“Investigating my discovery of the language, I think I have investigated myself.” — Jhumpa Lahiri, from her memoir, “In Other Words”
Over 20 years have passed since my first Hebrew class. I began this undertaking at the busiest time of my life, while raising our four young children. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir of her near-obsession to learn Italian gave me insight into my own improbable love affair with Hebrew.
At first, Hebrew was simply a portal into prayer. I was no longer content to peer through the opaque glass that separated me from the words. I wanted to be on the inside. So I signed up for a class at my synagogue, designed to teach basic prayerbook Hebrew. I was thirty-six years old, studying a foreign language for the first time. That study ignited something in both my mind and heart that was unstoppable. No one was more surprised than me. When the class concluded, I wanted to keep going. Next stop: Hebrew classes at the University of Minnesota.
Class met every morning, Monday through Friday, September through May. A room full of college kids, me, and one extraordinary teacher. Of learning Italian, Lahiri wrote, “Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” That is exactly how I felt as I strung Hebrew jewels into sentences. I filled notebook upon notebook with lists of words. Flashcards went with me everywhere.
Before long, the class was taught entirely in Hebrew. I felt like a waterskier, using every mental muscle to ride those Hebrew waves. At the end of class, I coasted to shore, exhilarated, exhausted. This lifelong non-athlete had, at last, found her sport.
Learning Hebrew became a thrilling achievement.
But riding the waves means falling down a lot. In Pirke Avot our sages teach “lo habayshan lomed” –– the bashful person cannot learn. My spoken Hebrew was an embarrassing mishmash, simpler than that of a preschooler. Mistakes were my constant companion. It was like stumbling around in shoes that were too big. But I stumbled around happily, making steady progress. With progress came a realization– the universe had cracked open for me. Inside lay poetry, music, and literature in their rich, original Hebrew. I devoured it all.
Hebrew became the carrier of metaphor and meaning.
I took one Hebrew course after another for six years, until I earned a degree in Hebrew. Then I taught Hebrew for fifteen years. A cascade of blessings accompanied me every step of the way. The Israeli girl who became part of our family, because I wanted someone to speak Hebrew with me over the summer. The Israeli colleague who became my sister. Visit after to visit to Israel, where I went days without using a word of English. Where I lived life in the rhythm of my adopted language. Where speaking Hebrew became part of my identity, a gift that, even now, both frees me and limits me. I can converse with anyone, but I will never posess anything close to my English vocabulary. It doesn’t matter. Hebrew is alive for me in conversation with others.
Hebrew is the conduit of connection.
Lahiri describes language learning as a kind of metamorphosis. “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.”
How true this is! My English-speaking and Hebrew-speaking personalities are different. My husband thinks I’m more dramatic in Hebrew; a son thinks I am more direct. For me, the pace is more deliberate, the emotions more vivid. Pleasure in the spoken word is greater. Sure, I can whine and complain in Hebrew but I seldom want to. The satisfaction in understanding and making myself understood surpasses all. Hebrew released something inside me that was waiting to emerge.
Hebrew became a means of transformation.
Lahiri grew up with two languages. Bengali was the language of home, English the language of school and her writing success. She often felt a conflict between these two parts of her identity. Lahiri’s love affair with and immersion in Italian took her away from that clash. She sees herself as a linguistic nomad, “exiled even from the definition of exile.”
That was the most breathtaking insight of all. For me, it is exactly the opposite.
Hebrew is a means of return, a way to close the loop of exile.
The revival of Hebrew after 2,000 years was the audacious act of a people returning home. To speak it — errors and all — is to join in that miracle.
To be, linguistically, home at last.