What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

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One of my very close friends is hosting an exchange student from Brazil this year. This particular student, of course, is a speaker of Portuguese. She has taken two years of English in high school. She will probably be a brilliant speaker of English by the end of the school year in 2014, after she has lived with my friend’s family. But not right now. Now, she is struggling to make sense of her life in a community where no one speaks Portuguese. All her classes at the neighborhood high school will be taught in English. I am worried about this straight-A student being able to navigate a strange environment without any of the aids of her native language, let alone maintaining her grade point average to get accepted at a decent university. I suggested to my friend that even though the student strongly desires being in an English immersion environment, it would be worthwhile to write to her parents and have them send some of her text books and literature in their Portuguese translations. I remember how I felt in Israel, breaking my teeth on Hebrew. I wouldn’t want to translate Pride and Prejudice from Hebrew back into  English.

For most of my rabbinate, I have been doing community outreach amongst Jews who are not members of any Jewish organization (“unaffiliated”). As we navigate the waters of the life cycle together, I sometimes use Hebrew terms to describe the various prayers and objects: huppah – wedding canopy; ketubah – wedding promise document; kaddish – the prayer of holiness recited at the end of a funeral; kri’ah – the torn black ribbon a mourner wears on the lapel to symbolize the tearing feeling of grief. Without the English explanations, the Hebrew terms are meaningless to the Jews with whom I work. They are often woefully uneducated about the Jewish rituals in which they are about to participate, let alone in Hebrew language.

I see myself as a tour guide of Judaism, opening the door and welcoming people into a rich and delicious environment filled with wonderful stories, tasty food, joyous holiday celebrations, and a mission to care for one another and make the world a better place. Some of my clients have had negative experiences of Judaism and Jewish people. Some have never had an identifiably Jewish experience. Some have had Jewish experiences in the past, but very long ago – their own bar/bat mitzvah or that of a friend or family member. Most of them have no idea how much they don’t know. They are often working with me to please a parent or grandparent, rather than looking for a Jewish experience specifically for themselves.

Working with unaffiliated people gives me the opportunity to sell Judaism, to help them see the gorgeous gems of thought, story, celebration, and ritual, that will enhance, broaden, and deepen their lives. But if I use too much Hebrew, that opportunity is often lost to me. Some of my colleagues, who have witnessed me officiating at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, or funeral, have accused me of being inauthentic and misrepresenting Judaism. It is difficult for them to recognize that Hebrew terms are a barrier for uneducated folks to appreciate the deep beauty of Judaism. Hebrew can make Judaism all but incomprehensible to folks who don’t know any Hebrew and are unfamiliar with this vocabulary. God understands all languages, even when people can’t. Jewish concepts continue to have meaning, even without the Hebrew terminology. Once a person falls in love with Judaism, they often want to learn Hebrew for themselves. Until they get there, those Hebrew words are like doors slammed in their faces that keep them away from Jews and Judaism. I aim to be the key that opens the doors.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

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