Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, 1635. The painting depicts a narrative from the book of Daniel, and–as Michael Weingrad says–“a group of people made anxious by Hebrew writing, which they can’t interpret.”
By Michael Weingrad
Dara Horn asks, “Why don’t more American Jews learn Hebrew?” Her answer: “The reason American Jews don’t learn Hebrew is because they think they can’t.”
She believes that this failure stems from a lack of confidence. Even Horn, who tells us in this recent article that she grew up familiar with Hebrew words and that she was one of those rare, truly engaged students in the supplemental Hebrew schooling of her youth, was convinced that she “could never actually learn Hebrew” as a real language. In her mind, fluent Hebrew was something only Israelis or Orthodox Jews were capable of achieving. And so, even though she spent her teens and twenties reading Hebrew literature, it wasn’t until the age of 32 (a number which, by a lovely coincidence, is rendered in Hebrew by the word for “heart”) that she dared plunge directly, at an international writers conference in Israel, into the world of spoken Hebrew without the perpetual crutch of English translation.
The stubborn American Jewish refusal–even by many Jews who are active in Jewish life, and who mouth Hebrew words as sounds week after week in synagogue–to treat Hebrew as a language that can be learned, spoken, and used is nothing short of bizarre.