Literacy Narrative

The Hebrew Language Throughout My Life

Growing up Jewish and American is different than your normal dual-identity. Growing up in a Jewish-American community is different than other dual-identity communities. Growing up in a dual-curriculum elementary and high school is different than other dual-identity schools. Growing up in a community “bubble” protected from a lot of the goods and evils of the world is different than other communities.

The community I grew up in values education and contributing to the world in different ways, while creating a balance in being a religious Orthodox Jew. This fine line creates a similar blueprint for every kid growing up in the community with some veering off the line becoming more worldly and less religous and vice versa. We’re taught to follow all of the laws that our Torah (bible) commands, while not being obvlivous to what’s happening in the world and even helping out in many ways. In our schools we learn all English subjects while adding many Hebrew subjects as well including learning talmud, bible class, and perfecting reading, writing, and speaking the Hebrew language. It allows us to succeed and thrive in the world specific to our communities needs. In business everyone speaks fluent English as their first language and we can speak and connect to the other Jews in business which sometimes are Chasidic Jews who might rather speaking Hebrew or Yiddish. It allows us to succeed in post high school learning institutions by being used to such a heavy workforce that was introduced in our schools from a young age. The dual-curriculum that we had until college required us in school from 7:30 in the morning until 4:30 and sometimes 5:15 at night excluding extra-curriculars. This draining daily schedule helped shape my skills in both English and Hebrew studies.

I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten, but at that age it was just learning the alphabet. It wasn’t much, but that including going to synagogue with my dad and brothers during the weekend helped me retain whatever I learnt however small it was. First and second grade introduced “nekudot” or pronunciations for each letter and the spelling for easy words. Third grade was where it started getting more difficult. Hebrew is one of those languages that are so complex and there are many levels of learning before mastering it. Other than the 26 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are multiple iterations of multiple letters of the way they are supposed to sound and be written. The nekudot I spoke about before? There are over 8 different ways a letter can be pronounced whereas in English the letter “A” has only two ways of saying. Combining 10 letters together each with their own pronunciation to understand in order to read it is insanely difficult. This was my struggle for the next two years. Thankfully, my Hebrew language teacher in elementary school always gave personal support to each student and never gave up on me. 

When I finally knew how to speak, read, and write Hebrew I thought my job was done; little did I know there was still a whole other level of what you can do with the Hebrew language. During the Sabbath prayers on Saturday’s the ba’al koreh, a person who reads the weekly parsha portion of the Torah. The already difficult Hebrew that the reader must read now has specific “ta’amim” for each word which is a specific symbol above or below a letter in th word that has a tune that it’s read with. That’s what was introduced to me during the fifth grade for the next two years. Seeing what I already accomplished, I decided to take this challenge head on and commit myself to being able to read Hebrew with those ta’amim. During school I tried as I never had before trying to learn this new concept and was able to practice this in synagogue during the Sabbath. On saturday mornings my synagogue held multiple “minyanim”, groups of ten or more men praying together. One of thse was just for kids which gave me my first opportunity to read the Torah with those ta’amim. But then somehow it got even harder. The normal nekudot that are visible in the words so it makes it easy for the reader to read disappear and so did the ta’amim! I now had to remember everything I learnt and memorize exactly how the words are read and pronounced to be able to read from the Torah scroll. My heart was racing but I did it after all the practice I did for weeks prior. At that point I found it to be something that was fun because I was good at it and reading from the Torah isn’t something every kid knows how to do. So I kept with reading week after week.

At this point you’re thinking there’s no way there’s more to it; no way it could more difficult. Wrong! All of a sudden in seventh grade I’m being taught ta’amim for the “haftarah” portion of the Torah reading on Sabbath which is from the book of prophets. You’re probably thinking so what, didn’t you learn the ta’amim already? Yes I did. But the ta’amim were were the same symbols but totally different pronunciations and tunes. Now I had to learn those and be able to not mix up the ta’amim of the Torah reading and the haftarah reading. Now it’s over right? Nope! The next year I’m learning ta’amim again, but not that of the Torah or haftarah, but the book of Psalms which again was the same exact symbols with totally new pronunciations and tunes. It took a lot of work and dedication, but soon I was able to read fluently in all three form of scripture in the Torah.

It still didn’t stop there; but at this point I wanted to learn more, to do more. Next was learning how to be a “hazzan” or canter for the prayers. This required learning specific tunes for each week to correspond to the mood of the weekly parsha or the significance of the date in the year etc. With over twelve different tunes to learn, memorize, and apply to the prayers it was understandably my hardest test yet. The tunes barely differentiated between each other. For example, one tune you’re supposed to start in a low tone, then get high, and finish low again. Another one includes starting at a base tone, going low, then going high to come back low. But in the end I prevailed in this challenge as well, and have become almost as literate as you can in Hebrew.

Our community also has one of the biggest impacts in the world for its size. In countless examples, we are always heping out and affecting things and events that occur around the world. When the Ukraine Russia war broke out, our community helped out in ensuring safe travel of people trying to leave Ukraine. Overall we saved over 1000 people. Just these last few weeks after the terrorist attacks in Israel left half a million people displaced, over 1400 dead, and hundreds taken hostage our community came together to do great things. We hosted auctions and bake sales, donated a truck full of breast milk for babies in Israel, chartered flights for people unable to get out of Israel, and even some of our community members went to help out the situation in Israel.

What’s been hard for me now is balancing this life between being a religious observant Orthodox Jew, yet staying involved and active in the world around me.I experience this on a daily  basis. I pray three times a day and learn when I can while attending college and going to work twice a week. I observe the Sabbath very strictly but once it’s over, I’m back on my phone going to dinner with my friends and watching NFL Redzone the next day. Sometimes the fine line is hard to balance. For instance when I have religious holidays I can’t work, go to school or do school work, use any electronics and more. I used to have trouble not being able to do these things but recently it’s gotten easier. I’ve grown to appreciate these holidays and the Sabbath as its definition which is rest. I use these days as a break from the world where nothing matters but my family and my religion. I don’t worry about tests, school work, real work, and even my favorite sports teams games.

Although growing up with all of these challenges hurled at me was very difficult, it was necessary into making me who I am today. If I wasn’t able to speak, read, or understand Hebrew my life would be totally different. From my religiosity to my family to the things I eat, and where I decide to use my time, everything has been shaped from my ability to become literate in the Hebrew language and the benefits that come from it.