Shine on, harvest moon
Tales of dialogue


Depending on how you count, this is at least the third time I've picked up the study of Hebrew. As a kid I got a couple of years of Hebrew at the local Jewish Day School (enough to make my way through the siddur and to prattle about my family). In college I took a year of conversational Hebrew, effectively re-learning what I had known at the age of nine. And over the last year I've been working at it again -- first by taking myself through the First Hebrew Primer, and now by taking Hebrew III via Hebrew College Online.

Since I've spent the last year studying Biblical Hebrew, I figured Hebrew III would be a good fit for me. It's right in the middle of Hebrew College's online offerings; it ought to be not too easy, not too hard, but just right. Trouble is, I haven't studied modern Hebrew in over a decade. So far the grammar and morphology are within my power, but the vocab is killing me. For every ten minutes I spend on a review exercise, I spend thirty flipping to the back of the textbook to look things up in the glossary. My Biblical vocabulary isn't ideal, not by a long shot, but I've gotten fairly comfortable with words like "cattle" and "desert" and "commandment;" in contrast, this week's exercises include terms like "mailbox" and "supermarket" and "clock." Oy.

This morning I sat down at my desk, determined not to let myself start the fun part of my day (Deep Ecumenism homework, writing a response to an article by Reb Zalman) until I made it through the Hebrew homework due tomorrow. The one afternoon hour that I didn't spend on my Hebrew...? I spent tutoring a fellow congregant in, you guessed it, Modern Hebrew. Oddly enough, given how little I'm enjoying my own slog, I derived a lot of pleasure from working with her.

The critical difference, I think, is that teaching her feels useful, and helps me bear my own progress in mind. In her struggle to learn and remember words I've already mastered, I see my own wrestle with the language mirrored, and that's helpful to me. Teaching beginning Hebrew is fun. Learning intermediate Hebrew isn't, at least not yet. I don't enjoy doing things I'm not good at, and right now, this qualifies. I know I have to master the simple stuff before I can get to the good part. But I want to be reading Torah and Talmud and Rashi, and instead I'm beating my head against grammar exercises and childish dialogues. It's like wanting to play a whole world of sonatas, and knowing I'll never get there if I don't practice these finger exercises.

The music metaphor seems natural because I took piano lessons as a kid. (Predictably, it's one of those skills I wish I hadn't let atrophy; I rarely sit at the piano now, in part because it's frustrating to look at the sheet music I can't play anymore. Hm. Do you see a theme at work here?) I inherited my mother's ear for music, and for a long time I cleverly tricked my piano teacher into thinking I knew more about reading music than I did. "I just want to hear how it's supposed to sound," I would wheedle, and she would play me the piece in question, and then I'd play it back -- by ear, not by actually paying attention to the notes on the page. When she figured out what I'd been doing, of course, she stopped playing things for me. I had a steep learning curve for a while after that.

Which is why I know it's not wise to wish for a similar Hebrew shortcut. (But wouldn't it be cool if language skills were something we could ingest or upload? Science fiction, where are you when we really need you?) My grandfather Eppie, of blessed memory, had an ear for music too -- and he put it to use speaking seven languages fluently. I know his list included Russian, Polish, Czech, Yiddish, and English; I think Spanish and German were on there too, and he knew at least some Latin and some Hebrew. May that familial gift for languages stand me in good stead as I wrestle with Ivrit Min Hahatchala -- and may this be the last time I ever start this language process over!

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