Julie Gray
Editor, Writer and Only Slightly Reformed Overthinker.

Speaking in Tongues: Does Hebrew Matter?

I made aliyah last spring. I like to say “last” spring because it makes it sound like I’ve been here longer. It’s really been four months. What is that – 120 days? Why does it feel like a lifetime? Oh, I don’t know, maybe because getting used to the way life works here hasn’t been particularly easy.

Adjustment-itis, as it turns out, has no cure. Only the balm of time and experience can make a difference.  I am continually struck by how some things in Israel are SO pragmatic – that you can pay bills at the Israel Post, that you can split your grocery bill into two or even three payments, taking the sherut. But I’m still reeling from how other things are just – wow. I have learned how to put my instant-gratification-Americanness on “sleep” mode, let’s put it that way. It’s good, it’s good, it slows me down and makes me more appreciative of the day-to-day. But sometimes, OY VEY do I want to blow a gasket.

I had my first visitors from LA a few days ago and it was wonderful to show them around and pretend as if I know what I’m doing. Mind you, I spend 90% of my time NOT knowing what I am doing and the rest of the time faking as if I do. I am sure I fool absolutely nobody. How empowering then, to suggest a restaurant and to point out sites of interest – to me. There’s the cell phone store where I found out I was paying twice as much as most of my friends! There’s the bank where I stood in line for the ATM only to discover it’s not an ATM but rather something… that does something else. Don’t ask me what. There’s the grocery that charges twice as much for groceries as the shuk! There’s the shuk – don’t go there on a Friday morning unless you really, really enjoy a Disneyland-density crowd, complete with stepping on a fig and realizing, when you get home, that your hummus squished your pita.

I asked my visitors, two of whom where Jewish and two of whom were not, but all of whom were here on a ten day tour of Israel, what surprised them most about their visit. The two non-Jews said, respectively, that they were surprised that the heat here is tolerable (he’d expected something out of T.E. Lawrence meets Day of the Sun Stroke on Mars) and the other said she was surprised that she didn’t see as much security and sights of conflict as she sees on the news about Israel (that’s something all newcomers are surprised by). But my cousin, who is Jewish, said he was surprised that everyone speaks Hebrew here.

At first, I didn’t get it – what do you mean everybody speaks Hebrew here? Of course they do. That’s the language here. No, he said, he was surprised because back home, Hebrew is a language that you memorize for your Bar Mitzvah or in song – but you really don’t think of it as a–

–living language? Exactly, he said. As a living language.

But, my cousin went on, you don’t really have to speak Hebrew to be in Israel. Everybody speaks English anyway. 

Is that a good thing, though? Sure, it’s made it easier for me, but at what cost to Israel’s identity, as a nation among nations, not just a bandaid in the Middle East, a relic or a stopover for diplomats and tourists?

I think back to all those years, going to services and proudly singing songs in Hebrew – knowing every word. But having NO idea what those words meant. I mean – I knew what some of them meant – Baruch and Adonai and things like that.  At Passover, one sings Daiyenu in an alliterative sing-song that is a signifier that food is coming soon. It is beyond strange to come to Israel and hear someone say DAI in a meaningful way. What – ? That’s a lyric, a relic, a word that sort of rhymes with the next word. No, it really does mean “enough”.

This from the girl who still hasn’t started her Ulpan, mind you. I don’t know what is stopping me. Oh – yes I do. I’ll be honest. Intimidation. I’m worried that my old, 48 year old brain won’t be able to handle it. I tried taking Hebrew  classes online before I made aliyah. The class was a dismal failure for several reasons: 1) the majority of my other classmates were senior citizens who couldn’t get that they had to turn off their microphone in order not to create feedback or treat the rest of us to the sound of their barking dog 2) I was put in the wrong level and developed an acute case of “not-good-enoughness” and 3) the classes were out of context. When the class was over, I’d go back to my life in LA and not use the words I’d just learned. Better to wait until I lived in Israel, where the language would be a necessity and a way of life, I thought. But that hasn’t really been the case. I have gotten along without Hebrew just fine here. I mean, except for a few incidents like using fabric softener instead of detergent or buying little balls of creamy white cheese in oil, not the mozzarella I had hoped for.

I think of my son and how he memorized his torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. Did he know what he was saying or what it meant? Not really. Neither does his father, who is relatively observant, understand Hebrew beyond the general gist of the prayer or song. Countless other Jews in the States, who go to temple and merrily sing Shalom Aleichem are disconnected from Hebrew as a living, breathing language. They are not aware of Ben Yehuda’s role in bringing Hebrew into the modern era because for them, it doesn’t matter.

When I discovered, through reading Amos Oz’s brilliant A Tale of Love and Darkness, that Hebrew words for “pencil” or “blouse” or “bus” had to be cobbled together, along with the birth of this nation, I was intrigued. All languages evolve (including, I am loathe to say, the slightly alarming birth of lol, btw, ppl, fyi, omg, etc.) but Hebrew’s evolution has been dramatic and quite recent, in the scheme of things.

It’s not crazy that my son’s grandfather and great-grandfather (and so on – Ashkenazi all, from the Ukraine) thought of Hebrew only as a  language of prayer – their language was Yiddish. Modern Hebrew, though spoken as lightly as a feather, at the speed of light, all around me – is a rather new-fangled thing. Certainly, the Hebrew of prayer was good enough for my son’s ancestors, to feel very connected to their religion and heritage. But then, for them, being Jewish did not involve a constant swimming against the tide of assimilation, either.

These days, being Jewish in say, North America, is a choice. And I don’t want that for my kids. Nor do I want it to be a burden. I want to be – let’s make up a new word here… an enrich-fufill-igation. An obligation that is enriching and fulfilling. Why do I have a feeling that word won’t catch on?

All this led me to wonder  – what is Judaism if Hebrew is just something you memorize and parrot? What depth of understanding can you really have? What depth of connection can you have not only to Torah, but to daily customs and the land itself? Israel is not a nation that is easily translated. Wouldn’t Noam Chomksy agree that Israel without Hebrew is a lighter shade of grey?

As a Jewish convert, I have often felt that what I gave to Judaism, in return for what it has given me, are my two children. They are part of the chain, the great story of the Jews.  But if your children are Jewish and for them, that means lip-syncing in temple two or three times a year and then eating knishes, what have you really given them? Now I wonder if that’s really good enough.  People in Israel often ask me – exhort me, really – if my kids are coming to Israel, minimally for birthright and ideally, to live.

Listen, it’s not going to happen. For now. My kids (19 and 21) are in college in the States. Their biggest concerns right now are what major to choose and what they are doing Saturday night with their friends. Naturally.

MOM. They say, when I ask them to visit. MOM, I’m busy. 

Okay. I get that. I’m not demanding they come here. I’m not demanding them to be more observant or patriotic or anything else. I just want – and I always wanted – my kids to be proud to be Jewish.

I wonder, had their Jewish education stressed Hebrew not just as the language of prayer but as a living language, if they’d feel more connected, Jewishly. It’s not too late. My kids are young. And you know how kids are – anything you, the parent wants, is repellent. I will wait patiently and live by example. That’s all I can do.

Me? I’m signing up for my Ulpan.






About the Author
Julie Gray is a story editor and nonfiction writer who made the leap from Los Angeles to Israel almost seven years ago and has many (mostly) humorous adventures ever since. A longtime Huffington Post contributor and self-described "Hollywood refugee", Julie works with writers all over the world on fiction and creative non-fiction books. Her own memoir, "They Do Things Differently Here" is an understatement and a work in progress. Julie heads up The Gidon Project, a collaborative memoir about the nature of memory, the spirit of resilience, the Holocaust the art of aging well and other lessons learned from one man's life. Julie's favorite color is "swimming pool" and when she's not working with and wondering about words, she loves to knit "future gifts" in her beloved Big Red Chair.