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All Greek To Me

2/18/15

By Susie Tessel

Have you ever asked yourself why do we pray in Hebrew? Why do we pray in a language different from our native language? I have heard the following answer: We can pray to God in any language, and we know that our heartfelt prayers will be heard voiced in any language. But there is something special about Hebrew that other languages do not have, and Hebrew has a spirituality not found in other tongues. Moreover, many concepts and ideals of Judaism are best expressed in Hebrew, and translations can be inexact. For some, praying in Hebrew allows them to explore the richness and layered meanings that each word conveys. However, many people feel confounded by the different alphabet, and don’t speak Hebrew at all! Is there really a difference in using Hebrew or English in Jewish prayer and ceremony? Does the Hebrew language enable us to relate to God and the Jewish people differently from the way we might in Spanish or French or English that each word conveys? The following story helped clarify some of these questions for me.

download (1)I spent my “Junior Year Abroad” studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Each holiday break, my friends and I tried to explore, a different country or place. Over winter break, we went to Greece. We had been to other countries, but Greece was a completely different experience for us. All of the signs were written in Greek letters. NOT ONE of us spoke Greek, and seemingly none of the locals spoke English. There were no signs in English except for trademark logos like Coca Cola. It was very difficult to get our bearings. We got lost repeatedly! When we finally decoded the intricacies of the subway system, we felt thoroughly triumphant! Athens is a physically beautiful city, and standing in front of the Parthenon, the birthplace of Democracy, was very inspiring. But, all in all, we were foreigners exploring a foreign land, and nothing about that changed. Everything felt different. The people seemed to be warm and friendly, but they spoke so little English and we only spoke the couple of words in Greek our guide book provided. By the end of the week, we felt like we had gleaned about as much as were going to from Greece. The Parthenon at Dusk

We were going to leave early Sunday morning. On Friday night, we went to the large Athens synagogue. It was beautiful. We picked up the siddurim provided and it was, of course, in Hebrew and Greek. Needless to say, the Greek pages were useless to us, but the Hebrew was strangely comforting and familiar. As the Hazan started chanting the Friday Night Service, a spell was cast. We felt like we were surrounded by a warmth we had not felt. Everything looked brighter and felt friendlier. We knew we were finally at home. Most of the tunes were unfamiliar, but we could follow along, and learn the unfamiliar tunes to prayers we said in Atlanta and Chicago and New York and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and sing along together with the locals. The new tunes were fun. The words bound us together.

We exhaled a sigh of relief. This was better already. Then, the Hazan got to the Shema. The entire congregation shouted out the words with such fervor! We knew the Shema! We could participate just as fully as anyone else! And we did! And when we did, the congregants sitting around us moved closer, and smiled wider. We had met new friends. We were all one people and, at that moment, language did not divide us. Instead, language united us!

It was such a wonderful and powerful experience – and one that I would have missed if I had not learned to pray in Hebrew.
The following morning, a family who lived in Athens invited us to join them for lunch. It was the highlight of our trip.

I felt like a member of the global Jewish club, and it was amazing!!!

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