San Rafael 12-year-old and grandmother bond over Hebrew ulpan

Becca Cook first balked at her grandmother’s suggestion that they enroll in a three-week intensive Hebrew class.

After all, that would be most of the month of July — a good chunk of the summer for a 12-year-old, not to mention a lot of time with grandma.

“The week before class, she told me, ‘I can’t believe you talked me into Hebrew boot camp,’ and on the first day, she gave me grief on the car ride over,” said Rachel Wahba, Becca’s grandmother. “And then when we left the class, she said to me, ‘That was great.’ I knew then that this girl was going to love ulpan.”

Becca Cook and her grandmother, Rachel Wahba, attended the USF ulpan. photo/stacey palevsky

Wahba and her granddaughter, both of San Rafael, are the second and fourth generation in their family to study at the University of San Francisco ulpan, a 14-year-old summertime intensive for those interested in learning basic Hebrew or polishing their proficiency.

Maurice Wahba, Rachel’s father, spent a summer in ulpan the year before he died in 2005. The ulpan allowed him to finally learn, at 88, how to speak conversational Hebrew after a lifetime of knowing only biblical Hebrew.

“He loved it so much he studied for hours every night,” Rachel recalled. “He really mastered it.”

In honor of her father, Rachel signed up for an ulpan session three years ago. She was placed in Aleph, the first of four levels of Hebrew proficiency.

When she decided to take another session this summer, she asked her granddaughter, a seventh-grader at Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin, if she would join her.

“I wanted to be closer with my grandpa,” Becca said of enrolling in the course. “I feel more connected to him knowing he was here.”

On the first day, Esti Skloot, the ulpan’s founding director, moved Becca to the Bet cohort.

“I was totally proud,” Rachel Wahba said. “What I want for her is to get comfortable in a Hebrew conversation.”

Becca said she definitely feels more confident after the three-week ulpan, which concluded July 30.

“I wanted to get a really good grade in Hebrew next year, and I think I can,” Becca said.

When she turns 18, Becca plans to take her grandfather’s name, Wahba, as a way of continuing his legacy.

It is quite a legacy: Maurice grew up in Mansoura and Cairo, Egypt, in a family with a long line of Egyptian Jews, stretching back generations.

Which is why in 1939, when Maurice decided to leave his homeland, it was such a big deal, Rachel explained.

“When ‘Mein Kampf’ had become a bestseller in Egypt, he knew that Egypt was no place for Jews anymore,” Rachel said.

Maurice immigrated to Japan, where he lived until World War II. Then he went to Bombay to wait out the war. He met his Iraqi wife there, who had survived the massacre of Jews in 1941 and finally left Baghdad in 1943.

Rachel was born in Bombay. When she was 4 years old, she and her parents went back to Japan together. Jews were not allowed to attend public school, so she went to Catholic school.

When she was 19, she came to the United States to study at Cal State Northridge. A few years later, she secured papers allowing her parents to immigrate to the United States.

“To actually speak the language of the Jewish people — and to write poetry in modern Hebrew — it was a thrill for him,” Rachel said.

For information about the USF summer ulpan, visit www.usfca.edu/artsci/jssj/ulpan.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.