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Hebrew Is One Door I Can't Seem to Unlock

Reprinted with permission of J. the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit

"How do you say that in Jewish?" my young daughter has been asking about a lot of words lately. While her Hebrew school classmates' mothers may be able to answer these questions, I cannot.

"I didn't learn Hebrew," I explain, "but I'll try to find out." I have friends who know. Friends who are probably darn tired of me using them as English-Hebrew dictionaries.

One day I hope to answer my daughter's questions myself, so I'm on a hunt for Hebrew learning materials. I'm starting at my synagogue's library, but the doors are tightly shut. As I stand there, trying to turn the handle of the locked door, I laugh at the metaphor. This is how Hebrew has been for me. Completely inaccessible.

I envision my Jewish education as multifaceted, a long corridor of doors, which when opened, reveal new rooms and more doors. I've ventured well into holidays. That's where I'm most comfortable. I've tiptoed around the foyer of Torah, but Hebrew is the room I walk right by. Door unopened. And now conveniently locked.

Maybe I'm not ready to open those doors by myself.

I ask the director of the Bet Sefer Religious School at Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham for help. Well, I chicken out on the first try--she's with a teen and I don't want to disturb them. Plus, I'm not ready to expose my illiteracy. I like that I'm taken for a bat mitzvahed kind of mom, which I'm not, and one who has basic Hebrew under her belt, which I don't. So I sit in imposter mode an extra week. Then, I wait just one more.

Finally, I walk in to the school office. I spill my secret. "Um … I don't know Hebrew. Not one little letter. I use a cheat sheet when I play dreidel," I confess. "Do you have anything you can recommend, or something I can borrow?" And she doesn't cover her open mouth in shock, or ask me why in the name of Abraham I'm sending my daughter to Hebrew school. She finds an Aleph-Bet poster, which she attempts to go over with me, but stops when she sees the sweat forming on my brow. "Just take this and have a look," she says. "Your daughter might really enjoy helping you."

Usually, I'm a quick study. If properly motivated, I can learn anything, as long as it's not algebra or binary code. Words though, shouldn't be a problem.

While the poster of Hebrew letters now adorning our refrigerator is inspiring for my child, she's somewhat confused herself and unable to guide me along in the way I would like. We must shop for other materials. We go to Afikomen in Berkeley; it's the first time I've shopped in a store for the "Jewishly" inclined. I overcompensate for my lack of knowledge of all things Judaica by making a point to announce everything I do understand. Oh look at that menorah. I say loud enough for everyone in the store to overhear. Shall we find Daddy a kippah? I grew up calling it a yarmulke and I flaunt my knowledge of both words. Look, what beautiful Shabbat candles, I say.

I purchase a small disc of soft black suede, hand-painted with footballs and a 49ers helmet--my husband's Hannukah present. Unfortunately, I don't find the appropriate Hebrew-learning materials for me. The preschool books seem too babyish and I can't find the Adult Hebrew Illiterate section of the store. And I don't want to ask, since I've just done all that showing off.

I decide then on a three-pronged approach to help solve my problem. I'm going to take up my friend's offer to sit down with me and teach me Hebrew. I'm going to sign up for one of Lehrhaus Judaica's "Hebrew in a Day" classes. And I'm going to Google the words: Basic Hebrew Really Really Easy.

One day, soon, I will do these things.

When I pick up my daughter from Hebrew school one Tuesday, the staffer at the gate asks which class my daughter's in. I stammer, not certain how Aleph is pronounced. I think it rhymes with bailiff, or wait … maybe it's Al-lef, but I'm not confident enough with either one and no other parent from her class is there to answer for me. So I say, "First grade--Ed's class."

"Olive?" she responds.

"Olive," I repeat, realizing just how wrong I would have been.

Now, if I can conjure up an appetizer (or fruit or nut) for every other Hebrew pronunciation, I just may be OK.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Hebrew alphabet, of which alef and bet are the first two letters. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Joanne Catz Hartman

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at

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