By Harriet P. Gross
Finally, something is happening in the Holy Land that doesn’t involve borders or fighting. It deals with — of all things — language.
The little Israeli village called Jish is home to a small community of Christians who take seriously their old tongue, Aramaic, and are hoping to bring it back as a modern language. If not to be used in conversation, the town’s elders would at least like everyone in their community to be able to read and write it, because they believe it’s the language once spoken by Jesus himself.
This group, the Maronites, has always had an Aramaic liturgy, but many today chant it routinely, without actually understanding the words. Doesn’t that sound familiar to those of us who are carried along during synagogue worship without knowing exactly what’s going on?
We should be reminded at this point that some of the old prayers we Jews think are Hebrew are actually in Aramaic, the language spoken thousands of years ago by the common people of that region.
I’ve just come across an Associated Press report exploring this interesting effort. The older generation of Maronites, some of whom do have at least a rudimentary speaking knowledge of Aramaic, want to make sure that the language is passed on to their grandchildren.
This should also strike a familiar Hebrew school chord with us. But wouldn’t we be ecstatic with the kind of enthusiastic response an Aramaic teacher of today got from one 10-year-old student: “We used to speak it a long time ago,” the girl said, including in that “we” both her personal ancestors and Jesus.
I was immediately reminded of a time many years ago, when I was teaching pre-confirmation in a congregation near the Illinois-Indiana border. Our curriculum centered on comparative religions, so I was squiring my students around for visits with clergy in some of the area’s many churches. We met on weekday evenings, when priests and ministers would not be conducting Sunday worship and could really spend some time with us.
Every place was interesting, but most so was the Greek Orthodox church. My students were awestruck by the jewel-like beauty of the sanctuary with its glittering icons — remember: that was a time when the word “icon” conjured up an artfully embellished image of an ancient saint, not some manufactured symbol on a computer screen — and the elaborate baptismal font.
But the real surprise came when, after Father Nicholas had walked us around, making explanations as we went, he sat us down in a couple of back pews and asked an important question: “Are all of you studying Hebrew?”
The teens in my ninth-grade class had already been bar and bat mitzvah, and as was as sadly common then as it is now, had abandoned their language study immediately afterward. Some embarrassed blank looks answered him without words: “Of course not. Why would we want to?”
So the priest continued himself: “Well, all our teens study Greek today. Let me tell you why.” And with that, he launched into a mini-lecture on the culture of his church’s founders, its teenagers’ more immediate forebears, and the enduring liturgy of modern worship in the ancient tongue of its origin.
My students got it: the Greek language, still spoken today, goes back for centuries to another form that also continues in use. And Hebrew is the same. Finally, they were ready to understand and appreciate the passion and accomplishment of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the visionary who brought Hebrew from history to modernity, and to continue their own language learning.
About those children in Jish: 80 of them, first- to fifth-graders, now study Aramaic for two hours every week, learning modern words and phrases as well as those of worship. Theirs is the only public elementary school in Israel teaching this ancient language to its descendants for use today. And to the glory of our own ancestral homeland, Israel’s Ministry of Education will provide funds to continue this program for kids through Grade 8.
Postscript: Father Nicholas also believed in the enduring appeal of food. He had started a little celebratory event at his Chicago-area church, and later, when he came to Dallas, he began what gradually grew into the current, wildly successful annual Holy Trinity Greek Food Festival.
If you go this year, eat a piece of baklava and remember with me my inspired ninth-graders, now grown, married, with children of their own — whom I hope are studying Hebrew today as seriously as their parents did years ago.