Foreign Tongues

Merci. Gracias. Grazie. Danke. Thank you. Todah.

In how many languages can you say thank you? Better yet, how many languages can you speak or at least understand? What is it that prompts you to learn a language?

I remember being twelve years old and facing the decision of which language to study in school: French, Spanish, Chinese, or Latin. This was in Cleveland more than thirty years ago, a time and place with few Spanish speakers. I decided that I would learn Frenh so I could read the greats (Camus, … ) in their original tongue. Truth be told, the only book I ever read in French was “The Little Prince”. Sorry, I mean “Le Petit Prince”.

Sure, I’ve been able to use my French on a number of occasions, and it’s proven very useful in learning other languages, but I can’t say that I’ve been able to find much meaning in having learned French.

But Hebrew is a whole other story...

Even though I spent a lot of time in Hebrew school growing up, I never actually learned Hebrew until I decided to go to rabbinical school and moved to Israel to spend six months preparing. It was at this time that Hebrew stopped being a bunch of foreign sounds I would sing out of the siddur and started becoming a real language to me.

Like French, I’ve been able to use Hebrew on a number of occasions in daily conversations - in fact I’m writing this article while sitting in a Jerusalem cafe, conversing with the staff in our shared tongue. But unlike French, Hebrew has given me a deep and meaningful connection to the world around me. I read the siddur or the Torah and not only understand the words, but can appreciate the beautiful poetry, puns, and allusions which get lost in translation. I can travel to virtually any corner of the world and be able to communicate with our Jewish sisters and brothers through Hebrew, especially when we don’t share any other language.

It’s funny, I finally learned Hebrew because it was required if I was to become a rabbi. But looking back on things, I wish I had learned Hebrew much earlier, as the gifts the language provides far outweigh those of other languages (at least for me). So if you or someone you know is considering learning a new language, I would highly encourage you to consider Hebrew - then you’ll be able to say so much more than just “Todah."


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