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October 16, 2005 - Do You Speak Ivrit?

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Do You Speak Ivrit?

By Sylvain Ubersfeld

Thursday, October 13, 2005


I had originally no reason whatsoever to start getting interested in Hebrew but one day, after finding out that my grandfather had been a Hazan (1) in a Krakow synagogue prior to his extermination by the Nazi gangsters occupying Poland, I realized that learning at least the basics of this "uncivilized," "unfriendly" and "bizarre" language could somehow put me in touch with him or at least with the memories of his last days in Krakow.  So I decided to approach a young Israeli woman who was a Hebrew teacher in Paris, Yael Yotam, and who was in these days running a radio program called "Hebrew in Your Head."  I had then no reason to believe either that I would end up in Tel Aviv, having become meanwhile the only one of our European staff crazy enough to accept the confrontation with Israeli society and the intricacies of the Aleph, Bet and Guimmel (2).


To those of my friends interested in Jewish culture, I always say that Hebrew is a direct reflection of Life and that it helps Jewish culture, approaching the world in a very peculiar and unique fashion.


To start with, when speaking Hebrew, one will use only past, present and the future tenses, a strange similarity with life, reminding me of three major unanswered questions: Where do I come from? - Who am I? – and, Where am I going? 


Modern Hebrew was set up by the end of the 19th century by a visionary gentleman by the name of Ben Yehuda who clearly understood and anticipated that there would be a need, in the case of a Jewish state, for a language (modern Hebrew) common to Jews but different from Yiddish (3) which was the language of Jews in Eastern Europe. Until the introduction of Modern Hebrew, Jews disseminated in the diaspora were speaking their respective national language and traditional Hebrew, derived from Arameic, was only used for religious celebration, prayers, and some cultural occasions.


Hebrew is written from right to left.  It requires one to completely change one's approach to language learning. It has only 22 Letters, all of them are consonants, and all of them look like small drawing and sometimes remind you of objects.  The equivalent to our vowels is provided, like in Arabic, by a system of punctuation used along with the consonants and indicating the way to pronounce them.  Each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (funny, in Greek it is Alpha, Beta  in Hebrew Aleph Beth … sounds familiar, no?) is given a numerical value thus allowing all kind of scientific or mystical and magic calculation used by people known as "Kabbalists" (4) to read the holy scriptures using a different approach and to provide endless explanations about the creation of the universe, the hidden will of God ( Ha-Shem) and real destiny of mankind.  Kabbala is a science, but like research on atoms, it can be very dangerous for your health!  I tried it and nearly lost my senses.  It is like putting one's hand in a meat grinder and being unable to stop the machine: it will take your wrist, your arm, your brain, and will leave you utterly confused … but certainly fascinated. 


Hebrew is unfriendly but captivating and full of good news to mankind.  First, let it be known that the word "life" is plural!  Isn't it good to know that he who speaks the language will be elected to have many lives, like cats do in different civilisations?  Then for he who will be patient enough to learn by heart the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, there will be a magic discovery: putting together the first letter, the middle letter, and the last letter will build the Hebrew word for "Truth," another interesting approach to explain why the world is what it is . Is the truth hiding in the Hebrew alphabet?  Curiously, also, when taking away one letter from the word "truth" one will find suddenly facing the word "death," just as if there was a possibility of finding "truth" once being "dead" or "dying" once one has finally received the "truth".  Scary, no?


The word for sky is also plural… so is the word for water in which case I do agree, having faced many raining days in the winter season, when everyone, including the atheists, can better understand why Old Noah ended up with his ark on the top of a mountain, far away from his land, deported by the biblical flood! 


The Hebrew language is based on a system of "roots."  To each word, there is a root which is the base on which an entire family of words is built, allowing all kinds of combination based on a "common base."  Using that root system, Ben Yehuda was able to introduce a whole range of new words which did not exist in the biblical times, such as refrigerator or elevator, or computer, or remote control, translated respectively by "what makes cold," " what goes up," "what thinks," and "what make it work from far away."  Getting familiar with Hebrew is also a unique experience in which one can understand better the importance of some words in the Jewish culture such as "House" - used for a lots of words ranging from Synagogue to Hospital and including School, Justice Hall, or even bordello (which for your information translates phonetically in Beit Zonoth ) or the word water which underlines the existence of the creation by God with the separation of the  "waters from up there" (the sky) and the "waters from down here" (the rest of it …).


It is often said about the Israelis that they are like the wild figs growing on cactus in the Israeli countryside: prickly on the outside but sweet inside.  The same could be said about Hebrew.  Because of its complicated simplicity and limited grammatical tenses, it could not have been selected as the language for diplomacy! In the same fashion, for the outsider hearing Hebrew for the first time, the language will certainly sound barbaric, to say the least.  In order to discover Hebrew, one must approach it in the most humble way and accept questioning one's own logic. to allow for the space needed for new discoveries.  Yes, Hebrew is unfriendly, and useless outside of Israel, but it is certainly one of the most fascinating language to learn as it contains keys which will open areas hiding in the bottom of one's heart and unheard of until then.


When taking the Hebrew initials of the words brain, stomach and heart, and placing then in a given order, the word King will appear. Indeed, he who uses his brain to control both the gut feelings and the emotions of the heart has unlimited access to the kingdom of the world.


Isn't this reason good enough to learn Hebrew?





1. Minister of the cult in the Jewish religion. The Rabbi is in charge of a Jewish community of souls, but the hazan is the one who directs services in a synagogue.

2. The first three letters of the Jewish alphabet

3. Yiddish is a formal language originating in Eastern Europe. Around that language developed a Yiddish culture, now slowly disappearing.

4. Kabbala (meaning what has been received) is a specific approach of the world and its creation through a "decrypted reading" of the Torah. Kabbala includes several types of intellectual and mathematical exercises which include calculating the value of given sentences or verses from the scriptures in order to magnify their importance and provide different explanation or answer the major question regarding life in general and the Jewish world in particular.




Copyright 2005 – Sylvain Ubersfeld




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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