Thursday, October 22, 2015

Loshon Koydesh - Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5776

(Genesis 12:1 - 17:27)

This week, I am re-posting one of my blogs from 2002 entitled "Loshon Koydesh", Yiddish for 'The Holy Tongue', i.e., Hebrew. 

Two reasons: in this week's parasha, the Patriarch Abraham is first described as "ha'Ivri", the Hebrew. In the context of the verse, it also denotes otherness. 

4,000 years down the pike, we are still Hebrews, our language is still Hebrew, and we are still the archetypal outsiders.

Second, we find ourselves (once again) in the midst of an Arab murder spree, a paroxysm of injury and blood and death, engineered to cause dismay and despair; one tactic in the broader, coordinated international strategy to dislodge the People of Israel from the Land of Israel.

I wrote Loshon Koydesh when we first made aliyah, smack in the middle of the second Arab uprising; it was but one in a series weekly missives I sent back to the US and around the world, sharing our colorful experiences as an American family replanting our lives in the Land of Israel. 

The ultimate, enduring response to this wave of terror is Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, the continued return of the Jewish People to our ancestral homeland. The authentic Jewish response to every attack is to build another Jewish home, build another Jewish neighborhood, build another Jewish business. 

Therefore, I dedicate this blog to those who were murdered at the hands of Arab terrorists in recent weeks, and to those recovering from their wounds. May Gcd give strength to the healing victims and to the bereaved families.

Shabbat Shalom.


I could not believe my ears. Straining from behind my closed office door, I listened to what seemed to be the voices of my three older daughters speaking among themselves in Hebrew. In life’s grand scheme, this is perhaps a small milestone, but their halting, pidgin Hebrew was the most beautiful sound I had heard since our arrival. In only four months, the girls were making themselves understood in Hebrew. As the wave of pride crested within me, I was taken back to thoughts Bubbe.

Bubbe? Yes, my Bubbe. Let me tell you why.

Born to Russian immigrants in Brooklyn in 1911, she grew up in a house where Yiddish was the spoken language, and the high priest of their faith was Leon Trotsky. One might say they were more Yiddish than Jewish; the Yiddish theatre, the Yiddish press, Yiddish literature and Yiddish music were the stars in their constellation.

Bubbe was a luminary in her own right - Beatrice (Bessie to her friends) was ebullient, bright and beautiful. Despite her elegant, mellifluous Yiddish, her future father-in-law was convinced she was a shikseh (a gentile girl) - she didn’t have the demure ta’am (style) of a Yiddishe maidel (Jewish girl). For her part, she was more than a little afraid to marry such a religious boy, but they married anyway; she eventually grew to be profoundly religious in her own right. In the end, my great-grandfather described her as the most precious of all his daughters-in-law.

She had a sanguine determination that she brought to everything she did, whether it was her 40-year-long nursing career or her work for the synagogue Sisterhood. She once nursed a gravely ill infant boy through the night when the doctors had given up all hope and had gone home, expecting the child to be dead by morning. But thanks to her round-the-clock care, the baby cheated death, and went on to eventually recover. Thirteen years later, out of the blue, Bubbe & Zayde received an invitation to his Bar Mitzvah.

One day, in her mid-sixties, this indomitable woman decided to begin learning Hebrew.

She signed up for the weekly “ulpan” offered by the synagogue, girded with notebooks, pencils, books and notes. She must have attended that beginner’s ulpan class 6 years running, but she never quite managed to matriculate to the next book. This never dismayed her, and with her signature resolve, she kept plodding along towards her goal. For example, she insisted that we sing the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) aloud on Shabbat, and at a slow enough pace that she could sound out every syllable - a 45 minute ordeal. This went on for the rest of her life. But Bubbe was a force of nature, and there was no denying her this accommodation.

She never quite acquired the language, but she ardently believed in it. She saw the majesty of speaking the language in which Gcd created the heavens and earth, in which the prophets spoke, and which, with only slight modifications, has been the living language of the Jewish people for 4,000 years. She intuitively understood the organic connection between the Land of Israel and the Language of Israel, how Hebrew was the glue that binds the Jew to the Land.

How is your spoken Hebrew? Over a hundred years ago, Ze’ev Jabotinsky (one of my heroes!) led a spirited campaign to make Hebrew the language of instruction in all Zionist schools in Europe. I will probably meet with the same howls of derision from the Jewish Establishment that he did when I suggest that the same should be true in every Jewish day school, yeshivah, and Talmud Torah in America today. Hebrew should be the language of instruction in every course of study - math, science, literature, and of course limudei kodesh (religious studies).

The sad truth is that many Jews today can sound out Hebrew letters, but have no earthly clue what the words mean. Fluency in Hebrew is the portal into the collective consciousness of the Jewish people, the intuitive stream of experience that connects us to all Jewish generations before and after. Perush Hamilim (The meaning of the Hebrew words) brings focus and direction to the passion of our prayer. Unfortunately, for most Jews, Hebrew is acknowledged as our common language more in the breach than in the speech.

When Bubbe died of a heart attack at the age of 76, we lost the moral beacon of our family. Rabbi Levovitz wept openly for this endearing, insouciant woman who for 45 years dared speak up to him when she was convinced he was wrong. So dear was she to him that he permitted no other hesped (eulogy) but his own.

Despite the passage of the years, our family has never completely recovered from her loss. My daughters never met my Bubbe, were never smothered in one of her legendary hugs. But they know her through the stories and teachings that keep her memory alive. And if, as the gemara in Berachot says, the dead observe the events in our world, then Bubbe is surely kvelling that her great-granddaughters are ascending the path that she paved for them with the bulky bricks of her Aleph-Bet.

No comments:

Post a Comment