Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hebrew Frustrations

I think I’d consider myself a fairly observant Jew. I don’t follow every single observance to the letter, but I think I do more than the average person. I keep Kosher, go to shul, and try to learn and do as much as I can in my life. And I’ve been doing this for pretty much 10 years or so or maybe even a few years longer. And sometimes I feel like there’s so much I’ve learned. And sometimes I feel like a complete ignoramus.

This Shabbat, I felt SO upset. So behind. So dumb. The problem? My Hebrew. My Hebrew is AWFUL. I know the letters, and I can read it, veeeeeeeery sllllooowwwllllyyyy, syllable by slooooowwwww syllable. And I have no clue as to what I’m reading either. So during services I run into a problem. English? Or Hebrew?

I’ve usually done the English thing. I’ve always wanted my prayer to be meaningful. And it’s a lot easier for it to be meaningful when you can understand what you’re reading in English, and not meaningless stuttered Hebrew syllables strung together over an extended periods of time. And I’ve always been ok with the English. Gd hears and understands every language. And isn't it more important for prayer to be meaningful than in it's original language? And yet I've still always wanted to do it all in Hebrew. But I've always had so much trouble with it that I never really did it. And I suppose I give the impression in shul that I "know" more than I actually do. I know all the out loud Hebrew, because it’s out loud and usually sung, so I’ve been able to learn it more easily. And I understand a small amount of it. Thought it's more often meaningless sounds unless I read a long with the Engligh while I'm singing the Hebrew. And I do all the silent stuff very passionately; I usually feel such a spiritual release with my prayer, even with the double minded language problem. But today all I felt was frustration.

I’ve reached the point where I really want to do it all in Hebrew. But I’m just too slow. And I feel so meaningless and helpless when I do it that way. And the English is meaningful but somehow not enough. I’m ALWAYS the last one to finish davening the long silent prayer, the Amidah. Even when I do it in English I finish late because I try to say each word fully and make it meaningful, as I learned it should be done properly. And it always meant something so special doing it that way. And recently I’ve been trying the Hebrew. And I’m finishing even later, and the whole congregation starts with the out loud repetition and I’m only a third of the way into the silent part. And I get distracted and frustrated and revert back to English and then feel rushed to finish so I lose the meaning still again. In one congregation I have frequented, the Rabbi ALWAYS waits for the last person to be done before he starts the repetition. And part of me likes that. But the other part of me hates being the only one standing and finishing while everyone else is sitting and staring at me, waiting for me to finally finish. And I feel upset and rushed again. I feel like I can’t win. People have commented to me how they love to watch me in shul because I’m always so engaged with my prayer and appear so concentrated and spiritual and moved and all that. And often I am. But just as often I’m concentrating so hard on simply saying those disjointed Hebrew syllables.

I do want to learn it and make it meaningful, and I’ve tried on many occasions to learn more Hebrew, but to tell you the truth I’m really bad with languages. I have a very hard time learning them. And I find it extremely difficult and frustrating and I often forget what I have learned soon after I learn it. I look at little children being brought up learning Hebrew and prayer and I feel like an idiot when I see a two year old that knows more than I do. I know it’s not my fault that I wasn’t taught these things when I was that young, and I don’t want to say I regret my non-traditional, not-so-observant background, because it’s given me so many other things to learn and compare to in my Jewish spirituality and learning. But I still feel bothered by my lack of Hebrew.

So not so long ago I made up my mind I would spend time learning as much more Hebrew prayer as I can on my own. I decided to start with the Shema. It’s something basic that’s said every day. And there are a few paragraphs that always follow it. When I was a kid I learned only a shortened version of it; the first paragraph and the last couple of sentences. I never learned the rest. And when I knew enough to start doing the rest I still never learned the Hebrew. I read the English. So now I decided to say it every morning and night, as one would do anyway, but not just for religious reasons. I want to learn it. Really learn it. So for the past few days I’ve been struggling through it twice a day. And I’m slow, and I feel meaningless and I’m frustrated. And when I try it in shul I’m barely halfway through when the congregation is like 3 pages ahead of me. I was very upset this morning at services. I couldn’t concentrate on my prayer because I was so far behind in the things I’ve been trying to learn, and everyone else singing the out loud stuff is really distracting.

I just don’t understand how they can all get through it all so quickly! No one is THAT good at saying it so thoroughly so quickly. I do it in English and I’m still running behind. Maybe I’m just taking it all too long and too literally. Either way, I was behind in the Shema and behind in the Amidah. FAR behind. And I was so upset and discouraged and sad that I felt so behind. And it just puts me off to the whole thing. And then there’s that desire to do it in the Hebrew again, to learn and know more.

I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I want more from my prayer but when I try to make it so, things become meaningless and frustrating and I become upset. I’m really not sure what to do. I know it won’t happen overnight. I know I won’t learn it all in one day. But I’m still not sure where I fit and where I should be. And I still don’t know how to make it more and still make it meaningful. After 10 years of Jewish observance and learning you’d think I’d have learned more. But I still feel like I don’t get it, and I don’t know how to deal with it, how to compromise it. Because the only compromise I’ve come up with continues to frustrate and discourage me. So in the meantime I guess I’ll just keep plowing along. But I truly wish I knew of a better way, it would make it all so much more meaningful and so much more complete. It would just plain be a lot nicer that way.

1 comment:

Sara said...

What you need is a different Siddur. ArtScroll has a new siddur that is "interlinear". This means that Hebrew word is written directly above the English equivalent. You can daven in both Hebrew AND English. This is the only way I can get through it!

I start in Hebrew and switch to the English whenever I get stuck. As well, you will begin to know the Hebrew words because you see the English one again and again.

Hebrew is a tough language! Don't be discouraged. The way you daven sounds very special. Unfortunately, those that are saying the Tefillah so quickly are usually NOT saying it properly. It is them with the problem not you!