From a base of zero Jewish education as a kid in Mission, Texas, I tried hard to learn as an adult. Over decades, I built my Hebrew skills from non-existent to rudimentary. Intensive ulpan in 1991 and classes focused on prayerbook Hebrew moved me along. I especially valued a class I took in Stamford, Connecticut with teacher Debra Warburg Victor (keep that name in mind for later). We used the outstanding Hebrew: A Language Course, edited by Ora Band, books I still regularly review.
I attended hundreds of services and prayerbook study sessions at Beit Chaverim, a Modern Orthodox shul located across from the backyard of my apartment when I lived in Westport, Connecticut. After moving, I picked up the weekly service pattern at Chabad of Bedford, New York; different book, same prayers. The repetition layered an aural pattern into my brain so deeply that I can read along with the major Shabbat prayers in Hebrew, even finding my place after my attention wanders.
Decades of stop-and-go Jewish study swung into action when girlfriend Naomi and I arrived in Israel in mid-May. The trip mirrored some of my 1982 itinerary — Tel Aviv, Golan Heights, Jerusalem, Masada. The Diaspora Museum and Jabotinsky Museum of 1982 were replaced by the City of David complex and the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of Tel Aviv, Rabin Square and the Bialik House. At the Rabin Memorial, I could read the enormous writing of slichah, or “sorry.”
Unlike 1982, I could read some Hebrew and surprised myself when I knew more than I thought I did. Reading the phrase, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus on the wall of a hummus cafe in Tel Aviv was just one example. On our very first night in Tel Aviv, relatives of Naomi’s, cousin Dudu (whom she last saw in 1974) and his wife Varda, took us to an Old Jaffa restaurant called hazaken ve’hayam — “The Old Man and the Sea.” I missed the meaning at first hearing it, but once I knew the English name, the Hebrew snapped into place, for the old man and the sea.
On another Tel Aviv night, Naomi and I strolled by a judicial or law-school building. On the front I read what looked like the words emet and shoftim — truth and justices. The constant repetition of certain touristy words like yetziah for “exit” built my vocabulary more than a month of drills with my set of a thousand flash cards.
This time around, I didn’t gawk at the Hebrew store and street signs like a hayseed fresh off the boat from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, as I did in 1982. In my Forward essay I wrote,
Seeing the holy letters of Hebrew on dress shops and hot dog stands — compared to the Hebrew on the hardy religious stores on the Lower East Side — prompted a soliloquy about the nature of being Jewish but secular in Israel.
I meandered on in this spirit, marveling at how super-cool it was to see Hebrew on business establishments and what this all meant, something so screamingly obvious in the Jewish state that only a greenhorn like me would find it notable.
In 2017, I saw Hebrew everywhere, plus a lot of Arabic and English. This just meant people used a bunch of languages to communicate. In keeping with my evolved viewpoint, I simply accepted what I saw and left it at that. Mostly I was curious about how many Jews learned to speak conversational “street” Arabic in Israel, rather than the more academic modern standard Arabic (answer: not nearly enough).
I took a practical approach to viewing and trying to read Hebrew. I used my knowledge as a learning tool by comparing the English to the Hebrew. Me’a She a’rim — I know what that means! The repetition from the shul to the streets reinforced one another. I never pretended I could speak Hebrew, but I was much more aware of what I heard and read as many words as I could
I no longer bumped blindly through a landscape of runic mysterious letters; the alefs and bets came alive and danced before me, inviting me to join them. The knowledge would especially come in handy when I had close encounters of the religious kind I soon had at Masada and the Old City.