Until I was an adult, the only Hebrew word I could read was “kosher.” I learned that from reading a Harry Kemelman mystery novel involving Rabbi David Small while in high school. The book said that the letters for kosher resembled “7wd” in Roman letters, and that got me started. “Kosher” I could read.
As an adult, I struggled to learn Hebrew. First I detoured into Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle in New York, and that introduced me to the alef-bet. I took ulpan in late 1990 when my then-wife and I considered aliyah (we moved to Connecticut instead).
I attended services and took still more classes that focused more on modern Hebrew than the Biblical Hebrew that, I now realize, interested me more, as a regular shul-goer who has built the ability to mostly follow along the prayers during the service – and get back on track when I lose my place.
This spring, I finally found the academic key to unlock the door to a much greater understanding of Hebrew. I’ve been gathering with members of my shul for an informal class using “Prayerbook Hebrew the Easy Way.” Compared to my frustrating struggles to build my Hebrew knowledge using the thorough but daunting “Ha-Yesod” textbook, the new book lays out the key vocabulary and verb forms with clarity and at a pace I can handle (a chapter a week for my class). Even better, the book gears the readings to prayerbook passages that I have heard hundreds of times. I still have to grit my teeth and concentrate to work my way through the readings, but they’re sinking in and services at my shul, Beit Chaverim in Westport, Connecticut, provide regular reinforcement.
The more I read the textbook, the more prayers snapped into focus. Words that I had learned to mouth suddenly meant something (please forgive any bobbles in transliteration): yishm’hu (they will hear), nora (awesome) and the related v’hanora, and b’terem (before). I now have a better ability to snip off the multiple suffixes and figure out the three-letter shoresh. Now, at least, I have a fighting chance to effectively use a Hebrew-English dictionary.
The studying paid off, quite unplanned, in my reading of the book “The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million,” by Daniel Mendelsohn. He intersperses family history with Torah discussions, starting with Bereshit and moving forward from there. The exegesis often addresses Hebrew elements that simply cannot be duplicated in translation. In Parasha Noach, he writes,
The cause of God’s ire, the nature of the sin that elicits his disgust, is described in the beginning of Noach. The earth, as God becomes aware in Genesis 6:11, has been corrupted (vatishacheth); it was corrupted (nish’chatha)—the word recurs immediately in the following verse—because all flesh had corrupted its way (hish’chith). What exactly is the nature of this “corruption”? Rashi notes the consonantal root of the Hebrew verb that recurs so strikingly often in these verses, sh-ch-th, denotes idolatry (it’s the verb used in Deuteronomy 4:16, when God warns his people against making graven images lest they become corrupt), and even more suggests gross sexual immorality. (page 214).
Then on page 266:
But what interests me far more about this parashah, however interesting its implied commentary about territory and culture may be, are, as usual, certain details of the diction and narrative, the sorts of things that are of interest to (say) bookish adolescents and library-bound scholars rather than to prime ministers. For instance, the very title of this parashah is itself the object of no little controversy. The first word of the Hebrew title, lech, means “go”; it is the strange usage of the second word, lecha, that has confused commentators. The sense of lecha is something like “for yourself”: but what, exactly, does “Go for yourself” mean? As Friedman points out, it’s been translated as “Get you” or “Go you”; he himself, disdaining what he calls “clumsy English,” simply writes “Go,” while another new translation offers “Go forth,” which has a nice archaic ring.”
To a native Hebrew speaker or somebody with lifelong exposure to Siddur reading, these steps sound modest. To me, they’re enormous, and continuing. With the book finished, my fellow learners and I are extending the class with a closer study of major prayers. We’re starting with Maariv. I’m ready for it – I have my Artscroll transliterated linear Siddur and I finally can get to work reading it. The part that pleases me—I no longer need to read the transliterations to know how the Hebrew sounds. That’s progress.