Teaching an Old Dog New (Hebrew) Tricks

Written by Natalie Silverstein P ‘15, ‘17, ‘22

When I was pregnant with my oldest child, over 18 years ago, I signed up for an introductory Hebrew class at the 92 Strtorah_15_hp1eet Y. In preparation for our marriage the year before, my husband Jonathan and I had completed a 30-week Derek Torah class at the Y. I had been raised Ukrainian Catholic, but committed to raising a Jewish family, and began to immerse myself in Jewish learning. Beyond the basics of Judaism 101, I believed that reading and understanding a bit of Hebrew would be helpful. The Y class was taught by a renowned Hebrew teacher, a tiny Israeli woman with boundless energy and patience.

I lasted a total of two weeks.

I’m sure my hormone-addled pregnancy brain had difficulty with the ancient language. I’m also sure that I had other more pressing issues on my mind, like finding a baby nurse and buying the perfect stroller. Learning Hebrew could wait until that knowledge had a little more relevance in my day-to-day life.

Fast forward nearly two decades, and the faculty and clergy of RSS and Congregation Rodeph Sholom have partnered with us to successfully raise Jewish kids who are comfortable reading and understanding Hebrew. The older two beautifully chanted from the Torah when they became B’nai mitzvah, and the youngest has already begun her studies to do so next year.

So, I made it this far – maybe learning Hebrew isn’t necessary? I am comfortable with the prayers, particularly the ones that are sung which appeal to my inner cabaret singer, and have memorized the tunes and lyrics chanted during Shabbat and Holiday services. Plus, the transliterated Siddur makes worship participation easy.

Then, at High Holiday services last year, I flipped through the catalogue of adult learning
opportunities that was left on my seat. There it was – an introduction to Hebrew class, meeting on Thursday mornings, with the bold guarantee that I would be reading fluently in only 8 weeks. I signed up.

My Hebrew class, which consists entirely of RSS parents, is taught by Melissa De Lowe (fun fact– Mel is the wife of our beloved Cantor Shayna). Mel teaches the morning section, while our wonderful new associate Rabbi, Julianna Karol, teaches the evening class.

We meet weekly at 8:45 am for an efficient hour of learning and discussion. Mel is a superb teacher of Hebrew whose skill stems from her own passion and curiosity around this fascinating language, which is both ancient and modern. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Mel is that she could neither speak nor read Hebrew until her first class as a freshman at Brandeis University. The depth of her understanding of the language, and her ability to clearly articulate its’ many quirky intricacies, is a marvel considering she only began to study it as an adult.

Through her experience teaching children and adults, Mel has developed funny little tricks to help us remember letters that all seem to resemble one another: “SHHHHHHHHOOT – why does that shin look a W?” And if there’s no easy answer to why a certain letter has a dot in the center, or why a vowel is used in a particular way, she’ll tell us to consider enrolling in a Torah class where the mysteries of the language might be revealed. Otherwise, we just need to memorize the rule. This is Hebrew for the busy, pragmatic people that we all are, and it’s fantastic.

In a way that doesn’t feel like hollow flattery, Mel tells us that we are quick learners, star students zooming through the material. Of course, we all feel bumbling and inadequate, and are reminded of how slow we are when we practice at home and our young children, who have all been studying Hebrew at RSS since they were toddlers, are laughing at our pronunciation. But it doesn’t matter. We are a group of curious seekers who are committed to learning something that is interesting and important, something that will enrich our experience in synagogue and in holiday celebrations with our families. We hope that understanding this challenging, beautiful, sometimes messy language will connect us more deeply to the Jewish People.

I think we’re also showing our kids that being a lifelong learner is a gift you give yourself, and that you are never too old to learn something new.

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