The difference between an adult Hebrew class and what they taught me for six hours a week when I was ten: "I love wine" is a much more memorable phrase than the ones my third-grade morah (teacher) tried to shove into my brain, and which immediately fled. Many things in my life are backwards and just fine (my nieces and nephews are older than me, for example), but chanting Torah without being able to hold even the simplest conversation in Hebrew was getting on my nerves. I felt like a grown-up hiding illiteracy, ashamed to either admit it or get help.
So I signed up for 16 weeks of Beginner Aleph, i.e. Who is he? He is a man. What's this? This is a big table, etc. I already know a lot of what we'll be learning, like the alphabet and how to read (amazing how you can do that without actually being able to write all the letters), but my vocabulary includes very few words coined after the year 70. We're four students, a group that could only find each other in New York. There's a woman in her 50s from Russia (so let's call her R.) who wants to be able to speak to her Israeli boyfriend in his native language, and M., a guy from Brooklyn who works in food service, sounds like Vinnie Barbarino, and will be moving to Israel after he marries his sabra fiancée. And V., a Chinese-American father of five daughters, three of whom speak Hebrew fluently thanks to their Israeli mother. Although he's been married for ten years, V. can barely say "Shalom," and his wife and kids are getting annoyed. He entered a state of panic during our first class whenever Yossi, the teacher, introduced a new letter:
"Look at the top of page 2 and tell me what it says."
(V., an investment banker, turns pages and tries to melt into the floor by sinking as low as possible into his chair.)
"I'm sorry, I can't find page 2..."
(I lean over and help him flip past the intro section that's labeled with Hebrew letters instead of Roman numerals. V. furrows his brow and looks worried.)
"Vav? Or is it a bet? Um..."
"Mem," prompts Yossi. (We learned this letter two and a half minutes ago.) V. shrugs and rubs his forehead. "It's really confusing."
(I imagine an impatient Mrs. V. waiting at home by the front door, lips pursed and feet tapping, wondering how far Mr. V. was able to get during this latest bout of learning.)
And then there's me, a little baffling to Yossi, who keeps quizzing me on the meaning of words I don't yet know. He can't seem to believe that I lead services regularly yet am unable to order a falafel. It's going to be an interesting 15 more weeks.