September 18, 2013
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The benefit of learning Hebrew without English phonetics

Lip service

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

My daughter is not a great Hebrew reader, so I asked our cantor to help her out with her haftarah by giving her a transliterated, sounded-out copy in English. He said that it’s against his policy to do that, and that she has to make her way through the Hebrew. Why?

— Wants to buy a vowel

Dear Vowel,

This is a tough one. At first glance, it seems needlessly harsh to make your daughter suffer through all the Hebrew reading, which is obviously a struggle for her. Why not, as you logically ask, provide her with a copy of her haftarah and other prayers using transliteration? That way, she can concentrate on learning the proper melodies and strive for perfect accuracy. She will sound great, and best of all, no one in the congregation will have any idea what piece of paper she’s reading. Hebrew is Hebrew, and it will sound just fine to anyone listening. Right?

Ah, but there is the problem, and I think it’s what your cantor is trying to communicate. It feels like your daughter is merely memorizing some lines for a play if she does away with all the Hebrew text and simply sounds out some English syllables.

This reminds me of a movie where the action hero finds himself in another country and conveniently speaks the native language. It must have been hard for the actor, who in real life doesn’t speak that language, to learn his lines. He might have worked with a language coach to get the accent just right, and he most likely memorized a bunch of lines that sounded like nonsense to him but make sense to someone who’s fluent. But in the end, he’s just an actor playing a part and reciting a bunch of dialogue that he doesn’t understand.

If your daughter reads her Hebrew “lines” from a transliterated “script,” isn’t that sort of the same thing?

Of course, we know that the average bar or bat mitzvah kid doesn’t speak Hebrew and has no idea what most of the words mean, no matter how they’re written out. But the act of writing them down in English is creating one more step away from the words’ and the ritual’s true meaning. I would much prefer to hear your daughter struggle a little through the Hebrew reading, mistakes and all, than to hear a flawless performance of the same words sounded out using English letters.

Furthermore, would you believe that it might be more difficult for your daughter to decipher the transliteration than to simply decode the Hebrew?

Because the English will be transliterated with strangely spelled syllables strung together, kids often have a lot of trouble pronouncing those words correctly. Sometimes, a student, while practicing at home, writes down a lot of the words with English letters, and then uses those notes to help him sing the haftarah — in effect, providing for himself what you want your cantor to give to your daughter. And in my office, when a kid does that, I still hear him struggling and trying to figure out what he wrote. So, I cover up his markings and say: “Just use the Hebrew.” Most of the time, it sounds better!

It’s never a problem to sound out the occasional Hebrew word. And obviously, I’m painting with broad strokes. This answer might not apply if there’s a significant learning disability or other important issue that’s involved.

Yet, if this is not the issue, trust your cantor. Chances are, he’s got a good read on reading.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at

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