2013 Goals – Hebrew

I’ve saved for my final goals post the most challenging one I have this year – getting a handle on Hebrew.  I’ve written before about my challenges with languages in general, and with Hebrew in particular.  Its been a hard road.  In attempting to learn this language I’ve set many a goal, and have failed to meet them.  The reasons for this are two fold.  First, I have no natural facility at language, and frankly, I find the study of it to be drudgery.  I’d much rather run than memorize Hebraic consonant vowel combinations.  Second, I’m busier than I have ever been in my life.  My job gets more demanding by the month.  E and I have moved into a new apartment, and family and friend commitments seem to be multiplying.

It just seems like there hasn’t been the time.  But, as with anything else, if I prioritize this, I’ll find the time.  And learning Hebrew is important to me.  Over the rest of my life, I expect to spend hundreds of hours in synagogue, work with my theoretical someday children in preparation for their bar or bat mitzvah, and take part in scores of Seders.  I’d really like to have some understanding of the language which is central to these events.

So we push on.  Currently I can, if given enough time, sound out many words.  That’s a big improvement over this time last year.  But it is nowhere near enough.  I had hopes of signing up for a Hebrew class this spring, but my work commitments just do not allow for it.  I’m rarely out of work before eight o’clock – night classes are just not going to work.

Perhaps over the summer I’ll be able to find the time for a systematic class, but for now, the goals for the year are three fold – a total number of hours in study; two workbooks completed, and a prayers understood.

An except from the Allepo Codex. Someday, I’ll be reading this.


In the past I have set unrealistic goals for how much Hebrew I can study a week.  I work a lot, I run a lot, I futz around my new apartment a lot.  All of which doesn’t leave much time for study.  So my new, and I hope manageable goal, is just two hours a week.  Two hours a week times fifty two weeks equals one hundred and four hours.  Even a lazy guy like me can accomplish that.


I’ve almost worked my way all the way through Teach Yourself Hebrew.  Next up – Joseph Anderson’s Prayer Book Hebrew the Easy Way.  Copying out assignments from workbooks is not the ideal way to learn a language, but its what I’ve got right now.

The Shema

In order to test my knowledge and have something to work towards, I need a goal.  As my long term intention is to be able to navigate the High Holiday services, there is no better place to start than with the prayer that is at the center of the liturgy – the Shema.

The three paragraphs of the Shema are the center of Jewish of worship.  Observant Jews say the prayer three times a day.  I’m going to work my way through it this year, focusing on pronunciation and comprehension (not grammar) with the goal of being able to read and understand it by Rosh Hashanah this fall.

Hebrew is by far my biggest personal challenge of the year.  I plan to post about it a lot more.  I realize most readers come to this blog for the fitness posts, but I hope you’ll find the posts about language acquisition to be at least a little diverting.

The Books I Read in 2012

Attention conservation notice: this post is long and has nothing to do with working out. 

I have kept a list of every book I have read I have read since I was thirteen years old.  Yeah, obsessive record keeping didn’t start with my running log.  Below is a list of every book I read this year followed by my idiosyncratic one sentence review.  Books are either recommended, meaning I think I the average reader will like them, not recommended, or recommended for a specific sub-group of readers.

I read thirty three books this year.  A general trend in my reading over the last couple of years is that I am reading less, and more of what I am reading can only be described as mind-candy pop fiction.  Such is adulthood.  I want to go home and work through the Organon, but somehow or other I often end up reading another spy novel.

Anyway, here’s the round up of what I read this year*

Best Fiction Book:  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. 

This book is actually better than the hype and considering the hype, that’s saying a lot.  My wife, who hates baseball, loved it.  I, who have little patience the young lions of American literary fiction, loved it.  I think you’ll probably like it as well.

Best Non Fiction Book: Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin. 

A really great overview of an empire which had a huge influence on modern society and about which I knew little.  Goodwin’s approach in covering the cultures, politics, and wars of the empire is clever and approachable.  I feel like I still have a lot to learn about the Ottomans, but this is a great place to start.

Book Which Was Much Better Than I Was Expecting:  Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by Benjamin Yorr

I picked this one up because it got a good write up in the Times and had the words Yoga and Obsession in the title.  I was expecting a someone annoying experiential journalism piece written by a snotty New Yorker ironically judging the yogis around him.  Instead, its an insightful look into yoga culture and a thoughtful critique of Bikram yoga.  I was disappointed this one wasn’t longer, which is high praise for any book.

What Was I Thinking When I Got This Book and Why Did I Read The Whole Thing?: The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, by Timothy Ferris

Honestly, there must be something wrong with me.

 Every Book I Read I 2012

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarre – Recommended
  2. Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Samuel Beckett – Recommended for enthusiast’s of high modern theater.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (Arden), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  4. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Barnes – Recommended for those wishing to brush up on their undergraduate philosophy degree.
  5. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach – Highly Recommended
  6. The Moro Affair and the Mystery of Majorana, Leonardo Sciascia – Recommended for those interested in left-wing terrorist organizations in 1970s Italy.
  7. Richard II (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended for obsessives determined to read every work by the Bard in chronological order.
  8. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, A.C. Grayling – Recommended for those trying to determine whether Ludwig is worth the trouble.
  9. Arctic Rising, Tobias S. Buckell – Recommended for connoisseurs of global warming dystopia futures.
  10. A MidSummer Nights Dream (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  11. The Four Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman, Timothy Ferris – Recommended for idiots (like me) who enjoy reading pop science about working out even when it was written by the world’s biggest frat boy.
  12. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr – Recommended
  13. The Honorable Schoolboy, John LeCarre – Recommended for readers of spy fiction.
  14. The Ex Pats, Chris Pavone – Recommended for readers of spy fiction who have read all the LeCarre and Steinhauer books listed here.
  15. Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon – Recommended for mystery fans dying to visit Venice even if everyone tells you that you will be disappointed.
  16. King John, William Shakespeare – Not recommended.  The only reason to read this is if you’re trying to read everything the Bard wrote.
  17. Drive, James Sallis – Recommended for fans of really well written crime fiction.
  18. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Thomas R. Martin – Recommended for buddy amateur ancient historians.
  19. Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon – Recommended for cold war espionage fans and those about to travel to Turkey.
  20. The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare – Recommended if only because of its is the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays – if you are going to talk about Shakespeare, then you need to talk about the Merchant of Venice and you really cannot talk about the Merchant unless you have read it.
  21. The Snake Stone, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for mystery fans traveling to Turkey.
  22. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire, Jason Goodwin – Recommended for those, like me, with limited knowledge of the Ottomans.
  23. The Black Monastery, Stav Sherez – Not recommended.
  24. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum – Recommended for the thriller enthusiast, especially those on an inter-continental flight
  25. King Henry IV Part I (Arden), William Shakespeare – recommended.
  26. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – recommended.
  27. King Henry IV Part 2 (Folger), William Shakespeare – Recommended
  28. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal, Mark Owen – Not recommended
  29. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, Matti Friedman – Recommended for amateur Hebraists and book nerds.
  30.  In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman – Recommended for students of Hebrew.
  31. The Nearest Exit, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended
  32. Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, Benjamin Yorr – Recommended
  33. An American Spy, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended

Next year I hope to finally finish my project to read all of Shakespeares works, once again cross the fifty books in a year threshold, and balance the serious with the frivolous a little better.

*Note that I am trying out the Amazon associates program with this post.


A Plan for the Holidays

Eighty hour works weeks, buying a condo, traveling for the holidays. Excuses, excuses, excuses.  E-fucking-nough.  I’ve got to get a regular running and studying routine going, and its got to happen now.  To help that along I’m taking a page from Runners World and doing a little holiday streak challenge.  I’m committing to running and studying Hebrew everyday* from Thanksgiving to New Years Day.

I’ve had a lot of success, and some failure, with run streaks in the past.  When I first got semi-serious about running I developed a run streak which lasted a little over 100 days.  During that streak I set PRs at every distance.  Eventually, I got a nasty case of the flu and ended the streak.  Next time I started a streak, I stubbornly ran while injured just so I could keep the dumb streak alive.  That was stupid and hindered my performance for quite some time.

With this little streak, I’m hoping to find some middle ground.  Since the streak has a set end date, I don’t anticipate injury being an issue.  If it is, I’ll stop.  The point of this is to get back in the swing of running regularly, not to end up injured again.  I’ve been smart and cautious with my training for a while.  Now I think it is time to take it up a notch, to start banking consistent miles, so that I come out stronger and faster in the spring.

The Hebrew study is a more clean cut case of just getting my lazy ass to focus.  Its way past time to make studying a habit and a priority.  There’s really no physical or intellectual downside to studying everyday.  It’s not like I’m going to hurt my brain or something.  I’m just going to have to find the time.  I say it is important to me, now it is time to prove it.

It’s going to be a busy 41 days.   I’m looking forward to it.

Anyone else out there interested in doing a holiday streak? Join me, it’ll be fun.!

*For running, the minimum will be three miles.  For Hebrew, I’ll be studying for at least fifteen minutes everyday, but the total time of study must average out to a half-hour a day over the period of the challenge.  Got that, dork?

A Hebrew Update

In yet another attempt to keep on task regarding my Hebrew study, I’m going to update the study once a week.

It’s been rough, as many of you noted, doing this on my own is difficult.  This week I managed half an hour, bringing my sad, sad total for the year to 35.5 hours.  That means I have to study for 64.5 hours by Monday January 4th to reach the arbitrary goal I set here.  That’s about seven and a half hours a week – a lot more than I’ve been doing so far.

I’ve got the alphabet down, and my ability to sound out words on sight is improving, albeit slowly.  I’m also reading Joel M. Hoffman’s In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language.  It has been informative, if difficult for someone with no background in linguistics.  I’ve learn quite a bit about the way Hebrew works as a language, but not surprisingly, the more I learn, the more questions I have.  But not having access to a professor, I’m kind of screwed.  I have family members I could ask, but who wants to talk about Masoretic punctuation at a family party?*  Finding some way to have a structured class like experience in the spring has to be a priority.

Another priority? Consistency.  I have got to get after it on a regular basis, and for sustained periods of time, or I am not going to get anywhere.  Onward.

* It BLEW MY LITTLE GER MIND that, if I understand Hoffman correctly, the vowel symbols in Hebrew originate sometime around 600 C.E. and 800 C.E.  How crazy is that?



Studying in Public: Keeping My Nose in the Books on the High Holidays

One of the leading scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls prays at a modern orthodox synagogue I have attended on occasion.*  While he prays, he keeps open before him a number of books – midrashim on the Torah and Talmud, I believe.  When there is a break in the service, he turns to his other books and continues studying.  He doesn’t want to waste a minute.

A rabbi once told me that he would sometimes get annoyed with the custom in many reform and conservative synagogues to call out of page numbers during services.  “Sometimes” he said, “I just want to explore the prayers on my own.”

I kept both these stories in mind this High Holiday season when I made a conscious effort to allow myself to move between being present in the communal aspects of the services, and to take time for myself to practice my Hebrew.  It turned out to be the most fulfilling High Holiday season I’ve had yet.  I’m not saying the leading scholar would have approved, I’m sure he wouldn’t have.  I was lost for much of service.  And I’m not against call about page numbers, I’d be completely lost without it.  But both of these anecdotes speak to having some private time in a public service.  That is what I did this year.  In taking the time to study a bit, as opposed to just sitting there, pretending I knew what was going on, I opened up the mysteries of the language, and thereby of the services, just a little more.

I’ve been going to services for a number of years now, and this was the first time I was able to read any of the Hebrew, albeit much more slowly than the cantor.  Taking time during the prayers to focus on reading it for myself, even if it meant getting stuck far behind the rest of the congregation, allowed me to interact with the text in a new way – as a reader, of sorts, as opposed to merely following the pronunciation half a beat behind my wife.

That said, “reading” Hebrew is a strange thing.  Many Jews who “read” Hebrew aren’t really reading – they’re pronouncing.  They know how to say the words, but they have little understanding of what the words mean.  I am just beginning to reach this stage.  I can pronounce, a little, if by pronunciation you mean sound out the word like a four year old.  Understanding will come, but it will be many High Holidays from now.

Walter Benjamin, studying in public.

*For those who don’t know me, I am not by any stretch modern orthodox.  Also, this story would be far more compelling if I used this scholar’s name, or the name of his shul.  But, unbelievably, the world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is insanely catty and has on multiple occasions devolved into insane internet wars.  I would very much like to keep this gentleman, and this blog, out of all that.  Google around if you want to know more, nerd.

A Hebrew Study Plan

While there have been some ups and downs in my fitness training recently, I think all in all things are going well.  My running is pain free, the climbing is getting better, and I’m losing weight.  All good news.  Hebrew study however has been disastrous.  I go on short binges where I am diligent, and then I fall off the wagon.  When I restart, I’ve forgotten so much that I have to retrace the same steps over again.

Why is it that I can be reasonably disciplined in my physical training, but not in my Hebrew study?  Perhaps it is because Hebrew is much harder for me than working out.  I’m no Ryan Hall, but I’ve been working out consistently for a number of years.  Exercise isn’t work to me. I get true pleasure out of a run, even a bad run, and spending time at the climbing gym is like being a kid again.  Honestly, I’d rather be working out than doing just about anything else.  Languages, however, are a different story.  I have moderate dyslexia which infringes on my ability to learn new languages.  I’m also basically tone deaf, which also doesn’t help.  It’s a challenge.  To be half as good at a language as the average person I have to work twice as hard and when I get home from a long day at work, spending time with the Hebrew books is the last thing I want to do.  Still, the study is important to me and I’ve got to knuckle down.  To help get over the initial hurdle of getting the barebones understanding of Hebrew I’ve developed the loose outlines of a plan to take me through the early stages of learning the language.

First, I am going to develop a streak.  When I started running in earnest a number of years ago one trick that kept me going, even though I sucked, and was terribly slow, was a running streak.  If I told myself I had to run every day, then there was no excuse good enough to not run.  As I make the slow recovery from a series of injuries, I’ve at least temporarily given up on running streaks, but the same principle of no excuse ever being good enough, could help me with Hebrew.  If I must study Hebrew everyday, then there is never an excuse good enough to not study.  When I was doing the running streak, the requirement was one mile, with Hebrew, I think I am going to make it fifteen minutes.  Starting tomorrow morning, I am going to begin a streak of studying Hebrew for at least fifteen minutes everyday.  It isn’t much, but it’s a start.

Second, I need to set bench marks.  In running I’m proud when I hit double digit long runs, then thirty miles in a week, then fifty.  One thousand in a year is a reason to celebrate, two thousand is even better.  I need to do something similar with Hebrew.  Record the time spent, and celebrate when I reach key goals like fifty or one hundred hours of study.  As of today, I’ve spent about twenty five hours in Hebrew study.  I am going to set the goal of reaching 100 hours of study by the start of the spring academic term, which, for convenience sake, I am going to peg to Monday, January 14th.  That’s nineteen weeks from now, so I’ll have to average about four hours of study per week, or twelve hours a month.  That’s more than fifteen minutes a day, but with some longer sessions thrown in it is doable.  I’ll need to remind myself of this the next time I want to watch a Giants game instead of getting in the studying.

Come the spring term, it’ll be time to take this up a notch and start learning in a more academic environment, most likely Hebrew I at my alma mater, Brooklyn College.  For now, let’s see how fifteen minutes a day, and twelve hours a month, goes.  Another exercise in getting better; another chance to prove that I’m not a slovenly, lazy, loser.

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.