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Lost in translation

We need Hebrew to engage with our past, to connect to our fellow Jews in the present, and to preserve the future of our people

I’ll come right out with it. This is a deeply personal gripe. I am airing a grievance. It is a problem that is partially my fault, but it is also a problem with the greater American Jewish community. Ready? Here goes: I am not fluent in Hebrew, and among American Jews I am in the majority.

That was hard for me to write. I’m blushing. More than a little ashamed.

I can get by in Jerusalem, but so can any English-speaker. More to the point, I can get by in Yeruham, where I lived for a semester as part of a wonderful gap-year experience in between high school and college. There, I rode an ambulance every day as a volunteer for Magen David Adom, Israel’s national ambulance service. The ambulance drivers, like most of Yeruham’s population, knew English as a second (or third, or fourth) language, and were much more comfortable speaking Hebrew with their American volunteers. I could talk shop with them, having learned all kinds of Hebrew medical jargon during my training course, and the language barrier never got in the way of our emergency response.

But the barrier was there. The drives to and from Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba — each lasting at least 45 minutes — were especially rough. We listened to the radio. The news stories sounded fascinating, but I could never quite keep up with the mile-a-minute mouths delivering the day’s headlines. Sometimes the driver wanted to discuss one story or another; that was particularly painful. Not the same kind of pain as the guy with the broken back lying in our ambulance, perhaps, but a pain nonetheless. We could talk — give directions, pose requests — but we lacked the lingua franca necessary to truly converse.

How did I get here? I’ve written here before about being a product of the Jewish educational “trifecta.” I went to a Jewish day school from kindergarten through 12th grade, and attended Jewish summer camp, participated in a Jewish youth group. Hebrew has been all around me for my entire life.

And here is the absolute worst part: my classmates and I have better Hebrew than most of my friends. My friends, whether they brag ironically about never having quite mastered the aleph-bet in their synagogue’s Hebrew school, or whether, like me, were exposed to the cutting edge of Hebrew language educational programs, cannot hold their own in an intellectual conversation in Hebrew. And that is the problem.

In today’s world, one could make the case that it is possible to be an engaged Jew, even a learned Jew, without ever achieving fluency in Hebrew. Many of our central texts, both religious and cultural, are available in translation. But this crutch hinders us more than it helps. English translations are too often used as an easy way out. The inescapable fact — one that many other Diaspora communities recognize and address — is that Judaism is incomplete without Hebrew.

When did we decide as a community that Hebrew language proficiency was not a primary goal of the American Jewish educational enterprise? We didn’t, of course. It simply slipped out of sight. And as parents stopped caring, it became exponentially less important to their children.

And so we arrive at today. Today, when American Jewry is defined largely by its Hebrew illiteracy and the Judaic illiteracy that derives from it. It is important to note, however, that Hebrew is not solely a religious language; it is the original language of the ethnic group-cum-religion known today as the Jews. It has shared the stage over the generations with Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic and others, but it was Hebrew that came first.

There was a time in American history when Hebrew was considered important. Though the sentiment was not quite as prevalent as it is now fashionable to claim, there was a faction of Puritan colonists who, driven by their passion for the Bible and identification with the oppressed Israelites of the Exodus, pushed to make Hebrew the national language of the then-incubating United States. Alexander Hamilton knew Hebrew. Columbia and Yale, two of the country’s oldest universities, incorporate Hebrew in their official seals.

The Seal of Yale University
The Seal of Yale University

American Jews used to feel a deep connection to the Hebrew language. Writing on the rich literary heritage of American Hebraists in his new book, “Sanctuary in the Wilderness,” Dr. Alan Mintz, professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, calls the use of Hebrew in America “a bridge that spans many cleavages: between classical Judaism and the present, between religious and secular Jews, and between Israel and the Diaspora.” Mintz says that these lovers of Hebrew “further understood that any Jewish society that takes place largely in translation runs the risk of floating free of its tether to Jewish authenticity.”

Yet we in America are seemingly willing to take that risk. Despite living in the most privileged, entitled Jewish community in the history of the world, we make no move to shore up our communal connection to the Hebrew language. And so the chasm yawns. Even though Hebrew has never been more important. We need Hebrew to engage with our past, to connect to our fellow Jews in the present, and to preserve the future of our people.

So add the Hebrew keyboard to your iPhone. Seek out Hebrew speakers in your community. Call up your Israeli cousins and tell them that this time they can’t practice their English on you, because you are going to stretch your Hebrew with them. Go visit Yeruham. Take it upon yourself to become an active voice in the worldwide Jewish dialogue of today. Because today, we need Hebrew more than ever.

It is a common refrain amongst today’s Jews to lament the growing fissures among different streams of Judaism. In reality, we live in a time when both ends of the Jewish spectrum are spreading farther and farther apart, rending the middle ground as they go. Both literally and figuratively, today’s Jews are simply not speaking the same language, and we in America have cut ourselves out of the Jewish conversation. That is why we so desperately need Hebrew. To unite us. Or else Judaism — the nation, the culture, the religion – will eventually be lost in translation.

About the Author
Seffi is a Jewish professional living in New York City. He holds degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He proudly calls New Jersey home. Yes, proudly. All opinions expressed are my own.