(RE)learning Hebrew

Written and illustrated by Amanda Leiserowitz

When I was eighteen, I came across an album in Hebrew. The title, גרמנים באוגנדה, translates to Germans in Uganda, by Ram Orion, רם אוריון. A few years ago, I could not have read that title or the author’s name, because despite knowing many of the letters, the title and author both lack vowels.

At the time of finding this album, I listened to it on repeat, even though it’s not really the kind of music I’m into – some of the songs are slow and sad. Others are funky, including synths and sound effects I can barely begin to describe without playing the song. As such, I don’t really listen to Germans in Uganda much any more, but it comes on in my song library sometimes when I’m shuffling through my music. At the time – and still now – the biggest thing that struck me about the music was that the words felt very familiar; the shape of them in my ears, really, though the meaning was absolutely lost on me. I had grown up listening to bits and pieces of Hebrew.

As a child, I learned conversational Hebrew in preschool and first grade; after that, I continued to learn prayers and Torah stories and how to read the Torah and sing the trope for my Bat Mitzvah. I visited Israel with my temple’s youth group, where many people spoke Hebrew around us, but to us – a group of American teenagers – mostly spoke English. It’s no wonder that a few years after that trip – and only a handful of years after my Bat Mitzvah – the words in the Ram Orion songs felt very familiar. I decided that regaining the conversational Hebrew skills I’d had as a child was important to me, something I should do before my career as a student was over.

This year, I embarked on that journey, beginning to relearn Hebrew. I started at Hebrew 1 in fall quarter, and while the letters and sounds came quickly back to me, that wasn’t the case with meaning. The scattershot vocabulary words I remembered – words like אמא ,אבא ,סבא ,סבתא – were not particularly helpful anymore, but I was very excited to begin revisiting the knowledge that I had once been close to obtaining.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. Many of my peers had similar backgrounds, having learned various levels of Hebrew as kids and were now giving it another go as young adults. Yet others were just interested in the language (or a GPA bump). We all stumbled through the words the same, sounding out the letters and vowels together. It was encouraging to be surrounded by my peers, even if  we sounded like little kids, with basic sentences strung together with short vocabulary lists. By the end of fall quarter, I felt rather confident that I had learned a thing or two.

I was quickly proven wrong when I entered Hebrew 2 this winter – our professor started by asking us, mostly in Hebrew, how we were doing, what we had done over break, and where we had gone. Sitting in Hebrew 2 on the first day, every scant bit of knowledge I’d picked up about the past tense, and the meaning of basic verbs, seemed to have escaped my memory.

While I continue to learn Hebrew, I just as often continue to feel out of my depth. Yet, I feel optimistic that I can pick up even more of the language going forward. And while I may never be fluent, I’ve been able to pick out a few phrases from Ram Orion’s album, and that’s pretty exciting to me – even if all it is are small phrases like “yesterday was good” – אתמול היה טוב.

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