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.
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.
- 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.