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:
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.