Could the attendees at the First Zionist Congress, which was commemorated this week on its 125th anniversary, have ever imagined that one of their most influential accomplishments would be the revival of the unspoken Hebrew language?
This summer, after years of speaking Hebrew, I finally learned enough to capture the inner life, nuance and intricacies of Israelis and the country itself. Understanding how much I didn’t really understand led me to Revital, a licensed guide and Hebrew teacher who led me around the country only in Hebrew, teaching me more along the way.
She was insistent that during my time in Israel, I speak only Hebrew. So, with my shirt pasted between me and the chair on a humid Tel Aviv evening, I met an Israeli friend for dinner chattering away in my new and improved Hebrew. She was telling me about the recent fickle nature of jobs in the Israeli high-tech sector. I then related a story about another friend who had been on top of the world in a past position and was now down in the dumps, scrounging for work.
Taking the last spoonful of her silky yellow gazpacho, she responded, “May’igra ramah, l’birah amiktah.”
I recognized the same sounds and cadence of “Yitgadal v’yitkadash” intoned by mourners when reciting the Kaddish.
She wiped her mouth, “Yes, Aramaic, translating into Hebrew. “Me’gag gavoah, l’bor amok.” “From a high roof to a deep hole.”
“Where does it come from?”
“The Talmud,” she casually flicked off. “Some story of an ancient rabbi holding a book of Echa (Lamentations) on Tisha B’Av…” My friend was boastfully secular, raised on a kibbutz, and proud to have told me she hadn’t been anywhere close to Jerusalem in years.
“Wow, a Talmudic response. That’s pretty Jewish.”
“Ma pitom? What? I’m not very Jewish. I mean I have my children and grandchildren over every Friday night for schnitzelim. But there’s nothing Jewish about it. It’s Israeli. That expression is Israeli.”
Oy. Vay iz mere.
I swallowed my piece of crispy sea bass with grilled lettuce. “Look, we’re sitting in an extraordinary world-class restaurant on the streets of Tel Aviv, the first city in modern times built totally by Jews, in the Jewish homeland recreated by Jews, speaking the reconstructed Hebrew language of the Jews. And then you pronounce an everyday expression in the ancient Aramaic language, which is intertwined with Hebrew. You explain to me the meaning of it from the Talmud. You tell me you have your kids over every Erev Shabbat. And then, you claim you’re not very Jewish?”
She took a sip of wine. “Ooh wah. Not in the way you mean.”
I rolled the grilled eggplant dripping in tehina inside my mouth. Then I tapped my hand rhythmically on the table. “You secular Israelis are very Jewish.”
She didn’t buy it.
Over the next few weeks of dinners, diving into cuminy kabobs, amba chicken and a zaatar-lemony St. Peter’s fish, I listened to friends with every sense turned up, attuned to their speech patterns and thinking. A more advanced Hebrew was prying open what I realized, even after so many times in Israel, had been my tight, naive box of American projections. This level of fluency was leading me to translate Israeli.
For the first time, I was actually living inside the language. And I found that Hebrew has a Jewish voice. It actually speaks. It has a Jewish fabric and weave. The language’s construction, its root words and how those root words form other words, cast light upon philosophical Jewish thinking. Through its construct, there is constant and intricate exposure and reference to the cultural, historical and Talmudic underpinnings. It is imbued with an intelligent and meaningful grammatical logic, that reveals critical Jewish thought. The language’s brilliant and unprecedented methods of reconstruction for the re-emerged Jewish nation tell a dramatic story about the ambitions of the Jewish people and their rebirth. As the language continues to evolve today, sprouting new words, slang and expressions, many beautifully repurposed from ancient Jewish texts, it signals how forward-looking and adaptable to modernity Israelis are, in spite of all the country’s problems.
Israelis speak this language every day. They write in it. They live in it. They make love in it. They argue in it. They create in it. They sing in it. They perform in it. They scream and yell in it. They cry in it. They educate in it. They curse in it….and in Arabic. (I’ve learned all those words, too.) So, is that not inherently very Jewish?
When Judaism collides with the experience of a national Israeli identity, of course something new will crystalize, that’s not the same as Judaism in the Diaspora. It will take many forms. Shouldn’t the existence of Israel change how Judaism is experienced? Acted out? Perceived? Shouldn’t Judaism be flexible with many permutations? And shouldn’t it evolve in some fresh, uncharted directions, in a land of modern Jewish sovereignty, where the language, calendar, holidays and history move to a Jewish rhythm? And as the language is proving, isn’t it extraordinary how Talmud and Torah can be integrated in yet a new way?
My Hebrew now flows much better than it ever did. But to my mind it remains a crude Hebrew. I’m still struggling with prepositions and constructs. When do I insert b (in) next to an action word, alav or aleha (onto him or her), al y’dai, by; oti, to me, li, for me. So many deceptively simple appearing prepositions that reveal a complex fluency. How is it that when you say I’m curious, you don’t always say an exact translation of, “I’m curious,” you say m’sakren oti, “It curiouses me.” Will I ever learn to easily use expressions such as aleha v’kotz ba, a Talmudic saying about a sheep’s tail with a thorn it, which roughly translates in English to “a fly in the ointment.” Can I learn these intricacies, so I don’t sound like a foreigner?
Today, I can catch enough nuance to understand Israelis much better and their often self-deprecating and outlandish sense of humor. My last Friday night, I was at an orthodox friend’s house for an outside Shabbat dinner among a few pine trees and limestones scattered on the ground.
Just before the soft siren throughout Jerusalem sounded, indicating the beginning of Shabbat he jumps up, “Oy, shachachti l’hadlik et Eichman.”
“I forgot to turn on Eichman.”
Eichman was the mosquito zapper that would kill thousands of mosquitos in one evening.
Now, how Jewish is that? Or is it just Israeli?