Ben Judah

Learning Hebrew has given me a better read on my Jewishness

Simply learning enough Hebrew to watch a news programme can transform how you understand Israel


An Israeli schoolgirl writing in Hebrew the saying: "Back to school" on a whiteboard.

August 09, 2023 18:49

Everyone has a pandemic habit that stuck. Maybe it’s jogging, or a little more extravagantly, home cocktail making. But for me it’s learning Hebrew. Twice a week, I study Ivrit. Now, three years on, I wouldn’t call myself fluent, but I am proficient. And it has been a journey that has deepened my sense of being a Jew far more than I expected.

I’d never shown much interest in Hebrew before. Nor had the British Jewish community ever shown much interest in teaching me more than my Aleph-Bet. And, in this, my five-expression Hebrew — stretching from “mazal tov all the way through “Shabbat shalom” to a mighty “shana tova” — I was truly average for a millennial Western Jew. Awkwardly mumbling along to the prayers. Failing to read even the most basic words written without vowels. Writing off even contemplating holding Hebrew conversations with Israelis or listening to their evening news as something impossible.   

This sat awkwardly with me. It just felt wrong. Not having a Jewish language I could speak. But the more I studied, the more I realised why. This is a historical anomaly. For most of our history Jews not only spoke Jewish languages — Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic — written, of course, in Hebrew script, but their elites had a deep grasp of literary Hebrew. It’s only with modernity that Western Jews have come to lack their own language or, beyond the rabbis, any real Hebrew skills. Britain and America, the old joke goes, are two people divided by a common language. Israel and the diaspora, it sadly feels, are the same people divided by not having their own language in common. 

This is an inversion of the way it used to be. Hebrew, as I explore in a 60-page study for The Jewish Quarterly published this month on why the language matters, for most of Jewish history — long after the spoken language died out in the third century CE — is something that tied the diaspora together. The language never really died. The Cairo Genizah, where centuries of Jewish texts were preserved, is full of not only responsa but literary letters in Hebrew from the Middle Ages. Wandering travellers such as the travel writer Israel Joseph Benjamin were using it as a lingua franca between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi communities as late as the mid-19th Century.

It was an attempt to save Hebrew, to stop it fading the way of Latin, which prefigured Zionism in late-19th Century Eastern Europe. It was a network of new Hebrew language newspapers like Hamagid and Ha-Shahar and their contributors that first created a movement to save a language that would catalyse with the Tsarist pogroms into a movement to save a people in their ancient land.

Hebraists made Israel, just as much as the kibbutzniks or the IDF. It was the labour of educators such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and David Yellin against impossible odds — only ten families had switched to Hebrew-only in Jerusalem by 1902 — that made it a functional working language and one of instruction. The work of these dictionary builders, teachers and grammarians on a mission created a Hebrew-speaking society before a state even existed. They achieved something Herzl thought impossible. “Who amongst us even knows enough Hebrew to use it to buy a railway ticket,” he mockingly asked in his 1896 pamphlet, The Jewish State, arguing Zionism would create a Swiss-style “federation of languages.”

Today Hebrew stands as the one complete triumph of Zionism. Everything else they dreamed to build is a partial failure or a tragic success, from ending antisemitism, to creating a safe haven for the Jews. Learning Hebrew and engaging in Hebrew culture — from TV shows like Shtiselto the novels by writers Israelis like to read, such as Zeruya Shalev — offers a non-ideological and more realistic and grown-up way to engage with Israel. Not as an idea. But as a complicated, messy and very real place.

Simply learning enough Hebrew to watch a news programme can transform how you understand Israel. And in my own everyday life, a long way from the frightening turn in Israeli politics, I found that learning just enough Hebrew to speak had deepened my experience of synagogue, brachot and prayers. It no longer felt like a familiar abracadabra. And as a result, I no longer felt like every encounter with Judaism left me feeling like that Passover son — the one who is unable to ask.

But this is not only about Israel, prayers, or even about me. Learning Hebrew has brought me a deeper sense of what Judaism actually is and how fundamental this language is to the Jewish people. So many times in our history we could have let go of this language, as so many other nations did with theirs. We could have switched fully over to Aramaic in ancient times, or in Europe, in the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, chosen to do everything in Yiddish. But it was our clinging to Hebrew and with it the idea of a greater Jewish people that made us unique. Our religion, our story, is at its heart a love of this language and a refusal to let it go. A feeling so strong that Israel, a state, was made from it.

‘Ivrit: The Language That Makes a People’ by Ben Judah can be purchased at Jewish Quarterly.

August 09, 2023 18:49

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