zero time for matters of God—all I cared about was learning the language well enough to become my peers’ equal. These Hebrew school students, on the other hand, had no such concerns. They were using Hebrew to head in a completely different direction. Was I the right person to take them there?
As a child in Russia, my sense of Jewishness was limited: We ate matzo—alongside bread—for Passover, and my parents sometimes mentioned a particular coworker who “didn’t like us,” us being the Jews. Being Jewish wasn’t a big deal, nor was it a major building block of my identity; I knew we “belonged” to Judaism, and that Jews were not, for reasons mysterious to me, very popular in Moscow, but this notion carried very little emotion or significance.
When my family moved to Israel when I was 8 years old, we were no longer a minority as Jews, but we were a new kind of minority: immigrants. Our makeshift religious traditions expanded and became richer, as we tried to fast on Yom Kippur and gather around the table for Rosh Hashanah, and yet belief and the presence of “God” remained outside our discourse. We were secular Israelis—Jewish by default, at best.
When I was approaching my 12th birthday, my parents offered me a choice: I could have a big bat mitzvah party “like all these girls in your class” (an actual bat mitzvah, a religious ceremony, wasn’t part of it), or a trip to EuroDisney. We were living in a small town in the south of Israel at the time, a middle-of-nowhere spot where immigrants often end up. The decision—a big party, or a chance to go abroad and see Mickey Mouse—was easy: Off to Paris we went, and the party never happened.
Growing up in Israel in the 1990s was, as many immigrants will tell you, a challenging experience; whatever desire my parents may have had to dwell on our Jewish identity was pushed aside by an initial drive to survive, and then, a few years later, to thrive. Learning Hebrew was, first and foremost, a survival tactic, a pathway to less awkward social encounters and better opportunities. As my parents mastered the nuances of Hebrew and coped with local bureaucracy, I learned the language pretty quickly. At that age, acquiring a new language is as easy and effortless as adjusting to 20 types of candy in the store (in 1991 Russia, there was one). Upon arrival to Israel, two months before second grade was over, I was put in an Ulpan in my school, where I’d learn to read and write alongside other Russian kids. When summer came, my parents found me a summer camp for immigrants, with an emphasis on Hebrew. By the middle of third grade, native Israelis in my class would borrow my homework and copy my test answers.
But even knowing the language, I still had trouble fitting in. I grappled with the new reality of wearing shorts to school and calling my teachers by their first name (utterly disrespectful by Russian standards). Israeli friends were hard to come by, and it wasn’t until my college years that I really started trusting and enjoying the company of “sabra” Israelis. When I moved to Tel Aviv for college, life started making much more sense. Cosmopolitan and cultural, the city gladly provided all the joys a secular 20-something needs. At that point, I started writing in Hebrew for the university newspaper, then for online and print publications. I was getting paid to write and think in the language that was once foreign to me, and the satisfaction was immense. Making it my own, willing it to come alive on paper, made me fall in love with Hebrew all over again. I was consuming tons of Israeli media, made by intelligent, occasionally condescending folks, and came to love slang, irony, wordplay, and puns. While in the small town I grew up in, or even the bigger city we later moved to, someone would occasionally notice my slight Russian accent and comment on it, in Tel Aviv no one in particular cared.
The gap between the vibrant, lively Hebrew I once had to learn and the brand of Hebrew that Jewish kids in Northern California had to spend Sundays with is something I still think about, almost a year after quitting my job at the synagogue. My Hebrew struggle was about fitting in; theirs, about standing out. Learning and knowing Hebrew in Israel means being an Israeli, not always of the religious variety. For my students, I gradually found out, Hebrew was a key to maintaining their Jewish identity in the U.S, a key that inevitably unlocked a whole Ark of religious content—an Ark, their parents hoped, that wouldn’t shut altogether once bat mitzvah time was over.
Hebrew school—from my perspective as an two-time immigrant who never attended one as a student (it was unfathomable in Russia, unnecessary in Israel)—is a funny beast. Ask the people who run it why it’s important, and they’re likely to deliver a speech about values, community, and humanity. Ask an adult American Jew who’d been to one, and they’ll display nostalgic fondness, then quickly add: “But I can’t say a word in Hebrew now!” For me, “saying a word” in Hebrew was first a goal, then a socializing tool, and later in life a way to express myself and make a living. Now that I live outside of Israel, engaging with the language has become even more important. As I watch Israeli TV online or wax poetic with my Israeli friends on Skype, I relish it, its funny nuances, inside jokes, and impossible-to-translate puns.
Looking back at my experience teaching Hebrew school, I appreciate the journey I’ve had with the language even more now, after witnessing its role in the lives of American Jews. Saying shalom (hello) and toda (thank you) were considered fun perks in the congregation, but for most of the community members I encountered, Hebrew was merely a way to connect to higher concepts, while its liveliness, humor, and life-changing potential didn’t matter. For me, those were the only things that mattered.
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.