Friday, August 05, 2005

The Speed of Prayer

There have been a number of blogversations going on about tefilah, tehillim, and other good things that start with a 't' sound, by AskShifra and on DovBear and other places, and, well, I'm thinkin' about it all.

First, the basics:

1. I was raised in a Very Reform Shul. (Insert suits, hearty summer-camp Zionism, rabbis in robes but no yarmulkes, an organ, German accents, and the absolute conviction that Yiddish was dead, dead as a doornail, and not a minute too soon. I'm getting nostalgic, but that's another post...)

2. We were taught to read Hebrew with Israeli pronunciation. We were told it was Sephardic. We were told it was better than the awful kind of Hebrew with all those s sounds some of us heard at home.

3. We were not taught to daven. We were not taught to DO much. One of my more baffling memories of childhood is the time the shul let Chabad come and try to get all of us kids in the religious school involved in a weird project featuring Beetle Bailey in tzitzit--I am NOT hallucinating, I still have the flyer somewhere--called the Army of Hashem. I know, they sound like a subplot from Frank Herbert's Dune books. They wanted the boys to wear tzitzit and the girls to light Shabbos candles (this I was already doing), and all of us to daven Modeh Ani. I cannot imagine why the shul agreed to this, or, perhaps more importantly, where they thought nine year old boys going to Temple Emanu-El were going to get tzitzit from. Or what their parents would do if they actually wore them.

4. Then I went to rabbinic school for a year after college.

Despite all of this, I actually can't read Hebrew. I mean, I can read words I understand, and sound others out, but I am horrifically slow. I joked on another blog recently that I regard saying tehillim as a sort of prayer filibuster. Listening to me read tehillim would lead anyone to heal anyone, just to make me stop sounding the words out already. (I have also been known to spend hours in the lady's room, hoping that someone else will have started to lead the Birkat by the time I emerge.)

This has been a long-standing barrier to one of my long-standing goals, which is to begin to daven the Amidah daily. The key problem I've run into each time I've begun is that I only know the first three or four brachot with any fluency, and then I have to read. Correction. Aaaaai. Haaaaaa-vuh. Toooooooooo. Ruh-eeeeeeee.........duh. It takes a terribly long time, and stomps any kavvanah I might bring to the process flat.

Today I discovered that at this site they actually have the Weekday Amidah transliterated. SCORE! I'm going to get a printout and work with this until I actually know the words well enough to start reading the Hebrew properly.

But I would love to get over this problem. Has anyone got ideas? I know the letters, I just can't seem to scan properly. I read English very fluently, can read Latin off the page, French, Spanish--what gives with the Hebrew? Has anyone found anything that speeds them up or gives them more confidence? My Hebrew is not good, but it is good enough that I can follow what's happening in Tanach most of the time. It's just SLOOOOOOOW.


Eliyahu said...

my most recent hebrew teacher, a cantor, firmly believes transliterations make it harder to learn. me, i'm often baffled by the inconsistencies in different transliterated texts. i wonder if they have classes on reading the transliteration? i would suggest finding a web site that has the audio, and following along with that. i do have a CD from UAHC called Learn Hebrew Today which goes through the basics with sound, but i think you've been there already. good shabbos!

willendorf said...

Wow, this brings back some baffling Chabad memories from my childhood. I remember the Mitzvah Tank stopping in my neighborhood (in Brooklyn!) and some guy with long peyos piling Shabbos candleholders atop my armful of library books (one for me, one for my mother, and one for my grandmother z"l, even though I told him Grandma already lit Shabbos candles). I also remember a Tzivos Hashem comic book featuring Fred and Wilma Flintstone (which today strikes me as particularly bizarre, since Wilma is in no way tznius). Sample dialogue from Wilma: "Fred bubby . . . "

I grew up in a secular (Mom and Dad)/lapsed Orthodox (Grandma) family, and am, like you, figuring out how to make my own way as an adult Jew. I enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more of the journey.

aviezer said...

I sympathize with your Hebrew woes. I think transliteration is fine for speed, but for you to learn, you should be using the Hebrew. I think that time outside of prayer is needed, Then, implement in prayer. Five minutes a day is enough to practice.
Of course, if you still need to work on your letters, that's a different story. I could probably be more helpful if I really tried...(sorry)

p.s. I basically made it here through some convoluted blog-hopping and becasue you're from El Cerrito, which is in my kids current favorite song by Laurie Berkner "Victor Vito" -- funny, no?

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

The awful thing is, I know the letters. I even know the grammatical rules behind the vowels, and how to ID a kamatz katan, and all kinds of useful stuff. I am just horribly, terribly, slow, and incessant practice has only lead to my reading lots aloud very slowly.

I didn't know there was a song about, or called, "El Cerrito". I'll have to look it up.

Anonymous said...

Back when I was teaching phonetic Hebrew reading to 3rd graders in Sunday School, I had a puzzling case. The best English reader in the class was the worst at sounding out Hebrew words. He knew the letters. He just couldn't sound out words.

But after inflicting several hundred words of Hebrew on the kidlets, I noticed that this kid was very fast at reading any Hebrew word he RECOGNIZED. And we figured it out. He was a really good English reader. Because he never sounded out words in English--he just recognized the whole words and read them. And when he recognized a word in Hebrew, he read it quickly. But he was no good at sounding out words in Hebrew, because he had no practice at sounding out English words!

Any help?

Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

Hmmm. Might be--I started sight-reading almost immediately in English.

I wonder how to overcome that, though, aside from learning more Hebrew words--not a bad idea that, though.

Anonymous said...

You know, the subject line made me think of Genoveve. "It seemed anyone who ate mother's pates died, whether prayed for or not"
Dunno why.. I'm a dork.
-- Niamh

Elisheva said...

As someone who is brand new to the Hebrew language, I can tell you what I do. I started out davening all in English, then started adding a line or two each day (or as I could). It is definitely slow going, but only adding a line or two each time speeds it up a bit.

Basically, I read some in English, some in Hebrew, and some in very slow Hebrew. This works for me. I like being able to see myself progress too.

BrooklynJewishGuy said...

You might want to contact your local Chabad Rebbitzen and simply practice reading with her. Hey, you never know, it may turn into something good.

I have a similar background, except I went to a Conservative Hebrew School. I was not as "Hebrew-reading challenged" as you describe, and about 34 years ago met up with a Chabad rabbi who gave me some personal attention and helped me develop in my Yiddishkeit (reading included).

If you were further north (like up in Davis, CA), I'd tell you to contact my son or daughter in law at UC Davis.

Best of Luck, BB in Blue Jeans.

AbleVaybel said...

I have EXACTLY the same problem. It is so embarassing, but I was absolutely enlightened by the comment about recognizing entire words. Bingo. The truly weird thing is that I always know where we are in the prayer book in Hebrew. I understand what is being said, it's not that at all, I just get the letters completely fermischt. Since childhood I've been coping with this by memorizing prayers, linking them with melodies. Boy, did that set me up for some problems trying to daven with Czechs and Yemenites!

This is not a problem I have with Russian, Greek or even Chinese. Yiddish is no easier, but I recognize more words, so I feel like less of a dolt. Sometimes I "read" Yiddish faster than my scholarly husband because he is so thorough to sound things out and I can often guess what the word will be from context in Yiddish.

BTW, please let me know about the lavender soap. I have to be in Oakland next week, should you need.