Learning Hebrew

Generally, a classical education in the western sense begins with Latin.  The languages use of roman characters, status as the grandfather of the romance languages,  and deep influence on English all make it much easier to lean than, say, Greek.  My father knows Latin; my wife studied it and can still conjugate the occasional verb, phrases from it pop up constantly in my work as a lawyer.  I should really be starting there, but for idiosyncratic personal reasons I am starting with a language that is generally not even considered part of a classical philology course of study.  I am starting with Hebrew.

I have no idea what this says.


Why?  Three reasons.  First, I want to be a better Jew.  A couple of year ago I converted to Judaism under the auspices of the conservative movement.  My wife and I are not particularly observant –  we’re high holiday Jews basically, with the occasional random Shabbat service thrown in but when I do go to services much of what is happening is entirely lost to me.  I cannot participate, I cannot even read along. It makes the experience frustrating, and often dull, knowing Hebrew would help enormously with this and with my general appreciation of Torah and Talmud.

Second, one of the areas of classical history which most interests me is the period surrounding the codification of the Talmud and the birth of the Christian faith.  The developments overlapped and understanding both means understanding Hebrew.  Probably also Aramaic, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it many, many years from now.

Third, my wife and I plan to have children, and we plan to raise those children in the Jew faith.  If these theoretical kids are going to learn Hebrew than goddamn it, so am I.

All of this is a long introduction to why I spent four hours this Sunday as Temple Emanuel on the Upper East Side participating in a “Hebrew Marathon”.  The idea of the course is to cram into four hours an introduction to the Hebrew alphabet and some ability to navigate your way through the prayer book.  It wasn’t going to teach you to read, never mind know the vocabulary, but it did give you a sense of what the alphabet was and how it was pronounced.

It was hard, it was fun, it was a start.  I had some background in the language from personal study, which put me ahead of many in the room, but it was still a struggle to keep the letters straight.  The plan is to capitalize on this kick off by practicing everyday for half an hour or so.

Immediate goals:

  • Identify the letters and their pronunciation (yes I really do have to start that basic)


  • Read the Friday night prayers without looking at the transliteration.


I am in no hurry with this.  If it takes a lifetime, that’s fine.  I’m just going to pick the cow up everyday and see how far I can carry it.




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  1. Nom De Ger
  2. Debbie

    How could you have converted under the auspices of the Conservative Movement without what sounds like a basic ability to at least sound out Hebrew words as well as knowing some basic vocabulary? The best way to learn Friday night prayers is to go to services on a regular basis. If you just look at the first (and possibly last) letters of the words, you should be able to follow along even if you cannot possibly read at that speed. It might be helpful if you can find someone who will point to the words as they are spoken. (My husband did that for me when he first taught me the basics of the sounds of the letters.) But the main thing is that you are likely to become familiar with the sounds after just a few dozen times that you hear it, and then it is much easier to follow along with something that you are even vaguely familiar with.

    I will also warn you that “do as I say, not as I do” does not work well for raising kids. So if you and your wife want your future kids to care about ritual Judaism, your chances for success are rather low if you continue to be “High Holiday Jews”.

    At least you are doing something positive in that direction by learning some Hebrew. Daily practice is a good start. My sight-reading ability was terrible for many, many years until I finally buckled down and made myself practice each and every day. In my summer of Ulpan in Israal (Hebrew classes for new immigrants), I only learned to read well words I understood, not random words I didn’t know and would have to sound out. These days I get daily practice by learning the Torah readings that I will leyn (chant) in my lay-led minyanim which I try to do 1-2 times a month. I’m busy, so some days I only spend 5-10 minutes simply reading over the verses once or twice, with more time spent on Shabbat afternoons. After several years of daily practice, I still can’t read Hebrew fast enough to keep up for a Hebrew song I don’t know if it is a face-paced song—but I can do it for slower songs now, which is a major achievement.

    1. seanv2

      The rabbi who handled my conversion required that I work at learning Hebrew (which I am), not that I be able to read it when I converted. I believe this is fairly standard for conservative rabbis in the United States.

      This is a blog about getting good at things, not trying to out observe others, so I’m going to ignore the judgmental tone of you comment and say thank you for the advice on daily practice. Congratulations on how far you have come, I’d love to be able to sign read a song someday!

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