There is a very old story about a woman on top of a hill loudly reciting, almost shouting, the Hebrew alphabet to the heavens. A curious stranger, having heard her recitations, came closer to inquire of these declarations that contained no real Hebrew words. What meaning could they have? The woman responded by saying that since she did not know the Hebrew prayers, she prayed by reciting the Aleph-Bet with all her heart and might, straight to God. She knew that God would fill in all that she did not know and felt confident that the Holy One could sense her earnest and heartfelt devotion in these recitations.

The stranger kindly offered to bring her to his house of worship, where she could learn the prayers and pray in a more structured and prescribed way, handed down L’Dor V’ Dor, through the generations. If you haven’t guessed by now, I am that girl. The Aleph Bet I shouted to the heavens were the transliterations on the reverse sides of the prayer book, and although I prayed the transliterations fervently, I was never completely satisfied with the contents of what I was offering up to God. 

Growing up in Dallas, Texas, in the too-cool 1970’s, transliterations of Hebrew prayers were plentiful. They were the mechanism by which both my grandmothers and my mother recited their heartfelt, although perhaps a bit distant, prayers, as they rose to standing, or sat back down, in our sanctuary service. The organ behind us, de-coding the message of the Hebrew, whether helping us feel and relate to the dread of Yom Kippur repentance, or uplift us in the joy of a Shabbat service. I had always operated just this way. The liturgy turned me into a detective, looking for clues in the words I sang to God in hymns, or in the energy of the congregation’s communal prayer, or even occasionally in the facial expressions of my rabbi. 

This is not a story about all I was not encouraged to undertake as a girl, or a woman, or a reform Jew. This story is written because I uncovered something as an adult, deep and disquieting in my bones, and I believe my discovery could be valuable for another woman. A gift of sisterhood. Perhaps, too, I could offer insight to the men of my age group and beyond, a Bar Mitzvah shining proudly within their resume. What I happened upon through all my investigation, has also been present throughout the generations. It was a fear of the unknown. A fear of expanding my religious knowledge and not knowing if it would be too great a challenge for me to take on.

I had stayed on that predictable and consistent path of making do, simply because it was familiar, and allowed my fear of failure to take precedence over my learning a new pathway to prayer, and to God.

I have to back the truck up a few feet to fill you in on the history of my relationship with God, so that you may better understand my actions. God knows all this, of course, but you do not. 

I have prayed with all my heart and all my might since I was tiny. Organically. In joy and deepest sorrow. In English. In simple words when I was younger, and more complex words with adult perspectives as I aged. I chaired Sisterhood Sabbaths, cutting and pasting (literally) the liturgy, into the week’s handout, and learned my children’s sacred prayers with them for their Bar Mitzvahs, all by ear. The small voice that beckoned me to learn and study for myself was trampled on by my own ego. I had mastered reciting all that I heard, and by now, I was a top-notch Hebrew detective. Moreover, I was very successful in all that I had memorized. I appeared knee-deep in understanding. I glossed over feelings of inadequacy that surfaced during prayer by shushing them, as you would a small child. But they continued to linger. “I have it,” I said to myself. “I am going to read the Hebrew Bible. I am going to find more nearness to God in this way.” And so I did. Yet only increased my awareness of the desire to know more.

There is this really great picture of me and Barry on our honeymoon. We are on a cruise ship and the ship’s photographer came around and snapped a photo of the two of us totally blissed out. Barry is holding papers in his hand, which were supposed to be out of sight for the moment, but they showed up, visible in the photo. They were his sacred verses for his aliyah, which was to take place only weeks after our honeymoon. Predictably, I planned the luncheon. I was honored on that Shabbat morning to walk up to the bimah and chant the blessings before and after Barry’s chanting of the parasha. I used the big, laminated card with the transliterations. 

One of my favorite motivators is: “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” I used this to push through old and tired fear patterns, and slowly started to face my insecurity, by purchasing a set of Hebrew flashcards from Amazon. It was a start. Baby steps. It felt scary. 

I was right, it took me months to memorize, and I was very quiet about it. If I wasn’t persistent, the fear of failure rising swiftly to the surface when I thought about it could again take over. Failure loomed. I thankfully pushed through.

My heart races as I confide in you. My retelling still brings forth the trepidation I encountered to learn Hebrew, or possibly, to fail at a sacred undertaking. With shaky hands, I e mailed Rabbi Robbins at Temple Emanu-El, asking how to begin. She already knew about my flashcards. With nurturing guidance, just as one would expect, my rabbi and professional staff led me to a prepared path and directed me to Roz, my new Hebrew teacher. Roz was a friend of mine, and I was grateful for her warmth. We began in February of 2019.

It felt empowering to learn the letters, and the first time I sounded out a word, Roz and I said the Shehecheyanu together. Months passed and my skills and confidence grew. I finally summoned the courage to say what it was I had been longing for all these years. I wanted to be called to the Torah for my own Aliyah. I wanted to chant the sacred words with full knowledge of what it all meant, and lead my congregation as is our Jewish tradition. We chose a Shabbat date several months in advance, and I began to prepare in earnest for my Aliyah.

As a mindfulness teacher, I was delightfully surprised with all the ways this learning process let me call upon all my senses. I listened to the chanted recordings as I drove, highlighted important pauses of my parasha with my pencil, and engaged my voice to be yet another Jewish person to chant verses from Bereshit. My breath and body moved ever so slightly during my practice as if it knew it was a holy accompaniment. Not to make light of this sacred work, but like the Hokey Pokey, I put my whole self in.

Should you choose to pick up this mantle and dive deeper into the language that binds us as a people, I will share with you that my experience was quite challenging, and still is, one year later. I won’t list or categorize all the complicated grammar rules, or complain about vowels not being present in the Torah scroll, or relate to you how many days a week you need to practice sight reading. I will, however, unveil some of the great gifts you may find yourself receiving at the other end of learning Hebrew.

Upon uttering words in Hebrew, be it a prayer or a verse from the Torah, I feel completely connected. I know how to sound out the words. I know where the accent should be when the word leaves my lips. I relate to Rashi, Sarah, and and Jewish people all over the world praying the prayers in a language that was meant for every one of us. I feel intimate in my congregation with my community surrounding me. Hebrew liturgy touches me far more deeply than before I began to study.

During the months of practice, my wise husband kept telling me that when it came time to chant these words from the bimah, with the scroll rolled out before me, and the yad in my hand, that I should take it very slowly. I should savor every syllable.  Barry said that it is one of the sweetest experiences I would ever have. 

My beshert was completely right. 

On October 26 of 2019, I was called to the Torah to chant from Genesis 2:10-19. Barry blessed the Torah before and after. My children were there. They watched their mother step forward, not back.

I recount that day often, just to feel and sense the sweetness so profound on that day. There is no substitute for learning Hebrew, it is worth every ounce of effort, and I feel that it is something I continue to pursue, not only to deepen my relationship with Jewish people all over the world, but to deepen my relationship with God.  Make the letter aleph your new beginning.

You can find Debbi K. Levy teaching yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, through a Jewish lens at several congregations in Dallas, Texas, and at the Jewish Community Center. She welcomes your emails at debbiklevy@gmail.com

For more information and first steps in learning Hebrew as an adult, contact the Adult Learning Department at Temple Emanu-El at (214) 706-0000.