The part I’ve feared would never happen about a.) becoming Jewish, and b.) going to rabbinic school is coming to pass. I’m starting to understand spoken Hebrew. Most people in my synagogue community (including the rabbi and even my partner, Ryan) thinks this happened already. But just because I refuse to pronounce prayerbook Hebrew with an English-language accent…because (hello) it’s Hebrew!, and know how to write and read from right to left (in block and cursive, thank you very much), doesn’t mean that the grammar and syntax of the language made sense to me.
In truth, I’m an idiot for being anxious about the whole thing. Besides asking God for mad Ivrit skillz in the mikveh (and on both mikveh anniversaries since), looking back I’ve been a foreign language junkie my whole life. I’m completely Hispanic by blood (there’s a story in itself) but from the time when Latino parents wanted their kids to speak only English.
I picked up what Spanish I could in middle and high schools. But by college my language interests started to marry themselves to my urban interests. I went into college wanting to be an urban planner (which I did), and I became enamored of Italian- and French-speaking cities. I learned Italian for Rome, but ended up using it mostly with Brooklyn-Italian boyfriends. I used my French to hang out in Montreal and Quebec City.
Then after facing the obnoxious attitude of urban Parisians head on, and making a good, lifelong Luso friend, I shifted gears to Portuguese and spent several weeks talking and eating my way through the country (especially my dearly missed Lisboa.) I was probably closest to fluent in the language of Camoes (hence naming my cat after the famous Lusophone poet), once being told that I had better grammar than my friend, and another time being asked if I was an immigrant.
And then I moved to Chicago a decade ago and put my language books and dreams on dusty shelves where they stayed put. It was an immense surprise to me to learn that many of the core sounds of Hebrew mimic sounds very familiar to me from Portuguese and French. So from the very beginning, Hebrew sounded kind of “normal” to me.
But beyond learning the language of prayer and taking an intensive introductory language class two years ago, I didn’t move forward very much with those mad skillz I had asked for. And then I came out with the secret I had known for most of those two years–I wanted to be a rabbi. Which, without developing said mad skillz, would never come to pass.
Without finally getting my ass in gear, anyway.
I have lived much of this summer with headphones in my ears or my Android phone hooked up to Ryan’s car radio, making my way through all three call-and-response levels of Pimsleur Modern Hebrew. (That’s 45 hours of audio, in case you’re counting.) I started Pimsleur last year, but put it down. This year, I’ve been so persistent with it that you can now ask Ryan simple Hebrew sentences and I guess by audio osmosis even he can answer you back in Hebrew, too.
Why modern Hebrew? The answer requires me to get out my soapbox for a bit. So no one learns a language fluently merely from memorizing rules. (Well maybe my old Brooklyn friend, Alberto, does, but he’s just a freak genius.) As children, we learn to speak before we learn to read and write. As adults, most of us make it to fluency by dint of conversational practice, not just because we know the ins and outs of verb conjugations.
By experience, I know my ADHD brain will take language rules, ball them up, and use them for spitball practice. I learn language much more from my heart than my head. So I knew I needed to approach Hebrew that way, too. At this point, now I’m able to plug in the linguistic rules from all the stuffy Hebrew grammar books that I ignored up to now with the sense of the language in my head that I already know. I read a rule and I go, “A-ha! That makes total sense,” instead of, “….Zzzzzzzzzz.”
I know the traditional way would be for me to learn the dry rules Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew first, and continue to modern, living Israeli Hebrew second, if at all. I just happen to think that that tradition sucks. If it worked, we’d have a lot more Hebrew-fluent folks in our congregations. Any liberal Jew reading this knows how very much that unfortunately happens not to be the reality of things.
Learning modern Hebrew first, I will have a tool to use throughout my life even if this whole pesky rabbi thing doesn’t pan out. And while I’m in rav school, I’ll have a much wider linguistic base to help me navigate the differences inherent in ancient forms of Hebrew than otherwise could possibly have been the case. And as you might imagine, 5 years hence and freshly minted, I will not be the kind of rabbi who leads prayer at a snails pace, either.
Because if I can learn to recite Ma’ariv Aravim at a conversational pace, anyone can.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.