This semester for my field placement at JPDS, I am finally being forced to learn Hebrew in a real way. The third, fourth, and fifth graders know more Hebrew than I do, which makes it hard for me to help them with their Hebrew translations for Judaic Studies, but there are two new students to the school this year who have no Hebrew background, so I have volunteered to tutor them in the aleph-bet.
As an aside, I should mention that, while this is a Jewish Day School, it is also a community day school and they have a number of non-Jewish students enrolled (whether because it is better than their public school options, within walking distance of their homes, or any other reason that a parent would enroll their child in a private school). These two students - a boy and a girl - are not Jewish, so the Hebrew is new and hard for them, but they are so focused on learning it. Time for me to channel their drive, dust off my Rosetta Stone, and give Hebrew another try myself!
During our first lesson today, we reviewed the difference between בּ (a "b" sound) and ב (a "v" sound) and between ד (a "d" sound) and ר (an "r" sound), coupled with different vowels to make different sounds, like "da-beh" or "reh-va." Aside from the Hebrew, I also wound up teaching them about what it means to be Jewish. They were both shocked that I am not from Israel, have no family in Israel, and am not fluent in Hebrew. "But I thought you were Jewish!" the boy said with obvious confusion. We had a quick discussion about what it means to be Jewish, but the duality of Judaism as a people and a religion was a question that took me over a year to understand and three years later, I am still not good at articulating an answer. If the history of the Jewish people has taught us anything, it is that there is no easy answer to that question.
Later on in Judaic Studies, while my female student struggled determinedly to translate Parsha Vayetse - eyes flicking back and forth between the text and her vocabulary sheet to find סֻלָּם and scribble "ladder" above the Hebrew, circling the prefix and suffix on the word וְרֹאשׁוֹ in order to find the root meaning "head" in the middle of the word - she said in frustration, "I wish I was Jewish! Then I would already know Hebrew." If only being Jewish came with Hebrew proficiency that could be downloaded into your brain! Lacking that, we will have to stumble through the language together.