Note: I am a life-long lover of the Hebrew language. In my book Why Israel [and its Future] Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019) I make the case to my 30-something sons and their generation as well as younger Diaspora Jews why learning to speak Hebrew is so important for them as part of the people of Israel and in their relationship to the State of Israel and Israelis. Here is that letter. I hope that it might encourage others of any age to learn Hebrew for all the reasons I state in this letter.
Dear Daniel and David:
One of the marvels of Israel is the way it turned ancient Hebrew into a living, working language and used it not only to unify a diverse collection of Jews from around the world but to build a dynamic, forward-facing culture.
To understand not just Israeli politics but the wealth of innovation, artistry, and tech leadership that’s emerging from the Jewish state and the minds of your Israeli cousins, you’ll need to speak their language. As never before, it makes sense to learn Hebrew.
Very few of us do. About half of American Jews can’t read the Hebrew alphabet, and only about 15 percent can follow a basic conversation or read an easy sentence. Only 4 percent are Hebrew speakers. That means that we’re keeping ourselves at arm’s length from any real possibility of communicating with Israelis.
David Hazony, an American-born Israeli journalist and translator who now heads The Israel Innovation Fund, makes the tough-love case that “American Jews have much to contribute to Hebrew discourse and our collective Jewish future. Their tradition of tolerance and religious liberalism, their democratic experience and their philanthropic habits, to name just a few things. But they will do so only if they dispense with the ignorance-as-wisdom arrogance that locks them out of Hebrew-based culture.”
Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism, wondered what a Jewish nation would produce in a setting where “its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree….” What we’ve been seeing in recent years from Israelis is just how rich and multi-faceted their free-spirited, Hebrew-based culture has become. They’ve produced, among many other innovations: business concepts like WeWork and Wix; life-saving strategies for bringing clean water to a world that’s drying up; the pure cultural deliciousness of Yotam Ottolenghi; the breakthrough thinking of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose collaboration Michael Lewis documented in The Undoing Project; the wonder of Gal Gadot and TV shows like “Homeland” and “In Treatment.” As Hazony and Adam Scott Bellos noted in The Jerusalem Post, “Zionism has always been about the Jews channeling the power of their creative-moral intellect into every facet of human life.” And this is what happens when they do.
It’s a creativity honed from the resilience and invention born of life under pressure and fashioned from layers of influences from around the world that have been thrown together and melded with Hebrew. This, not war, is Israel’s essence, exciting as any culture anywhere in the world. And Hebrew can unlock it for you. It’s the way into the Jewish soul, the language of prayer, Torah, philosophy, mysticism, literature, Zionism, and the direct experience of what’s being created and lived in Israel today.
It will take work to be able to enter the conversation in its native language, but as Hazony has said, “without fluency in Hebrew, the engagement with Israeliness will always be a dilution and distortion based on intermediaries looking to explain things for Americans rather than the immersive, direct exposure that a personal journey requires. Only the language carries the nuance, the instinct, and, ironically, all that is unsaid.”
Hebrew, as you probably know, is ranked by linguists as among the most difficult languages in the world to learn as a second language. If you need to, take it a word or phrase or verse or idea at a time. I just spent an enjoyable couple of minutes reviewing vocabulary with Mango Languages, which is offered free online through our local library. The options are many—and the time you invest in language practice is worth it. Learning Hebrew will change your life and open a door to Judaism and the Jewish people that you can’t reach in any other way. Yes, you can read much in translation, but to use a vivid image, doing that is like making love with your clothes on. It just isn’t as good. Translations are never literal, and they miss cultural references and associations. They’re essentially commentary, and every translator has a unique perspective to advance. It’s far preferable to go straight to the source.
I’ve been studying Hebrew on and off since I was 21 years old, and I count it as one of the most important things I’ve done in my adult life. I’m happy to be able to speak now and understand most of what I hear when Israelis talk to me, and I intend to continue my studies and struggles with the language for the rest of my days.
The best way to learn is to go to Israel and study on Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew immersion course. There are many Ulpanim available. I’ve studied in Jerusalem and with a teacher for the past two years from Los Angeles by Skype. One-on-one learning will enable you to progress far more rapidly than learning in a room full of others with different language capacities.
There are many levels of Hebrew competence, and anything is better than nothing. The first and most basic level is to be able to recognize Hebrew letters, read words, and follow along in religious services.
The second is to be able to comprehend what you read, to be able to pick out words and know what they mean.
The third is to be able to converse using simple language.
The next is more advanced speaking and comprehension.
Then there is reading and listening to the written and oral news. The Jerusalem Post publishes a simple Hebrew edition which is helpful because the articles cover current events, holidays, and culture, and the paper provides vocabulary with punctuation without your having to look through a dictionary. There are now apps that translate from Hebrew to English and English to Hebrew quickly.
The highest level, of course, is speaking and reading fluently – but that takes time and concentrated effort.
Biblical Hebrew is different than Modern Hebrew, and I recommend that you focus on the language you can use in conversation today.
Modern Hebrew has developed dramatically over time. A newly published book called The Story of Hebrew by Lewis Glinert describes how the language developed through the millennia and centuries. I was fascinated to see how it was resurrected first as a literary language in the last two centuries and then as a spoken language beginning in the early 20th century. It still astonishes me that it is now the official language of an entire nation.
Daniel and David, each of you has learned some Hebrew. If you have an opportunity to study it again, I hope you will do so, and I hope it will lead you into real-life conversations with people who can share the best of what’s happening in Israel today, as well as into discussions about the issues that are most important to you. You have enough knowledge already to pick up where you left off and enjoy throwing yourselves into the language again.
A poem written years ago by Danny Siegel called simply “Hebrew” expresses how I feel about this remarkable language of the Jewish people. I hope some of that feeling rubs off on you!
“I’ll tell you how much I love Hebrew: / Read me anything – Genesis / Or an ad in an Israeli paper / And watch my face. / I will make half-sounds of ecstasy / And my smile will be so enormously sweet / You would think some angels were singing Psalms / Or God Himself was reciting to me. / I am crazy for her Holiness / And each restaurant’s menu in Yerushalayim / Or Bialik poem / Gives me peace no Dante or Milton or Goethe / Could give. / I have heard Iliads of poetry, / Omar Khayyam in Farsi, / And Virgil sung as if the poet himself / Were coaching the reader. / And they move me – But not like / The train schedule from Haifa to Tel Aviv / Or a choppy unsyntaxed note / From a student who got half the grammar I taught him / All wrong / But remembered to write / With Alefs and Zayins and Shins. / That’s the way I am. / I’d rather hear the weather report / On Kol Yisrael / Than all the rhythms and music of Shakespeare.”