Monday, December 5, 2011

Transliteration: Handy or Handicap?

Going from Reform to Conservative Judaism, one change is noticeable immediately. Before they start singing and you notice the tunes are different, before you notice that not just the men, but the majority of women are wearing a kippah, you open the prayer book and notice that it's just in Hebrew with English translations. There's hardly any transliteration (where the Hebrew is spelled out phonetically in the alphabet instead of the aleph-bet).

The old Reform prayer book was set up in a similar style to the Conservative prayer book, which was first printed in 1989. But in 2007 the Reform movement replaced that with their new book, called the Mishkan T'filah, which features Hebrew, transliteration, and English translation. The Mishkan T'filah and Reform Judaism are how I learned Jewish services and the transliteration is probably the thing I miss most about them since making the switch to Conservative Judaism.

But is transliteration handy or a handicap?

Transliteration makes it easier to follow along. When people are talking really fast, they tend not to enunciate and when that's happening in a language you don't know, with a different alphabet, it's easy to get lost on the first word. When I first started going to synagogue, I heard a jumble of unfamiliar sounds strung together, but I could read what they were saying and kind of follow along that way. The transliteration allowed me to follow along silently at first and, once I was comfortable with the tunes and the language, to chant/sing along. Transliteration helped me distinguish words from each other and then I could learn words and meanings by hearing them and saying them over and over in different prayers. So even if I can't spell them in Hebrew, I know these common words:
vimru = and we say
shalom = peace, hello, goodbye
Mitzrayim = Egypt
avinu = our father
sh'ma = hear
l'dor vador = from generation to generation

I learned the Hebrew aleph-bet on my own, because I want to learn Hebrew and then I started trying to follow along with the actual Hebrew in the book. If I ever got lost (which I did frequently), I always had the transliteration to fall back on to find my place. Being able to follow along and participate gave me confidence, which is always nice.

On the other hand, taking the transliteration for granted in the Reform movement left me completely out of my element when I switched to Conservative Judaism. I can barely follow along with the prayers I know, because I can't read the Hebrew fast enough. I felt like I was fairly active in trying to connect the transliteration to the actual Hebrew, so I can't imagine how lost I would be if I had just ignored the Hebrew column altogether. Now I feel like I have to re-learn everything and my confidence in services is completely shot. I feel worse about not being able to participate now than I did when I first got interested in Judaism, because at least then I was new to the religion. Now that I know what it's like to be able to participate or at least follow along, I feel like an idiot at services.

There are a lot of really important reasons to know Hebrew too. For one thing, Hebrew characters show us the roots of words and how they are related in a way that transliteration doesn't. The way Hebrew works, the letters are all consonants and marks under or next to those consonants serve as the vowels. So two words can be made up of the exact same consonants (thus sharing a root), but have different vowels that give them different meanings. Being able to see those things in the Hebrew allows you to make connections that you can't do with a translation or transliteration.

I need to learn Hebrew to do serious in-depth Torah study. I love Torah study; it's possibly my favorite part of the week. I have a really excellent Torah study group here and there's plenty to talk about each week using just English translations. But some things don't translate quite right out of Hebrew and some words carry double meanings that don't come across in translations, but that add new meaning to the story. Besides that, I don't know of any Torah that has been transliterated and I don't think it would be worth it anyway. Transliteration is great for prayer books, because it allows people to participate in the services even if they don't know Hebrew or they're rusty. As I demonstrated above, I think transliteration is a great way to pick up random vocab, if you're paying attention. The Torah, on the other hand, is meant to be read and studied. Being able to read it in Hebrew through transliterations doesn't help that goal, since there's no comprehension of what's going on actually involved.

Have I answered my question? No. I'm a good Jew in that sense. I'm probably not going to answer it either, but feel free to tell me what you think!