French Israel

Friday, August 13, 2004

Speak the Language of the Hebrewman

Israeli singer Ehud Banai (his official site here; you can browse CDs for purchase here) has a song on his most recent album Ana Li titled "Hebrewman". It's a sort of rallying call for the Hebrew language. Speaking Hebrew connects one to an ancient tradition going all the way back to "Let there be light", and can be used for everyday use by persons today who want to "open their souls" include themselves in that noble and powerful legacy.

Ironically, the song is mostly in English, but that irony is attenuated a little by the fact that the song is reggae, and that it's epic-sounding bridge is in Hebrew. And while much of reggae today has been cheapened and bastardised by synthesisers and drum machines, Ehud Banai is a folk musician who uses real instruments for his Israeli rock-and-roll. The line in this song that best connects it to the original reggae (i.e. Rastafari) tradition is the claim that "From the deepest mess of downtown Babylon / It will take you to the next train to Mount Zion". When the rastafaris use the term "Babylon" they are talking about the colonial English government of Jamaica (and by extension the whole white-dominated political system), and when they use the term "Zion" they are usually talking about Ethiopia, as ruled by their messianic figure King Haile Selassie I (1892-1975).

They got it from us, of course. When we Jews say "Babylon", we're talking about our exile, as in the Psalm "Al Naharot Bavel" ("By the rivers of Bavel, there we wept and remembered Tsion"). And when we say "Zion" we mean Zion, here in Jerusalem.

By the looks of Ehud Banai and by the high quality of his music you would probably be inclined to call him a 'hiloni [secular] (that is, if you were inclined to participate in that damnable Israeli game that we all play called "Stick them in a category"). From some of his lyrics, though, I'm inclined to label him as a Masorti [traditionalist], though. As if that matters to some of you.

Anyway, he is right, of course. The Jewish national identity can only be fully reestablished (after a couple millennia of dispersal) when we all learn to use the Jewish language.

And that was enough of a reason for me to drop out of yeshivah and enroll in an Oulpan [Hebrew-language school]. Well, that and the fact that my right to enroll for free was limited to a certain amount of time after my aliyah.

But it's ironic nonetheless that I would have to leave the Orthodox yeshivah in which I was studying in order to study Hebrew. The explanation is simple: the yeshivah teaches guys how to study texts and learn to obey the mitsvoth. Everything is taught in English, even if the texts are in Hebrew or Aramaic, because that is the language spoken by all of the students there. And because most of them will probably return to their English-speaking homelands after their time of dedicated study. Some language skills are taught, but those classes are not the focal point of the yeshivah education. In other words, the yeshivah is not a training camp for future Israeli husbands and dads, or for Hebrewmen.

Just one anecdote. Some of the guys who come in have Israeli relatives; sometimes one of their parents is Israeli. A Persian guy with an Israeli mother (I think) came into my section of the yeshivah from Los Angeles and was even in my Gemara shiour. We would each take a turn reading from the text as we studied it, one day each person, and it came his turn one day. Now, most of us stumble over the words because they are in Aramaic and without vowels, but by this point in the class we are supposed to be a little familiar with the statements under investigation. But we still end up sounding like backpackers trying to read a street sign in Eastern Europe. This guy took his shot at reading the words, and did a superior job. He had the accent down pat and everything.

The rabbi's response: "Could you read that again, and sound a little less Israeli?"

I don't know if that did it, but the guy soon left the yeshivah and went to another one.

This is a dichotomy I cannot live with. My limoud is suffering right now, but it is a planned sabbatical. Meanwhile, at Oulpan Etsion, I'm learning the ins and outs of Hebrew grammar, and being forced to put it into practice. With the correct pronunciation to boot. The atmosphere is more like that of a university (cough mixed cough), with its dormitories and everything. And it is true that not everyone there is serious about learning; nor is everyone religious. But they are all olim 'hadashim -- new immigrants from various countries: England, France, South Africa, Australia, Russia, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba... Most of them just arrived less than a month ago. Some have family here, but most do not. Some are religious, and some not. But they all have some kind of quasi-religious Jewish identity that led them to make Israel there new home, beginning in Jerusalem.

Someday we'll all get out of Babylon.
PinḼas Ivri 14:53


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