Football for him, dots, verbs and puzzles for me
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