I began learning Hebrew as a toddler in Jewish day school. We began with the letters and then over the years dedicated more and more time to learning the ins and outs of language we used in prayers and in Torah study. In middle school, my favorite part of every day were the glorious forty five minutes we spent in the Hebrew classroom, surrounded by pictures of Israel. Upon making Aliyah two and a half years ago, the knowledge of Hebrew I’d acquired in school was perhaps the most important factor in my quick integration into Israeli society.
And though I strongly encourage Aliyah to Israel, Hebrew is essential for all of us, no matter what kind of Jewish life we lead.
For from the very beginning, Hebrew has united our people. Thousands of years ago it developed from the Semitic dialect of a peasant people to the great language of the Tanach. And though over two thousand years of exile the status of Hebrew fluctuated, our stateless ancestors always retained a level of proficiency in our sacred tongue.
As a result, the gamut of Jewish expression throughout the generations has been in Hebrew.
Ancient prophecy and scripture, secular Medieval poetry, nineteenth-century newspapers, and twenty-first century Netflix shows, are all in Hebrew- the magnificent operating system of Jewish life. Proficiency in Hebrew gives us the opportunity to explore the depths of Jewish experience. Being able to both understand the words of the Siddur and the debates of the Knesset without translation allows for a truly meaningful connection.
And not only is Hebrew a tool with which we can understand Jewish history, the language in and of itself, it’s vocabulary, grammar, and cadence, are all expressions of our identity.
Legendary labor leader and non-Hebrew speaker Cesar Chavez once said that “A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.” Hebrew truly is a reflection of the Jewish people’s character and growth.
Just as our people have travelled the world from exile to exile so too does the Hebrew language traverse continents. It’s vocabulary contains, alongside ancient words from the Tanach, influences from Persian, Arabic, Aramaic, ancient Egyptian, Greek, Yiddish, and now English. Simple Hebrew sentences therefore carry with them our theology and our traumas.
In his autobiography, legendary Israeli writer Amos Oz notes the etymological connection between the Hebrew words for Earth, Man, Red, and Blood: Adama, Adam, Adom, Dam. “Glida” the word for “ice cream,” coined by the leader of the Hebrew revival Eliezer Ben Yehuda, is a double entendre, coming from both the Italian word “gelato” and the Aramaic word for ice, “galid.” And Oz’s father told him once that because the word for “onward,” “kadima” comes from the root “kedem” meaning ancient times, the Hebrew speaker necessarily looks to the past in order to move forward.
The Hebrew vocabulary truly encapsulates the Jewish soul.
And in almost all the lands of our exile, Jewish communities duly made sure that Hebrew existed alongside the local language. Unfortunately, American Jewry has made itself the first Jewish community to convince itself that it can operate, even thrive, without a Jewish language. American Jews show dramatically low levels of proficiency in the language that has sustained our people for generations.
No matter what type of Jews we choose to be, secular or religious, particular or universal, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, Hebrew has the unique ability of connecting us with our heritage.
Hebrew tells the story of our ancestors’ radical monotheism, of their dispersion throughout the world, and of the revival of our freedom in modern times. Therefore the fist step in connecting with the vast riches of the People of the Book is to learn the language in which is was written.