I remember being a little kid, maybe four or five, when my dad sat me down with a workbook and began teaching me to read Hebrew. He didn’t know what any of the words meant, but he could read it and teach me to read it as well. I also remember it seeming really important to him. In fact, being so young, I think that Hebrew workbook is my earliest memory of homework. I don’t remember enjoying it one bit.
When I was in fourth grade, a Jewish day school opened in my neighborhood in Memphis. My parents transferred me there but my Hebrew comprehension was non-existent. I only knew how to read, but not how to understand. I was behind most of the other students…I struggled. And, again, I didn’t enjoy learning the language.
Then came the summer before sixth grade. My parents sent me to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, a sleepaway camp in the northwoods of Wisconsin. A camp where all the public announcements were in Hebrew. Where all the singing in the dining hall was in Hebrew. Where all the prayer services (and there were lots of these at Camp Ramah) were in Hebrew. And, most importantly, where all the musical theater performances were in Hebrew, too. I had already been bitten by the acting bug in my local community children’s theater in Memphis. So in my second summer in camp, when I had the opportunity to audition for a part in the musical (Free to Be You And Me) I was so excited! But Hebrew? I could read it, I could memorize my lines, but I still wouldn’t know what they meant. I was doomed. Until I wasn’t. Until I started learning my lines for more than just how to pronounce them, but for the meaning behind them. I got a solo song that summer. Singing, in Hebrew, alone in front of 600 people. The song? “It’s All Right To Cry.” And you know what? I did. The entire time I sang it. Cried. But I made it through.
And the next few summers I got to play Fagan in Oliver! and Kenickie in Grease and Berger in Hair. All in Hebrew. That’s when I really started learning the language. I was understanding Hebrew! Then I went to Israel on Ramah Seminar in the summer of 1998. And I was able to ask Israelis how much things cost, what time it was, and, most importantly, where the sherutim (restrooms) were. It was an amazing summer.
Fast forward to the summer of 2005. My family went on a trip to Israel – and it was my father’s first time there. Seeing my father see Israel for the first time was pretty special. Seeing my father watch as I navigated us around Israel, showing off my Hebrew? Priceless. I owe my Hebrew skills (which are still improving) to my father for teaching me how to read and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for teaching me how to understand. I couldn’t be more grateful to both. Todah Rabbah!