Half-baked Hebrew

In addition to my sporadic meetings with the rabbi and the cantor, I just started going to a weekly hour-long Hebrew class.

I’ve got a – shall we say — complicated relationship with Hebrew.

The letter aleph

I picked up a bunch of modern Hebrew as a teenager in Hashomer Hatzair and when I worked on a kibbutz for a few months after high school. Then I picked up more modern Hebrew when I lived in Jerusalem briefly in my early 20s and attended an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew class designed for new immigrants.

But all of my exposure has been to 20th century conversational Hebrew, not prayer book Hebrew.

Here’s an example: When I was studying in the ulpan, my class included a number of Orthodox Jewish immigrants. We were all advanced beginners, but our vocabularies were like night and day. They knew words like angel and holy and blessed. I knew words like cow barn and dining hall and political party.

We each thought the others were morons. (And that’s not even going into our political differences.)

Meanwhile, I’ve never really mastered reading.

I can sound out words and recognize all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, but I never learned the alphabet in order.

You know how in preschool we all learned that a-b-c-d song to the tune of “Twinkle twinkle little star”? We never think about it, but that sequencing of letters was a really important chunk of knowledge. It’s a chunk I somehow missed in Hebrew.

So I have a devil of a time trying to look up Hebrew words in a dictionary. I sit there feeling like an idiot going, “Resh? Resh? Now where does the letter resh come in the alphabet? Is it before or after samech? How much after samech?” It takes me about two minutes of fumbling around just to find the right page. Then it takes me another minute to locate the word somewhere on that page.     

I also constantly transliterate in my head.

When I think of a Hebrew word, I don’t picture it with Hebrew letters. I picture it as we would write its sounds in English. So when I think “ani” (Hebrew for “I”), I don’t visualize aleph-nun-yud. I visualize a-n-i. My brain is a word processing program that doesn’t have a Hebrew font. And it’s been like that for 30-plus years.

So on the one hand, I’m almost fluent in some basic Hebrew conversational phrases: There are words and sentences that pop into my head at random moments even though I haven’t used them in 25 years.

And at the same time I’m less familiar with the Hebrew alphabet than an Israeli four-year-old.


Luckily the class I joined is focused on my area of deficit – reading the prayer book and Torah. With only three other students, it’s small enough to be pretty flexible. And the teacher, Temple Sinai‘s award-winning educator Ophira Druch, seems willing to accommodate my spotty background.

Coming next: Why Hebrew appeals to my geometric mind.

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4 Responses to “Half-baked Hebrew”

  1. Kaveh Says:

    Hi Ilana, I don’t have much that is useful to say other than I know it takes so much work to advance in another language as an adult. I’m trying to slowly improve my Spanish now, fortunately with the same alphabet! It takes so much repeated exposure for me to have something sink in and stick… it’s frustratingly slow, but still rewarding as I progress. I think we forget how much exposure a child gets before she learns her mother tongue, and that’s with a much more focused mind than the typical adult with a busy life. So just stick with it is all I can say; keep staring at those letters, keep taking the frustrating ten minutes each time to look up a word. It does get easier with time… if you can find the time!

  2. Naomi Olson Says:

    Looking forward to the promised next installment on this one. Great opportunity to delve into the cognitive neuroscience literature on language acquisition and memory in all you free time :-)

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