How learning Hebrew is making me less religious, and more Jewish

Living in Israel has changed me far more than I expected it to during the past eight months. I wanted to broaden my understanding of Judaism and Hebrew, and hoped to figure out what to do with my life. Much of my experience has helped to define my future, and to grasp the concepts of my heritage, but new languages have always been difficult for me.

Learning Hebrew has, some might say, changed me for the worse. I love the innuendos and multiple meanings that offer what I hope will be a constant flow of really lame puns in the future, and Hebrew has also helped me to better understand Jewish culture. More recently though, I’ve begun to recognize sentences and paragraphs from the prayers I recited in the synagogue of my youth. I’ve since become far less interested in reciting many of those prayers — Learning Hebrew has turned me off of religion and made me even more secular than I was before.

Of all the strange differences between Israeli and American Jews, the one that I’ve found to be most isolating is language. Yes, I did the Bar Mitzvah thing; I led a service, reciting the prayers and that week’s Torah portion. But that was it. I recited, not read.

Like many American Jews, I learned only the bare minimum of Hebrew necessary to get through the day and officially “become a man,” but 13-year-old me was ok with that. Even though I couldn’t speak a coherent conversational sentence, I was proud of knowing the sounds and memorizing words other Jews said thousands of years ago. It connected me with Judaism and gave me something few others had – a very special accomplishment at that age. To me, Hebrew was a mystical language that only a small group of people spoke, that I could connect to people with.

With twice as many years under my belt and a head of graying hair, I’ve come to see Hebrew differently. I now wish I had learned more as a teenager. Not only do women speaking Hebrew with a foreign accent sound really hot, but the curse words are much more creative (though my previous landlord did not appreciate me practicing the spelling of those words on my bathroom mirror). However, I no longer think there is anything mystical or spiritual about Hebrew or many of the prayers I memorized more than 13 years ago. Up until a month or two ago, I couldn’t have translated a single prayer in full (aside from the Sh’ma) though I knew what ‘most’ of them were for. Now I find myself unwilling to say some of the words because I would be saying something I don’t believe.

Last weekend I attended a Masa mifgashim seminar in Nitzana that brought 50-something Diaspora Jews and a similar number of Israelis to discuss Jewish challenges ranging from assimilation and defining “Jewish,” to the apparent divides between secular & religious Jews, and lack of Jewish education. It also focused on exploring the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, a.k.a. the cultural diversity that exists within Judaism.

One of the most powerful (and loudest) moments of the seminar for me was after Shabbat dinner. Without warning, the end of my table broke into song, first in Hebrew, then Russian, followed by a little English and a lot more Hebrew. The singing continued as someone would begin to shout a new song even before the the last ended (good example of a line/queue in Israel). I don’t usually enjoy singing or this type of activity in general, but I stomped my feet and pounded the table as hard as anyone else, even joining in song during the few ditties from camp that I somehow remembered more than a decade later.

Jews exist across everything from natural borders, lines dividing nations and oceans separating continents, but identify simply as “Jewish.” Yet all set their Shabbat table a little different than their neighbor. So what is it that ties us together? How do you know you’re Jewish, and is it worth it?

Language is one of the aspects I credit to Jewish identity, though until recently it was with a grudging reluctance that I would admit Hebrew as central to the Jewish culture because the words have always held such a religious aspect to me. As someone who does not believe religion is a primary aspect of Judaism, I think the language losing its mystical feeling for me has actually increased my desire to learn the language and brought me closer to the culture.

The ever-heavy weight of religion being lifted from Hebrew has, for me, shed some light on Jewish Peoplehood too, and shown how important language is as a key element to being Jewish. It’s a commonality that helps to define what a Jew is, and brings us closer. Like the post-Shabbat songfest, language brought us together not because of any religious aspect, but because it was something that we all related to and appreciated.

Jews define Hebrew, not the other way around. Like the land of Israel and our shared history, or collective memory, it is another aspect of the greater Jewish family that people identify with. It’s one more thing that can draw us together, even when we agree on nothing at all, and helps to make being Jewish “worth it.”

About the Author
Bill Crotty was a 20-something guy just learnin' how to Israel. He lived in several small towns and kibbutzim across the Western Galil for a year in 2013-2014. Then in 2016 he returned to Israel, for a year of work in Jerusalem with the JDC and CIMI.