Community Blog Living in Hebrew
My family and I are fortunate to be spending about three weeks in Israel right now—an ambiguous amount of time, longer than a vacation, but at the same time clearly not “living” here. We meander through our lives here, sometimes (as now) getting work done in a local café, sometimes taking our kids to the Biblical Zoo; sometimes getting together with old friends whom we see all too rarely, sometimes meeting up with Hebrew College rabbinical students here for the semester or the year. Understandably, if a bit relentlessly, people ask me: “What brings you to Israel?” But despite the regularity of the inquiry, my own replies are decidedly inconsistent. Most often I reference my aging grandmother, in a nursing home in Holon, whom we want to see as often as possible. Other times, I talk about colleagues to meet with here, or restaurants for which we have strong feelings of nostalgia. But the truth is, the real reason is far more ambient, and far less specific, than any of those that I usually give.
On our first full day here, my kids woke up shockingly late, their bodies obviously confused by jetlag. My wife had already left the house, her body equally confused, but resulting in the opposite effects—she had gone out early to get some work done. I too was pretty knocked out, so I turned to a 100% foolproof parenting technique: I turned on the TV, set my children down in front of it, and “parented” as I cycled through snoozing on the couch and responding to kids’ requests for more cereal. After about an hour, though, I realized something that, in my initial stupor, had not yet occurred to me: my kids were watching cartoons…in Hebrew.
Now, we try to speak to our kids in Hebrew generally, and they also have a Hebrew class at school; as American 5- and 6-year olds go, their Hebrew is excellent. But they rarely use it, and certainly not in speaking—when we speak to them in Hebrew, they always respond in English. I started asking them questions about the show were they watching, to see if they really understood it. They did. But something even weirder happened in the coming days. Our children started responding—not always, and not even consistently, but relatively often—to questions put them in Hebrew. It surely is good to study Hebrew, but it is unquestionably more effective to live in it.
A week later, I received a response to an email I had sent to one our students studying here for the year. I recognized the name, recognized from the subject line that it was a reply to my own email, but when I opened it, I had to do a double-take: in the body of the email I found only Hebrew letters. He had written his response in excellent and clear Hebrew. Reading that email, I was thankful for the rigor of our Hebrew teaching at Hebrew College; but, as with my children’s watching cartoons, I also recognized in that email the uniquely beneficial experience of living in the Hebrew language—the urgency that one gains from needing to order pizza in this language, the incentive for learning that the natural human drive to understand the people around us creates in us.
As a student and teacher of Talmud and Jewish law, I am acutely aware of the importance of a common language in creating a meaningful sense of peoplehood. With only a very few exceptions (Maimonides most famously comes to mind), the authors of the rich and expansive responsa literature, extending from early in the medieval period until our own days, wrote in Hebrew (with a variety of words and phrases from Aramaic and/or the local vernacular thrown in). The result of this collective (intentional or not) decision is that someone with a serious Jewish education, whether raised in Paris or Tel Aviv, Baghdad or Boston, can access all of these. Access to language is access to ideas, access to a shared set of concerns across time and place, access to the construction of a Jewish vision for how to live.
There are many reasons for my family to come here, but providing that kind of gift for our children has to be near the top of the list.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg is an assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School.