First, a disclosure: though I grew up in a ritually observant Jewish household and went to religious school three times a week for six years, my command of Hebrew is close to nonexistent. True, if I happened to run into an Oriental potentate, I could probably flatter and cajole him in phrases that ancient Jews thought appropriate for the Almighty. But I would stumble over buying a melon in Jerusalem or reading the headlines at a kiosk in Tel Aviv.
I have over the years fallen short at quite a few things I’ve attempted to learn—downhill skiing without fear, for example, or sight-reading at the piano—but failing to learn basic Hebrew as a language of everyday life, notwithstanding the expenditure of so many hours in the classroom for so many years, is one of my most decisive defeats. No doubt a certain lack of native ability was a factor, as it was with skiing and piano, but since it is possible for people of the most modest abilities to master any language, provided only that they start early enough, and since I began to attend religious school at the age of six or seven, the principal source of the failure must have resided elsewhere.
In the 1950s, though I went regularly to something called “Hebrew School,” there was virtually no interest in teaching Hebrew as a modern language. The concern was almost exclusively with making it possible to recite the ancient liturgy. Comprehension was not actively discouraged, but it was by no means required. Indeed, in the case of archaic seasonal rituals that bore no relation to the climate of New England, comprehension might only have stood in the way of adequate performance. Still more perhaps, facilitating a clear-eyed understanding of prayers that celebrated God for His unfailing love of His chosen people might, in the immediate wake of the Shoah, have raised more awkward questions than it resolved.
As for modern Israel, though there was certainly a great upwelling of support among American Jews like my parents, the Jewish state was too new to provoke much interest in fostering competence in its language, a language whose pronunciation was disagreeably distant from the familiar, homely chanting of the synagogue. So it was simply chanting that we were taught to do, as if it had its own magical power. Assimilated Jews in mid-twentieth-century America in this regard resembled mid-fifteenth-century Catholic laymen, trained to recite the Latin liturgy they were not meant to understand.
My teacher for three of the six years that I crept like a snail unwillingly to Hebrew School was a wiry German refugee named Carl Cohen with iron-rimmed glasses, vast learning, and a volatile temper. Poor Mr. Cohen had no pedagogical gifts suited for the bored, cosseted American suburban children in his charge. And though someone told us once that he had a difficult…
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