Foot­ball for him, dots, verbs and puz­zles for me

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

EV­ERY MONDAY evening, my hus­band and I book a babysit­ter, then we set off in op­po­site di­rec­tions: he goes to five-a-side foot­ball; I go to my Bib­li­cal He­brew class. “Where are you go­ing,” the kids ask us in out­raged tones, as if we haven’t been do­ing the same thing EV­ERY SINGLE MONDAY since the be­gin­ning of time.

We each find the other’s choice of ac­tiv­ity ut­terly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Why does An­thony think it’s fun to go out in the mid­dle of win­ter in the dark and rain in a pair of shorts, and run around? Why do I want to sit round a table pars­ing verb forms and con­sid­er­ing whether letters should have a dot in the mid­dle of them or not?

“What did you learn at He­brew,” my 11-year-old asked me this week, af­ter my class.

“The hit­pael” I replied.

“And is know­ing about the hit­pael go­ing to make the world a bet­ter place,” he asked.

“Well… no,” I ad­mit­ted.

So why do I want to sit around pars­ing verbs, given that do­ing so is clearly not go­ing to make the world a bet­ter place? Bib­li­cal He­brew is, af­ter all, ab­surd. I mean, what kind of a sadis­tic lan­guage has a rule whereby if you put a par­tic­u­lar let­ter be­fore a past tense verb it gives it a fu­ture mean­ing, and vice versa? (My niece Anna refers to this phe­nom­e­non as the “mag­i­cal, time-trav­el­ling vav,” and she is a rab­bini­cal stu­dent, so I’m as­sum­ing that that is in­deed the for­mal term for it.)

I can imag­ine the scribes who wrote down the To­rah rub­bing their hands to­gether in glee, as they thought up yet another ar­bi­trary and ar­cane gram­mat­i­cal rule that had no pos­si­ble ba­sis in a log­i­cal sys­tem, and chortling to them­selves as they imag­ined fu­ture gen­er­a­tions be­wil­dered and de­spair­ing as they tried to un­pick it.

(Just to be clear — I don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve the an­cient scribes were think­ing this as they were writ­ing. They were prob­a­bly more wor­ried about how many more words they had to get down be­fore they could put their feet up and have a nice cup of wine.)

I grew up in a home that was deeply Jewish from a cul­tural point of view but not from a re­li­gious one — and I was sent to a cheder run by the Gateshead ul­tra-Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity. This com­bi­na­tion was that ab­so­lutely ideal one for grow­ing up al­most to­tally ig­no­rant of all but the most ba­sic as­pects of Ju­daism. My cheder teacher thought I was so stupid that she gave me pic­tures to colour in in­stead of ex­pect­ing me to an­swer ques­tions.

Twenty-five years later, I dis­cov­ered As­sif, the egal­i­tar­ian minyan at New North Lon­don Sy­n­a­gogue. For the first time in my life, I had found a shul that seemed in some way rel­e­vant to my life. I loved the sense of com­mu­nity, the non-fun­da­men­tal­ism, the idea of a Ju­daism that en­hances the way we live rather than con­trol­ling it.

I was still com­pletely ig­no­rant, though — I didn’t even know the ba­sic struc­ture of a Shab­bat ser­vice. In the early weeks, the gab­bai came up to me. “Can I in­ter­est you in chamishi,” he said.

I stared at him in panic. What was chamishi? It could be any­thing. A dance, per­haps. Or a type of cheese.

“Um, no thank you,” I replied and watched in re­lief as he went away again, leav­ing me to sink back into my com­fort­able state of not-hav­ing-a-clue-what’s-goin­gon-ness.

(In case you are won­der­ing, I was be­ing of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to say the bless­ing be­fore the read­ing of the fifth To­rah por­tion.)

It was some months later that I had an epiphany (though that may be an in­ap­pro­pri­ate word to use for a Ju­daism-re­lated rev­e­la­tion): I did not have to be the per­son in the room who didn’t un­der­stand things. I could change that; I could learn. This might sound pretty ob­vi­ous but I’d seen my ig­no­rance of Ju­daism as so much the sta­tus quo that it had sim­ply never oc­curred to me that I had the power to do any­thing about it.

So I asked the won­der­ful Rabbi Lee Wax if she would give some Bib­li­cal He­brew classes. She may have sub­se­quently re­gret­ted say­ing yes, be­cause she has now been teach­ing a small group of us ev­ery week for seven years.

Shab­bat af­ter Shab­bat, by tiny de­grees, the words that make up the ser­vice have be­come slightly less opaque, the de­ci­pher­ing of them an end­lessly chal­leng­ing but deeply sat­is­fy­ing puz­zle.

When we get home on a Monday evening af­ter my Bib­li­cal He­brew class, I sit there dazed, won­der­ing how I will ever re­mem­ber the rule for iden­ti­fy­ing a niphal im­per­a­tive. Mean­while, An­thony hob­bles around in his foot­ball gear, moan­ing, “I can’t walk!” And: “Ooh, me knees!”.

We re­ally know how to have fun.

My cheder teacher thought I was to­tally stupid


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