Religion & Beliefs

The Hebrew-less Jew

When I was a kid, I begged – outright begged, the way some kids beg for a pony or a trip to Disney World – my parents to let me have a bat mitzvah. A secular Jew (who had never … Read More

By / January 10, 2009

When I was a kid, I begged – outright begged, the way some kids beg for a pony or a trip to Disney World – my parents to let me have a bat mitzvah. A secular Jew (who had never had a bar mitzvah of his own) and a Presbyterian could not have been less interested in celebrating a religious ritual with their kid, so I never got my chance to read from the Torah, stand on the bimah, and (the part I wanted most, of course) be showered with $18 checks from cousins I’d never even met.

Most of my friends who were raised Jewish tell very different stories of their own bar or bat mitzvahs. They tell of being dragged away from much more interesting soccer practice, ballet class, or copious TV watching to sit through weeks of boring classes. The phrase "dragged kicking and screaming" comes up a lot. Plenty of them have collections of embarrassing awkward-phase photos that have been carefully stashed in a secure location lest they ever be found. And yet, like any good convert/halfsie/non-Jew, I desperately wanted it. 

Years later, I’ve gotten over the fact that I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. But what I’m not over is one very obvious, key example of my lack of formal Jewish education – I cannot speak, read, or write Hebrew. Oh, I’ve tried. When I first moved to New York I took one of those intensive free weeklong classes where you study like four hours a day. I couldn’t even retain the information from one day to the next. A friend got me those Hebrew letter flash cards and despite staring at them for 20 minutes every night before bed I couldn’t even tell a lamed from a shin. In other words, I was – and possibly still am – completely hopeless. It’s not that I’m bad with languages in general. I speak French reasonably well and am fluent in American Sign Language. I can’t even use the old joke that Hebrew "is like Greek to me," because I actually managed to learn the Greek alphabet in college and am able to figure out what a word is, even if I don’t know what it means. Maybe there’s just some kind of stoppage in my brain when Hebrew shows up, as if it’s my linguistic Kryptonite. Perhaps all my insecurities about not being "Jewish enough" have congealed themselves into one mass and simply refused to even look at the letters in front of them.

If William Blake started learning Italian in his 80s just so he could read Dante in the original, I shouldn’t feel like a total failure for being in my 20s and not having retained a single letter of Hebrew since I first tried to study it. But I do feel like I’m too old for beginner classes and too cheap to hire a tutor. Sure, it’s pretty easy to be a Reform Jew and find English-only congregations, and I’m forever indebted to the makers of transliterated siddurs, who enable me to follow along while also sort of looking like I know what the hell I’m doing. Truthfully, I could probably go the rest of my life without ever learning Hebrew and still manage just fine. There’s no law that says G-d only has one language, or that there’s only one proper voice to use for worship. But there’s a mystery surrounding those impenetrable letters, a lovely series of riddles I’d like to know the answers to. And maybe, someday, those impossible consonants will open themselves to me at last.