Sin or shin? Cracking Hebrew code in a day

Friday, August 19, 2005 | by

joanne catz hartman



Because I know nothing and I want to know something, I finally decide to take the Hebrew leap.Since I tend to procrastinate when I need to do things that are possibly difficult, I wait until the last minute. I call Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica to register for “Hebrew in a Day,” which isn’t really a day but an afternoon.

“Your name?” the phone receptionist asks, and I give it to her. “Oh, are you the one who wrote the column about not knowing Hebrew?” In it I mentioned I was going to sign up for the class. “We were wondering why you hadn’t called yet.”

I’m $40 into an upcoming four-hour commitment to learning Hebrew. I take a peek at my daughter’s first-grade Hebrew workbook. She unknowingly heightens my anxiety when she explains that the letter shin also has a twin, sin, and the only difference between the two is the placement of one barely discernible dot. It’s braille. Or Morse Code. Hebrew looks like a code that’s tough to break.

What if it’s really too hard? I think, finally facing my fear. And what if the teacher’s mean? She looks nice from the smiling photo in the catalog, and the workshop description mentions “a fun, relaxed atmosphere,” but you never know. And what if I’m the only one there, or even worse, the only one of many who just doesn’t get it.

Twelve of us end up in the class, which is good because there is a stronger likelihood of another symbol-deciphering dunce in the crowd. I look around. Not the one with the “Hebrew for Dummies” manual in front of her. She’s done some research. She’s cheated.

We introduce ourselves. For one, it’s a refresher course, and he quickly becomes refreshed enough to multitask and work on a crossword puzzle, albeit not in Hebrew. There’s the one who calls herself the Hebrew Village Idiot. Great! Someone like me. Except she isn’t. She has two romance languages under her belt and quickly becomes the class Super Student. Another is studying for her adult bat mitzvah. One plans to visit Israel soon. Most of the others are here with a desire to be able to read some of the Hebrew in the siddur (prayerbook).

Anat Wolins, our native Hebrew-speaking instructor, turns out to be very nice and immediately puts me at ease with her sense of humor. She tells us it’s a “crash course” and just the first steps in learning the language.

She explains that learning something new is like opening a new file, that it’s normal to feel like pushing the panic button. “Don’t Panic. Take It Slowly,” she says. I write this down, and I refer to it often.

We begin by listening and taking in the sounds. We mimic, modeling in a warp-speed — hours instead of years — the method in which babies develop language skills from the sounds they hear around them.

Gimel, hey, and nun pop up like old friends I haven’t seen in ages: Excuse me, don’t I know you, what’s your name again? And then comes shin. Hi, old pal. I remember you! From the dreidel. Super Student (I found out later she’s Roman Catholic raised, now Jewish) is attentive, eager, gets it faster than I do and nails the pronunciation every time. Except once when she confuses reish for dalet. I smile inside. I’m sure she’s translating Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” from its original Russian into Hebrew by now.

After a break, where Super Student and I make tea together and I get high on the Oreos that Lehrhaus staff put out for us, we go back to see what’s been retained in our short-term memory. Surprisingly, a lot. We recite the alef-bet in unison, the louder voices in the group buoying up those of us who are not so confident in our recall.

We read the words shalom and Shabba. And then more difficult ones.  Da-ash-pa — garbage can, not a high-frequency word I’ll be needing, unless I plan to move to Israel and work as a sanitation engineer. “It sounds like Klingon” (that alien language from “Star Trek”), the Refresher Course Man looks up from his crossword to comment. He’s right. Nothing like the fluid rhythmic chanting I hear in the synagogue.

“Do some decoding,” Anat instructs us, before the final goodbye. She wants us to try sounding things out. Practice.

“Guess what?” I yell, in complete role reversal to my daughter when I get home. “I can read some Hebrew. Wanna see?”

She’s not so impressed.

So I tell my husband. “Great,” he smiles. “That’s exciting.”

And he’s right. It is.


Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).