Aleph Bet(ter late than never)

Aak! I don’t know what’s gotten into me with these bad-pun blog titles. Seasonal humor disorder? Stop her before she puns again…

In any event, the recent death of Debbie Friedman and the imminence of my Bat Mitzvah service combined to make me do something I’ve meant to do for a year now — learn the Hebrew alphabet.

Knowing and reading Hebrew letters isn’t my problem. It’s knowing what order they come in.

Because I started out years ago learning modern Hebrew orally and informally, I never had to sit down and memorize the order of the alphabet. I’ve known that aleph, bet, gimel, daled and heh come at the beginning. I’ve known that lamed-mem-nun come somewhere in the middle, like l-m-n in English. But other than that, I’ m lost. Does chet come before or after tet?  Does ayin come before or after zayin?

This, quite understandably, poses challenges for using a Hebrew-English dictionary. When I’ve worked on translating a section of Torah, it’s been like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Open up the dictionary to a random page, then flip around until I find the section with words beginning with resh or kaf or tet. Looking up a single word becomes an expedition in the jungle, blundering around mapless into brambles and swamps. It takes about four times as long as it should.

This is one of those things that we take for granted in our native language, like literacy itself. We view a million pieces of writing in our daily lives — stop signs and sale signs, company logos, grocery receipts, billboards, backs of cereal boxes — and we never question our ability to see meaning in those little squiggles. They’re words, not squiggles. (Unless we were visitors from a country with another alphabet, in which case they would be squiggles.)

The same is true with knowing the order of the alphabet. It’s embedded so deeply in our brains that we don’t even think about it. We can’t remember a time when we didn’t know it. We learned it back in pre-school or on our parents’ laps with that song to the tune of “twinkle twinkle:” a-b-c-d-e-f-g….

Debbie Friedman wrote a similar kind of kids’ song to teach the Hebrew alphabet:

Alef Bet Song

Much as I love Debbie Friedman, this song always irritated me. The verses are the worst kind of insipid children’s lyrics, rhyming “going to have some fun” with “a song for everyone.” But the chorus — well, the chorus is just the Hebrew letters, and it is a VERY effective way to learn them!

I spent the past couple of days in tribute to Friedman and to my own knowledge gaps, listening to her singsong aleph-bet on my iPod on the treadmill and in the car.

It took me a full year to get around to doing this, but only three days to actually do it.

And now I know it.


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7 Responses to “Aleph Bet(ter late than never)”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    Another “fun fact” is to note thatsome of the letters are “mirror-reversed” from their equivalents in the Latin alphabet – so not only do words go the opposite direction, but the letters face the opposite direction as well. Take a look at the P, Q, and R in Hebrew….

  2. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Interesting! Never noticed that until now.

  3. Juliet Says:

    Music is a great way to learn without realizing you are even picking it up. I visited my four year old’s preschool class to talk to them about Chanukah, and when I showed them a dreidel, I explained the Hebrew letters on each side. My daughter shocked my by singing the entire Hebrew alphabet, perfectly! I didn’t even know she knew it. Turns out her Sunday school teacher plays Jewish music in the background while they color and play with play dough (she’s just in a fun class where they aren’t actually doing serious learning yet) and she learned it from the Debbie Friedman song. This was back in early December when she’d only been attending five or six times so far!

    I really wish I’d learned Hebrew when I was younger. I studied for a year very intensively for my Bat Mitzvah (happened last month) and already I can feel it slipped out of my brain now that I’m not doing such regular, rigorous practice.

  4. Ellie Shaw Says:

    Lately I’ve thought about learning the Hebrew alphabet because one of its letters is the answer to a question in almost every other crossword puzzle I do. Really.
    Funny though, Ilana. I had always assumed my Jewish friends would be able to answer every question every time – I mean, that’s what Hebrew school was for, right?
    In any case, have fun learning.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi Ellie. Jews who have been to religious school theoretically should know the Hebrew alphabet. BUT there are some whose relationship to Hebrew is kind of like kids who were forced to take piano lessons when they weren’t really interested — as adults, they may remember nothing! And then there are those like me who never went to religious school.

      You could learn it for crossword puzzles in about three days. Get a chart of the alphabet off the web, download the Debbie Friedman alef-bet song from my post (or better yet, from iTunes so her estate gets a share of your 99 cents) and go for it!

  5. Biruk Says:

    I am doing it know for one semester. I hope that I will be reading at least after the course. The interesting thing is that some letters resemble each other. For example: letter dalet and letter resh; letter sofnun and letter sofkhuf…, I think it is the question time. It will take time, 15 min everyday, as my lecturer said, will help me to be reading Hebrew.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Congratulations and good luck! It takes a lot of work to learn a completely new alphabet but if you keep practicing, you will eventually get it. It gives me a new level of respect for people who immigrate to countries where they not only don’t speak the language but have to learn a new alphabet or form of writing.

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