We lived in Jerusalem until my son Cai was eight-years-old but he never learned Hebrew. I have my excuses. We knew we’d probably leave Israel and wanted him to focus on English. My husband never truly felt a part of Israeli society, so I didn’t want to create distance between father and son. The American International school was a five-minute walk from our apartment, and we knew and already loved one of the pre-school teachers because she’d babysat for Cai.
But like all good rationalizations, these were cold comfort when we actually left Israel and I realized I had squandered an opportunity. As all of us mommy blog-literate parents have heard that children who grow up bilingual apparently have a cognitive advantage over their unilingual peers. There’s also an age window when kids can learn a second language more easily and we’d missed it.
Once we settled into our new home, however, a deeper regret emerged. We’re Jewish and we’d left Jerusalem to live in Luxembourg — a country with a Jewish population of about 1,200 and, unlike a place like New York or Paris, minimal Jewish culture. In neglecting Hebrew, I’d missed the chance for Cai to connect with his heritage.
I grew up Orthodox but left Orthodoxy in my mid-twenties, a few years after immigrating to Israel from New York. Though it felt like a difficult Ortho-exit, in retrospect it was pretty easy. I never had to struggle with what it meant to be Jewish in Jerusalem because on Purim, people dress up. As soon as the hamantaschen are removed from supermarket shelves, twenty different kinds of matzah replace them. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are national holidays. Sukkot and Shavuot are, too.
Then we left Israel and my children were bereft of all of it, with nary an organic spelt matzah in sight, or even a menorah in the public square. For my kids, this Jewish experience was all gone — the religion, the atmosphere and, because of my failure, even the language.
“We’re going to learn Hebrew!” I declared to Cai a few months after we arrived in Luxembourg.
“I’m NOT learning Hebrew,” he replied. It wasn’t just an instant reaction; it was a fierce one. He said it with the same angry inflection he once used to decline socks as a toddler.
I’m not a “you most certainly are, young man” kind of parent. I’m more of a “come on, it will be fun, just try it, you’ll see” type of mom. So I told Cai how much it would mean to me if he learned Hebrew. I told him how much it would mean to my parents. I offered him some Cheetos. Eventually, he agreed to try.
Our first lesson was a success. He learned aleph, bet and gimmel easily, and three of the nekudot, or vowels: “Ah-bah,” he read and then “baw gaw” and “goo boo.”
This is going to be a cinch, I thought, because I had zero pedagogical experience and didn’t understand that the hard part of learning anything is when you hit the curve. Cai and I arrived at that slope sometime between yud and samech. There were too many letters for him to remember, and since we were only studying once a week, he’d forget what he’d learned from one lesson to the next.
I slowed down our pace. Whereas once we would learn three letters at a time, I cut our lesson plan down to two and then eventually to one. Cai resisted and I was patient until I wasn’t, and more often than not we’d fight. His frustration was particularly intense when he couldn’t recognize a letter we’d already learned. He’d already mastered one whole alphabet, he reasoned. What did he need with another?
In this way, we sputtered forward until finally, we reached kuf. Then the slope steepened into a wall. With this wall, prayer was futile. Cai simply didn’t want to learn Hebrew. About eight months after starting, we stopped.
Thus thwarted, I had to ask myself why we were doing this in the first place. Did it really matter if Cai learned Hebrew?
As parents, we often confront our values in a way we never did before kids come along. I left religion decades ago. I wondered if my effort to teach Cai Hebrew had been born from guilt. Yet I sensed that beneath the surface, a more substantial motive was lurking.
I can’t remember the first time I learned Hebrew. I probably started in the first grade and by age 10 I remember reading with ease. That’s because I went to a yeshiva elementary school. Hebrew and religious studies were scheduled in the morning, when our minds were fresh and impressionable. Learning Hebrew and Torah was as, if not more important, than the math and science we studied in the afternoons. In the first grade, we learned the story of creation. God created the heavens and the earth. God created the animals. God created Man.
“Who created God?” I asked. My teacher, a strict old-school scowler, scolded me.
“We never ask that question!” she admonished.
Yet even with its strictures, religion had so much to offer. My life had purpose. I ould keep mitzvot — the commandments — and in this way I would help make the world a better place. My childhood was warm and grounded, my home a safe shelter from a confusing world.
When you leave religion, you feel bereft. For your entire life, someone has told you the meaning of life. Even if you doubt, which most people do, the doctrine’s certainty provides you with a foundation upon which you can find your footing. I often wonder what it’s like for my kids, with no North Star Torah to guide them. Will they be forever searching for spiritual answers?
“Sit down next to me,” I said to Cai after a few months of Hebrew hiatus. “We have three letters left. We won’t learn them properly. Let me just show them to you.”
He’d learned the other letters by writing lines of them and then practicing pronouncing them with nekudot. But now it seemed that the only way forward was to skip ahead, even if the foundation was shaky. I showed him the resh, shin and taf.
“Now, let’s read something,” I said. The idea intrigued him and I searched for a text. Once upon a time we had a few shelves filled with Hebrew books but after our move, only a siddur and a bible remained. I opened the latter to the first page. With a little help, Cai read his first sentence.
“Breishit bara elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz.”
“In the beginning,” I started my hard sell, “God created the heavens and the earth.”
Then I told Cai that evolution was just a liberal fake news hoax and that he must never ask who created God. Just kidding. I didn’t tell him that. But I did notice something that I’d missed the first time I read those words back in elementary school; in terms of language, the Bible is remarkable.
“And the earth was chaos,” I translated after he read the next sentence. “And there was darkness on the face of an abyss. And the spirit of God hovered upon the face of the water.”
“Wow,” I said.
This book had given me so much. I did want my children to learn Hebrew. I wanted them to learn Hebrew and celebrate the holidays and feel connected to their heritage. I know their experience will be very different than mine but I could still give them some foundation. Because yes, of course it mattered. I left Orthodoxy, but Judaism was deeply a part of me, as deep as the face of the abyss before God created light.
“Cai, you read Hebrew!” I said, overcome with enthusiasm and emotion, not just for his efforts, but for this book on our laps. It was no longer my absolute moral guide to life, the universe and everything. But it was still beautiful.
“Until next week,” I told him. “We’ll have some Cheetos.”