Tag Archives: learning Hebrew

Born in America

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

As a boy I learned Hebrew while sitting in
a cramped, stifling second-floor classroom
on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday
mornings, chalk dust in the air and cigarette
smoke mixed with sweat and the stale smell
of ink and old paper, reading Bible stories
from ancient books with dusty yellow pages
and the smell of an exotic, sun-drenched land
rising from between the lines.

The land was called Israel—Eretz Yisrael
in Hebrew—and I was told to call it home,
even though home for me was a split-level
house in northern New Jersey within sight
of the tall spires of Manhattan where my
father worked, and all I knew about Israel
was that it was hot and dusty, a dry land
covered in sand, a place where refugees with
numbers tattooed on their arms came from
Europe’s death camps to build new lives.

I remember how the Hebrew letters felt so
strange on the tip of my tongue and made
the back of my throat swell so that I nearly
choked on the words, and I remember how
I turned the pages hoping my teacher wouldn’t
call on me to read, afraid I’d stumble and trip
in front of my friends over the unfamiliar words.

In the end I learned what I had to learn for
my bar mitzvah, no more, no less, and memorized
all the Hebrew words and how they were supposed
to sound by listening to a record the rabbi had
made, and I repeated the words over and over again
until they sounded like words that came from my
heart, words that I had absorbed in my mother’s
milk as an infant nursing at her breast.

Only I could never convince myself that Hebrew
was really my language. I always felt like an
imposter reading the words, as if the odd-shaped
letters and words belonged to someone else. I was
an American Jew, after all, and, like most Americans,
I spoke English, not Hebrew. And when I walked down
the streets of my suburban town in northern New Jersey,
I foolishly thought that my friends and I were safe
forever from the horrors of the past, and that Israel
served as a haven for others, not for Jews like us
who had been born in America.

How my friends and I had laughed at the idea that
we needed to learn Hebrew. Instead, we dreamed of
playing basketball and throwing a football in a high
spiral on a perfect autumn afternoon and sneaked
peeks across the aisle at the girls, their heads bent
over their books, pretending that we weren’t there,
intent on learning the Hebrew words that all of us
might need one day to strengthen our bonds as Jews.

Bruce Black is is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Stepping Stones

by David Bogner (Efrat, Israel)

While we were in the U.S. this past August, I spent quite a bit of time browsing bookshops. The English language book selection isn’t terrible in big Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem… but there is something about wandering into a really well stocked bookstore with no plan other than to skim titles that I have not been able to replicate here.

While I was paying for a few books in a store out on Cape Cod, I found an interesting box of magnetic words next to the cash register. Truth be told, I had been looking for these words since we arrived in the states, but had sort of given up by the time they found me.

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Magnetic Poetry. The basic box comes with what seems like two gazillion words. There are additional sets one can buy that have specialty words, but at the time the one box seemed quite adequate.

When we got back home, I completely forgot about the box of magnetic words… and it languished under a pile of things that had somehow never been properly put away (shocking, I know).

As I was straightening up before this past Shabbat, I rediscovered the box of words, and (much to Zahava’s chagrin) I abandoned my chores to immediately place all two gazillion of them on our front door. Stop looking so smug… like you’ve never gotten sidetracked!!!

My initial inclination was to organize the words by parts-of-speech (nouns with nouns, prepositions with prepositions, etc.), but decided that part of the fun would be the randomness of the arrangement.

It wasn’t until all the words (including a few prefixes and suffixes) were on the door that a few interesting things became obvious:

First of all… it turns out that there were way less than two gazillion words… probably closer to 150-200.

Also, I noticed that this random collection of words was eerily similar in size and make-up to the limited collection of words in my Hebrew vocabulary (ok, maybe I have more than a 200 word vocabulary… but some days it feels that way!).

So, what’s the first thing I did once all the words were up on the door?

That’s right, I figured I’d take a couple of seconds and ‘throw out’ the first ceremonial sentence… maybe even leave a witty poem!

Heh, yeah right.

You see there were other lurking similarities to my Hebrew vocabulary… meaning that searching around for exactly the right word was an exercise in futility. Humorous sentences were considered and discarded because I was missing essential words. As a thought would take shape, I would have to change direction/intent based on the words I could find. Fifteen minutes later I actually had my first sentence, but it bore no relation to where I’d been heading when I had started out.

This too was very much like what happens when I try to express myself in Hebrew. The words are there (at least a modest collection of them) but nearly every cogent thought is hijacked by not having ready access to the right words.

Like most immigrants, my conversations are slow, plodding affairs with lots of hand gestures and facial expressions filling in for perfect grammar. They bring to mind the image of a careless person crossing a stream on stepping-stones who hasn’t picked out the route all the way to the other bank. Most of the time I am able to get to the other side (meaning that I almost always manage to finish my thoughts/sentences), but occasionally I still find myself stranded mid-stream.

Just so you don’t think I’m complaining…it’s really amazing how many more ‘stones’ there are in the stream today than there were a year ago! The progress is glacial, though.

Since putting up the magnetic words, several new sentences have sprung to life. A few are Zahava’s doing, and one or two belong to Ari and/or Gili. I haven’t asked, but judging by the Asian syntax and ersatz proverb nature of the sentences, I would say that others have encountered the same challenges that I found. Maybe I’ll have to order one of the additional sets of magnetic words and surreptitiously add them slowly to the mix. I wonder if anyone will notice?

Once we become more familiar with what words are available to us, I’m sure the ‘poetry’ will flow more freely. But in the mean time, it’s kind of neat to have stumbled upon such a tidy little parallel to my ongoing language issues.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003, David has been working in Israel’s defense industry in International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog, Treppenwitz http://www.treppenwitz.com(where this piece originally appeared) and is an amateur beekeeper.

“Stepping Stones” is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry, Jewish identity