Wonder of Wonders

I didn't know even know my Aleph Bet, but by the end an eight-hour Hebrew language marathon, I was able to read.

Free associate to the word "marathon" and you'll probably come up with rail-thin Kenyans, their legs moving like pistons, crossing the finish line in Central Park. Or perhaps Jane Fonda and Red Buttons, holding each other up in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (the film about Depression-era dance marathons). This past Sunday, however, I attended a whole other kind of marathon.

The arena was my friend Lydia's house in our small town in upstate New York, and the participants were myself and six other middle-aged-to-older Jews, sitting around a table eating rugelach and clementines as we attempted to master

alephs, bets,

and

gimmels

in what our synagogue had billed as a Hebrew Marathon.

The promise was that you could start the day knowing not a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet--that was me--and, eight hours later, you would walk out of the room with some kind of workable reading knowledge of the language. This seemed highly improbable, even though I had heard that Hebrew was a user-friendly language. Unlike English, where words like "bow" and "bough" are pronounced the same but are spelled entirely differently from each other, Hebrew is phonetically driven. In other words, things are what they seem to be.

Still, the assignment--if we should choose to accept it--seemed quite impossible. Seven Jews x 22 consonants in eight hours? It didn't add up. It was fuzzy math if ever there was such a thing.

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But wait, said Lydia, who had herself learned Hebrew as an adult, after the birth of her two children, and then went on to become one of the most erudite Jews I have ever encountered. This

can

be done, she assured me, thanks to the nationally recognized curriculum called "While Standing on One Foot," developed by Rabbi Noah Golinkin, originator of the Hebrew Literacy Campaign.

The name of the curriculum derives from the classic story about the great Talmudic sage Hillel, who was approached by a non-Jew considering conversion--but only if Hillel would teach him all of Judaism while the potential convert was standing on one foot. So, while the man stood there on one foot, Hillel said, "Do not do to your neighbor what is hateful onto you." That is the essence of Judaism, said Hillel, the rest is gravy. (Actually, I believe he said "commentary.") Now, go on and study, Hillel instructed the potential convert.

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