David Robson

Doing it in Hebrew: and how

June 06, 2014 12:27

By the time you read this I shall have consummated a marriage, though that perhaps is putting it a little strongly. I shall have read out one of the sheva brachot at a wedding in France and as mine is the seventh and final blessing, I regard all the preceding ones as merely foreplay.

I would like to say my joy at being honoured with the task was unconfined, but it wasn't quite. "Would you be happy to do it in Hebrew?" asked the bridegroom in his email (a commentator, Rashi or indeed Woody Allen, would explain that "happy" here means "capable"). And he added that there wouldn't be any Hebrew speakers or scholars in the audience (it doesn't take a Rashi to explain what this meant – if it comes out sounding like Swahili nobody will know the difference).

He was only being considerate, yet I did bridle a bit. Didn't he know I had A-level classical Hebrew? And yet it wouldn't have taken a Freud, or the groom's psychotherapist mother, to know that a part of my (unexpressed) vaguely high dudgeon was defensive. I acquired my classical Hebrew A-level in 1966, the year England won the World Cup and I, no more than England, could ever dream of pulling it off again, or getting anywhere near it. Perhaps being able to read Hebrew aloud in public is like riding a bike. If so, as anybody who's got on to a bike for the first time in half a century will tell you, don't do it.

Of course, my relationship with Hebrew block capitals isn't quite like that. I am reacquainted with them several times a year. On Yom Kippur I like to sit in shul the whole day, dipping in and out of the service as well as in and out of consciousness. On Seder night I usually take the reins. So I pass my eye over thousands of words. But here's the question: how long is it since I read a word I hadn't read a hundred times before? The Holy One, Blessed Be He, delivers us from Egypt in the identical way year in year out. It may be the season of our freedom but it in no way liberates me to sight-read new material.

I imagine Catholic priests taking confession hear about novel sins all the time, including some nobody thought were even feasible, but on Yom Kippur it's always same old, same old: Ashamnu, Bogadnu… perhaps beating your breast and reading an unknown word for an unknown sin at the same time would be too much to ask.

Like the celebrities on Strictly Come Dancing I can do my party pieces, but is that all? So, barmitzvah-boy style I've been practising… it's hardly the Becher's Brook of brachot but I don't want to stumble over the words mitzhalot or neginotam.

I like to think I would have been happy to enunciate even in front of Hebrew speakers and scholars. And if things have gone awry and I got into a bit of a tangle, and it sounded no more comprehensible on the streets of Jerusalem than it would on the streets of Jersey, I at least have the groom's word that he won't know the difference.

June 06, 2014 12:27

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