Jews take to Arabic at S.F. language school

When Sarah Ohring began studying Arabic, she never suspected that so many of her peers would be like her: Jewish.

Ohring is both a student and now the marketing manager of Pacific Arabic Resources, an Arabic-language school in downtown San Francisco.

“You don’t always know when they start that they’re Jewish or that they speak Hebrew, but eventually, it does come out,” said Ohring of fellow Jews in her classes. “And they’re all across the spectrum. There are some who are very left-leaning, and just yesterday an Israeli came in to register who was wearing an [Israel Defense Forces] T-shirt. So it’s really every type of Jewish person.”

Ever since Jamal Mavrikios began teaching Arabic out of his home in San Francisco, he noticed the same funny phenomenon: that a great number of his students were Jews.

(Calls to both U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State University suggested that while they are far from a majority, at least a handful of Jews are always taking Arabic at the local universities, but not as many as at Pacific Arabic resources.)

Mavrikios, the school’s founder, isn’t too surprised at the numbers. A New Yorker of Cypriot heritage and a self-professed “language geek,” he first fell in love with the Arabic language as an undergraduate. His first Arabic teacher was a Jew from Morocco.

He spent a semester abroad in Morocco, which “threw a wrench into my life” by changing his career plans. Though he worked in the corporate world for some years, after some time he realized he’d much rather be teaching Arabic.

While his school began with just a handful of students, now there are 60 studying with six instructors. Egyptian, Moroccan, Palestinian, Lebanese, Sudanese, Iraqi and Gulf dialects are all taught, with the recent addition of the dialect of Chad.

The school opened in 2001 and last year moved to a larger space on New Montgomery Street.

According to Mavrikios, who also studied Hebrew, Jews who study Arabic are often at an advantage over the other students.

“Arabic can be very scary, as a foreign language in general can be,” he said. “But once you get to the intermediate level, the Jewish students have got a leg up. In my last Levantine conversation class, the Jewish students were the most advanced.”

He has several theories for this.

“Of course reading Torah, you become accustomed from a young age reading an alphabet that goes another direction,” he said. “You’re also less daunted by a language that is so similar grammatically to Hebrew. It just doesn’t seem as foreign to Jewish students as it does to others.”

Also, he said, many Jews have traveled to the Middle East, which makes its languages and culture less foreign to them.

Even Maimonides, the renowned Jewish philosopher from medieval times, wrote in Arabic, Mavrikios noted.

Ohring, who growing up attended a Conservative congregation in New Jersey and at one time spoke almost fluent Hebrew, agrees. She said that it was because she had a basic fluency in Hebrew that she became curious about Arabic.

“They are both Semitic languages, so they have so many similarities, which is very interesting to me,” she said.

She was in the video gaming industry prior to her Arabic studies, and has no specific long-term goal in mind, beyond being able to communicate when she travels to Jordan and Syria later this summer.

But a former classmate, Harmony Williams, hopes to use her new language skills in a future career.

Williams, 30, grew up in Sebastopol and spent time in Israel during college, where she studied Hebrew and Arabic. After graduating, she spent three years working for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, in the accounting department. But she wanted to return to the Middle East, so she interned with Shatil, the social justice wing of the New Israel Fund.

While in Israel that year, her roommate was an Israeli Arab and Williams became close with the family. “I had much more exposure to Arabic there than Hebrew, and not that many Jewish people who go have that experience,” she said.

Williams hopes to be able to become fluent enough to work in finance, in Arabic.

She definitely has been questioned — by Americans and Arabs — about her interest in the language.

“They ask, ‘Why are you trying to learn this language that even we struggle with?'” she said. In speaking of her roommate’s family though, she said, “They were really proud that I was American and could speak with their accent. They were excited that I was Jewish and I was making an effort to speak their language and take it seriously. There aren’t a whole lot of Jewish people who do that.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."