It started like a typical day of school, and like any good student, I came prepared. I brought my usual first day of class materials: three black ballpoint pens, a blue spiral notebook for vocabulary and notes, and a gray JanSport backpack to tuck underneath the desk. After two months navigating Princeton’s needlessly complicated system of summer funding, I returned to Israel to participate in an Arabic language immersion program taught to Israelis in Hebrew at the Givat Haviva Center for Shared Society. About twenty of us piled in that classroom, and we all sat there, somewhat rambunctiously, waiting for instruction.
Five years prior, I was an 18-year-old student at an Orthodox Jewish religious seminary, a yeshiva in Hebrew. After finishing high school, I decided to wait a year before starting Princeton to learn Torah intensively for the first time in my life. There was something romantic to me about studying religious texts outside of a formal academic environment. The school is located in the mountains and students sit outside of the study hall looking out into the valley, literally surrounded by clouds. The entire program was in Hebrew, and of the nearly eighty students, I was one of about fifteen Americans. I wanted something real, something that would break me out of the funk I found myself trapped in at the end of high school. And so, for a whole year, I studied Torah for twelve hours a day with only men on a kibbutz an hour and a half from the nearest major city.
The yeshiva experience is built on one fundamental activity: Torah study. In Judaism, Torah study revolves around the study hall—a large communal room of tables, books, and the loud hum of learning and arguing. In pairs of two, students pour over a common text, reading it out loud as they move from sentence to sentence deciphering its meaning. It isn’t like reading a normal book; the words are locked behind both the deliberate ambiguity of the language and the deep intergenerational conversation that surrounds them. You learn the basic meaning, what’s called the pshat in Hebrew, and then cover each of the famous commentators’ interpretations, all the while forming your own opinion about the text and how it evolves through time.
When I began the experience, I knew everything would be in another language, but I didn’t realize how challenging the adjustment would be. In the study hall, I would talk in Hebrew while encountering texts written in both Hebrew and Aramaic, which doubled the amount of vocabulary I needed to learn and made it even harder to process everything in English. It was the ultimate kind of intellectual juggling; I was reading one of two foreign languages while speaking in another. The Talmud is also dreadfully confusing, and it’s composed of challenging conceptual moves that felt quite unnatural to me. But even at its most difficult, it’s hard to describe the joy of discovering the plain meaning of something that once felt impossible to understand. I watched texts that felt unbreakable unfold before me; I could see their layers fall away and their words come to life.
What attracted me to observant Judaism was its insistence that every moment can become holy. There are blessings for daily rituals, thunderstorms and rainbows, seeing old friends—anything you can imagine. When you’re in it, it feels like the whole world is cloaked in its language and that you’re a partner in bringing meaning and purpose into life. This can make even the smallest, most mundane tasks extraordinarily meaningful. Study isn’t just about covering material; it becomes about discovering the words, ideas, and physical practices to praise and sanctify the world. The better you can learn, the more deeply you can live out a higher form of the Jewish religious ideal. Learning is both a means to impassioned living and an end as something holy onto itself.
When I left yeshiva, I started to learn more about the country outside of an organized program or curriculum, and I quickly caught on that being a white American Jew came with a unique set of questions. You’re certainly not Israeli—when I would travel to Jerusalem, I would see hordes of tour buses, other Orthodox study abroad students, and recently immigrated American Jews testifying loud and clear that I was an outsider. I would watch other Americans move through public spaces with a complete disregard for the local customs, all so obliviously. Of course, then I would remember: I’m just as American as they are, but do people really look at me and see that? The answer, obviously, was that of course they did. The worst feeling was hearing myself speak Hebrew and feeling put off by my American accent. Though I was also awake to hints of what Israel was doing to the Palestinians, we were told by our Rabbis to put them aside and, on this issue alone, to not ask too many questions. In various ways, I was taught throughout my life in the Jewish community that this was my real home, but the feeling of being an outsider, especially because of the rupture between Hebrew and English, proved to me that I never really belonged.
When I moved to Givat Haviva five years later, it felt like the beginning of yeshiva again. The class day was even structured similarly, but instead of learning religious texts, we focused on the fundamentals of a new language. In the morning, there were three hours of colloquial Arabic followed by lunch and an hour and a half of formal Arabic in the afternoon. After a short break, we practiced verbs for another hour and a half, and if you wanted, there was an optional speaking tutorial until 7 p.m. Just like in yeshiva, I could barely speak the language, and I was thousands of miles away from my family and everyone I knew. After class, I would work on my homework and frantically make multi-colored flashcards to learn new words as quickly as possible. I could barely count in Arabic, and now I was trying to learn it while being taught in my second language—a language that itself had become a contested arbiter of the hierarchy of the land. When I did need to switch out of Arabic, it was into Hebrew, and in both languages, I could feel my Americanness sifting to the surface, waiting to explode.
When it comes to learning Arabic in Hebrew, there are a few decided advantages. For one thing, the verb structures are remarkably similar, though Arabic verb forms have far more depth and variety than in Hebrew. There are shared words, shared roots, and a common Semitic system of grammar that diverges with regards to prepositions and some important (and embarrassing) false cognates. They are also cousin languages, born from the same forgotten language that some linguists call “proto-semitic.” When I found shared words, they leapt out like hidden gems, and sometimes the differences between the words offered their own kind of creative tension. The word for friendship in Arabic, “saa’daaka,” is similar to the word for charity and righteousness in Hebrew, “tzedakah.” These remarkable similarities are reflected even in the composition of the Torah and the Quran. Both are understood to encompass the highest form of the language. To believers, both embody the divine revelation of God; the words themselves are holy.
As my Arabic improved, I started interacting more fluidly with the Israeli students in the program, but more importantly, I was able to speak with Palestinians in their native tongue. When I finally crossed this boundary, I saw more and more of the visceral divisions enforced by the State. Of course, I knew about the reality of the Israeli Occupation intellectually; I study it at school, keep up with the news, and most of my independent work focuses on Jewish nationalism and its implications in the Middle East. But by returning to Israel to study Arabic, I finally understood the checkpoints, the soldiers, and the brutal system of control that encompasses nearly everything there. When friends and I would leave the program to visit neighboring Palestinian cities in Israel and the West Bank, the physical landscape would change dramatically, and the contrast between the inside and the outside of Israel was enormous. As a kid, I was taught to fear Arabic letters that were really just entrance signs to perfectly normal people trying to live perfectly normal lives in a decidedly abnormal country. This summer, everything came to life: the violence and fear, the building demolitions, and the everyday brutality of military control.
In high school and the early years of college, I went through my own personal crisis about something that many American Jews need to face: Namely, that the State of Israel isn’t some fun tourist destination. It’s a nation-state like all others, but it’s also governed with an apartheid system that divides Israelis and Palestinians in fundamental ways and on numerous levels. Looking back now, I’m amazed that this needed to come as a wake-up call, but my educators and family really did teach an entirely different perspective. I grew up fully immersed in one narrative, and like most stories, it does touch on real feelings of fear and trauma and the longstanding legacy of European anti-Semitism. But that in no way excuses the Occupation and the military ethos that dominates Israeli culture. When I learned about the darker history of Zionism, I needed to reverse so much of what I thought to be true while undoing my deepest personal and communal language. Like leaving a cult, my whole world was turned upside down as I tried to gather the pieces of what was once a coherent story.
Over the course of my six weeks in the Arabic program, I tried to find a new orientation to my life in Israel/Palestine and how I related to Hebrew and Jewish practice. I was forced to learn how to cross these boundaries in language, how to dance subtly through one language and out the next, sometimes choosing to reroute it and return to English and then reenter into Hebrew. It was exhausting, both emotionally and intellectually, but it was almost always just as exhilarating. Last summer, I finally reflected on my journey into and out of Jewish observance, and on the feeling of having lost a language that once held me so intimately. I needed a new way of expressing my connection to the Jewish story and to do justice to what I had since learned—really, a new language of understanding who I am.
Gertrude Stein once wrote: “I like the feeling of words doing / as they want to do and as they have to do.” And looking back on my shift in and out of Jewish observance, both in falling in love with observant Judaism and finding myself shaken out of it, I’m reminded of how words have the power to transport you out of where you think you’re meant to be. Where do we find new words when the old ones fail us? How does a new language emerge from the rubble of our past selves? When I think about who I am as a Jew and my complicated love for it, I find myself asking: Which words do I save, even when they hurt, and how do I know when it’s time to let them go?
There’s a story in the Talmud about Moses after he shattered the first tablets brought down from Mount Sinai after witnessing the Israelites dancing around the golden calf. It’s written that Moses reascended the mountain to receive a new set of tablets, ones he wrote and no longer shaped by “the finger of God.” Rabbi Yosef explains that in the arc of the covenant, Moses included the new tablets with the old, sharing and uniting the ruptured past with the imperfect, flawed present. The broken words, what was shattered, were preserved along with what’s still whole.
Over the summer, I saw more and more of what was left within the wreckage of my old words. The past is gone; there’s no recreating the wholeness of what I cherished most in Judaism at that formative time in my life. And yet, I refuse to let go of the idealism that compelled me to change my life in unexpected ways. There’s still a religious language—one I love, cherish and try to honor—that colors every part of my life. The words and stories will guide me, even as they take new shape. There’s a necessary process of homebreaking that comes with departing from a life that’s safe and beautiful, but it holds the potential for something new. There are new ways of telling stories, and of course, new ways of imagining what’s possible that reinvent the language we use to share grief, trauma, and joy. If Diaspora Jews are serious about creating a new Jewish language, it begins by rejecting a nationalism that asserts a vision of homeland through violence and control. And down that road we find ways of bridging the tragic past and the uncertain future. Along that path we can create a new language that holds all our triumph, all our pain, and always, all our love.
One thought on “Loosening the Mother Tongue”
Beautiful and resonant piece :’)
Thank you for sharing this reflection!