Daily Archives: April 24, 2013

FUN AT HEBREW SCHOOL

            Plowing through the usual uneventful news like (from Zimbabwe) “Lion Eats Woman While Having Sex with Her Boyfriend” and (from South Korea) “Men Without Testicles Might Live Longer, Study Suggests,” I read that President Obama wants Congress to spend $100 million to map the brain’s activity in unprecedented detail to better treat such conditions as Alzheimer’s, autism, stroke, traumatic brain injuries, and one of the least-known but far-reaching brain disorders, Hebrew Language Brain Leakage. (HLBL)

            Scientists are aware that Language Brain Leakage has a long history and have studied high school students who took classes in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese and Sign Language. Within a few years after those classes, students who took Spanish, French, German, Russian and Japanese lost the ability to speak or read the language. Those who’d taken Sign Language lost the ability to communicate with their hands except to form bunny shadow puppets.

            Students who’ve been taught Hebrew experience the worst Language Brain Leakage and the question is why, especially since Jewish children are often exposed to or taught Hebrew from the time they were born.  In fact, a recent study showed 10 weeks before birth, a fetus can hear sounds outside the womb and possibly may start to learn language itself. In that study newborn babies were given special pacifiers and headphones attached to computers to determine if babies stopped sucking when they heard vowel sounds. The result of the study led to at least three more critical scientific questions—–(1) What kinds of parents agree to have their newborns rigged up with headphones and a computerized pacifier? (2) Is it “i” before “e” except after “c”?  (3) Why was the Zimbabwe lion having sex with the girl’s boyfriend rather than the girl?

            Jewish parents send their children to after school Hebrew School classes once or twice a week to become skilled in reading prayer book Hebrew. It’s necessary for kids to gain a better understanding of their Jewish identity and prepare for their Bar Mitzvah (boys) or Bat Mitzvah (girls) at age 13. At that event, the girl or boy reads from the Torah and gives a heartfelt speech that has been severely edited or ghostwritten by proud, sweating parents sitting out in the congregation. “Bar/Bat Mitzvah,” in case you’re not familiar with this important coming-of-age rite, is a Hebrew expression meaning “Permanent End of Enforced Hebrew School Thank God.”

            Why has afternoon Hebrew School always been an unpopular activity? For one reason, kids are already tired after secular school where they really have to behave in order to eventually pursue the time-honored dream of going to college, earning a degree, graduating with honors, moving back home and selling Cutco knives.  Hebrew School teachers know their students may be bored or restless. That’s why at some synagogues, young rabbis are delegated to teach Hebrew: they’re fluent in the language, they’re an authority figure, and being young, when subjected to Hebrew School classroom stress they’ll respond better to a defibrillator.

            I saw many years ago how effective young rabbis can be working with children after watching our first assistant rabbi (female) in the sanctuary address the entire religious school on the subject of Repentance. She called on several students to find out what they’d done the previous year that they regretted:

            Rabbi: (To student #1) “Are you sorry about anything?”

            Inaudible reply:

            Rabbi: “You pushed your brother into the goldfish bowl? Uh huh.”

            Inaudible comment (student #2):

            Rabbi: (To student #2) “You threw your dog against the wall?”

            Inaudible comment (student #3):

            Rabbi:  (To student #3) “You sat on your brother’s head?

            Inaudible reply.

            Rabbi: “And he was under water?”   

            I wish I’d had a rabbi teach me when, several years ago, I joined a class to prepare for my adult Bat Mitzvah, a program many synagogues offer. My Hebrew class was a high-powered one since many members went on to positions of synagogue leadership. With their children now approaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah age, these parents wanted to be more knowledgeable and involved, not only learning Hebrew but more Jewish liturgical and ethical practices. Unfortunately, our Hebrew teacher was no match for this adult class who, in biblical terms, smote her with constant questions about course content and class procedures. An antagonist relationship existed between us, the students, and our teacher but it was in the Grand Tradition of Hebrew School.

            Learning the Hebrew alphabet and vowel sounds wasn’t difficult, but I struggled to master words and read sentences.  However, as others in my class tripped over themselves to read Hebrew portions, I secretly developed a fool-proof fluency system: writing in my class workbook or text in the blank spaces above the Hebrew words their phonetic pronunciations (i.e., the transliteration). My biggest fear wasn’t that I’d be unprepared for my Bat Mitzvah, but that students would peak over my shoulder, spy in my books the lines of handwritten phonetic notes, and rat me out.

            In other words, I cheated in order to learn Hebrew and more Jewish ethics.

            Still, it worked. I got through my Bat Mitzvah flawlessly. I realize my “Easy Hebrew” system is not advisable for everyone, especially if they’re honest. But sometimes, we could all use a little help with a big job, which is why Moses, when he couldn’t remember the Ten Commandments, needed to take them down in tablet form.

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