Posts Tagged ‘Hebrew’

Aleph Bet(ter late than never)

January 21, 2011

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.


Hebrew for Vulcans

February 7, 2010

(Disclaimer: This entry may sound really dumb to folks who speak Hebrew fluently. I know there are a few of you dovrei Ivrit out there among my readers, so apologies for stating the obvious! And, if I get things wrong, please correct me.)

In my most recent entry about studying prayerbook Hebrew, I promised a follow-up about what I find really cool about Hebrew as a language.

It’s children’s building blocks.

No, I don’t mean literal blocks, although I am sure you can buy some nifty ones in Israeli toy stores.

It’s building blocks as the metaphor I use in my head for thinking about the roots of words in Hebrew.

Every verb in Hebrew is based on a three-consonant root. The verb “to speak,” for instance, is based on dalet-bet-resh (DBR) or דבר. The verb “to learn” is based on lamed-mem-dalet (LMD) or למד.

To conjugate the verbs, or turn them into different tenses, you take those same three consonants and trim them with different stuff — add or subtract vowels, endings etc.

For instance, “I speak” is ani meDaBeRet. “I spoke” is DiBaRti. “He will speak” is yiDaBeR.

I picture the roots of Hebrew verbs as a set of three square alphabet blocks. You can move them around, place them closer together or futher apart, and add smaller blocks at the beginning or end to create all sorts of interesting structures. But the structures are all ultimately built on those same three alphabet blocks.

And it’s not just conjugations of verbs. There are all sorts of nouns built around those same three-consonant roots.

Take the noun DiBuR it has the same three core letters as “I speak” and it means “speech.”  Or DiBeR  means “commandment,” as in ten of them. And DaVaR means “word.” (Uh oh, here’s where it gets complicated; the letter bet can sometimes turn into vet, so a B sound becomes a V sound. But let’s not worry about that now.)

It’s so logical. It’s so geometrical, so spatial. It appeals to the part of me that aspires to the rationality of a Vulcan.

Mr. Spock demonstrates the Hebrew letter "shin"

If you know the basic building blocks, you can figure out the meaning of lots of unfamiliar words. Just look for the root!

You can also make connections. For instance, way back in my teens, I learned the verb “to learn” — it’s one of the first things they teach you in an Ulpan, or modern conversational Hebrew class. Ani lomedet Ivrit— “I am studying Hebrew!” With LMD as the root of “to learn.”

It wasn’t until this winter, when I started thinking about Hebrew in a religious context, that I realized that those same three building blocks are at the root of the word TaLMuD — the collection of rabbinic writings and law that are central to Judaism.

I think about Talmud a little differently now, knowing it is not just an arbitrary name for a set of writings,  but has a literal meaning (“learning”) that shares a root with everyday words like “to learn” and “student.”

It’s not only profound connections like the literal meaning of Talmud. Last week in my prayerbook Hebrew class, I learned the verb BaTaCH — to trust in, or rely on. (As in, “trust in God.”)

And then I realized that this ancient religious word shares the B-T-CH root with two words that are used all the time in modern Hebrew — bitachon (“security,” as in military security or social security) and betach (which means ‘of course” — or more literally, I realized, “for sure.”)

I suppose that for native Hebrew speakers, none of this is a big deal. But for someone learning the language, each connection is an “ah ha!” moment.

I wonder what it would be like to be a native or fluent Hebrew speaker, who without even thinking about it perceives countless connections and connotations of words. When I read a line of prayerbook or Biblical Hebrew, I plod along one word at a time, happy if I can translate each one into an English counterpart. What would it be like not to have to translate, and to automatically perceive all the shadings of each word, the translucent ribbons connecting it to other words?

I don’t know enough languages to have a sense if Hebrew — with its beautifully geometrical building-block roots — is structured more logically than most. It certainly seems to have more of an internal logic than English.

Any linguists out there want to weigh in? Or perhaps some Vulcans?

Half-baked Hebrew

January 23, 2010

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.

In the beginning… here we go!

October 26, 2009

I stared at the prayer book, more nervous than I’d been since… when?

Interviewing with Phil Bronstein for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005? Doing my first book talk for Where Girls Come First in 2004?

Heck, it had been a long time since I felt this kind of pressure. It took me by surprise. 

I had been meeting with the senior rabbi of my temple, Temple Sinai in Oakland, California, to inquire about studying to become an adult Bat Mitzvah. He was encouraging and enthusiastic. But one question was whether I could read Hebrew well enough to go straight into the Bat Mitzvah study process, or whether I would need to take a semester or two of Biblical Hebrew. 

So the rabbi thrust a prayer book at me and asked me to read a section out loud. I hadn’t expected this. 

I launched into sounding the words out. I have a passable but rusty knowledge of modern, spoken Hebrew from two stints living in Israel in my teens and twenties, but I never learned to read well. I wasn’t sure if it were worse to go slowly and get things right but sound hesitant, or go quickly and sound fluent but make mistakes. I went quickly. 

I clawed my way over each letter like someone climbing across a field of boulders. Every so often I would come to a word that I recognized and feel a shower of relief.

After less than two minutes, it was done. The rabbi said I could stop.

Had I passed? failed?

When I had showed up for our meeting, I hadn’t expected a miniature version of a Julliard audition.

“That’s fine,” he said. “You have problems with vowels. But it’s okay.”

And then we moved on to talk about the Bat Mitzvah process, and scheduling, and whether there might be enough other interested temple members to form a class. 

So it was a go. We set another meeting date for early November. At the ripe old age of 51, I’m now at the start of this road to becoming a Bat Mitzvah — something that Jewish kids typically do at age 13.

And you, dear blog reader, are invited to join me. I hope this may prove interesting, entertaining and (dare I say?) thought-provoking to both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.

At the very least, it will be a good way for me to process my own thoughts and responses. And at best, I look forward to learning from your comments, observations, comparisons and questions. Not just about the Bat Mitzvah process, but about midlife adventures and transitions of all sorts.

Will you join me?

More to come in this space soon!