Understanding Hebrew is important

Lowering the bar … mitzvah that is

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

My son came home from his bar mitzvah lesson really upset. He had practiced a lot during the week, and even wrote out the Hebrew words using English letters so he could read everything easily. The cantor made him use the Hebrew letters and made it needlessly difficult and frustrating. Why does it matter “how” he reads it if it all sounds the same?

— The Sound and the Fury

Dear Fury,

Congratulations, in one simple and sensible question, you have identified what could be the most confusing problem of modern Jewish life.

Think about the way that your son has gone through his Hebrew school years. I bet in the beginning he was taught the Hebrew alphabet, and then little by little, he learned how to read Hebrew.

In fact, let’s dust off our trusty time machine and go back a generation or two. I bet that’s the way you and your parents were taught Hebrew as well. Sure, you probably learned a bunch of words, maybe how to count to ten, perhaps a few colors. If your teacher was really on the ball, you might have learned how to say “bathroom” in Hebrew so you could put that language to good use in case of an emergency.

But for the vast majority of Jews in this country, just acquiring the ability to read Hebrew was the mark of a good Jewish education.

And now many synagogue sanctuaries are filled with people who can make their way well into the Prayer Book without having any idea what they’re saying, unless they glance over at the English translation. Basically, just pronouncing the words properly becomes the goal, not actually knowing what the words mean.

Now back to your son and his bar mitzvah lessons: I tip my kippah off to him. He is diligently taking his lessons seriously, going through the material, and making the time to prepare the reading so that he’s all ready for his next lesson. So what’s the problem?

It’s hard to say, exactly.

But reading through an entire Hebrew haftarah using English letters seems to go against the intent of the lessons and what we want kids to accomplish. He has found a shortcut. It requires less effort to sound out rather than decoding the actual Hebrew words. Essentially, by allowing b’nei mitzvah kids to read through the whole service using English rather than Hebrew is lowering the bar (mitzvah, that is).

Yes it’s true — the congregation will never know the difference. But one of the goals of bar mitzvah lessons is to challenge the student, push the envelope a little, and get him out of his comfort zone.

Of course, if a student is dealing with some learning issues that make it extremely difficult to decode Hebrew letters (especially because they are read in the opposite direction), then allowing extra accommodations is certainly appropriate. Additionally, I don’t mind writing in a few English syllables here and there to give my students a quick bit of help.

A final thought before your son goes back to practicing: in my experience I have found that students actually find it harder and more confusing to make their way through English transliteration than just reading the Hebrew. So after all that, your son may be making things more difficult than they need to be.

My suggestion? Stick with the Hebrew as much as you can.

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 cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

Posted 12:32 pm, April 16, 2014
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