As they always do in ulpan-style classes, Yossi went on and on in Hebrew even though we understood very little of what he was saying. I felt like an alien who had eavesdropped on Earth radio signals her whole life; the sounds of the words were comfortable and familiar, although mostly incomprehensible. Then he pointed to the top of the luah, the whiteboard: "Lemala," he said. And wrote a kametz, a vowel, below a letter on the board: "Lemata."
A chill went through my body, the same sensation of grave, mysterious importance I felt when hearing the cantor sing El Maleh Rahamim for the first time since my childhood of many funerals. Why should the words for "up" and "down" make me nervous? I repeated them to myself, and suddenly remembered:
Bishiva shel mala uvishiva shel mata
Al da'at ha makom v'al da'at hahakal
Anu matirin l'hitpallel im ha'avaryanim.
"By authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below,
with divine consent and with consent of this congregation,
we hereby declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed."
This is the introduction to Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur. Every September, during one brief moment just as evening falls, I hear these lines and read the translation. But I rarely consider the meanings of individual words. Hebrew is mostly a language of sounds to me, vowels and consonants dancing and singing around my heart and corresponding to no ordinary grammar. I get the point; I quake in my boots as prescribed. I understand without understanding. Like a flash fire, those Kol Nidre syllables were seared into my brain over the years after less than a minute of combined seconds of utterance, just waiting for the key to unlock their true meaning. I think I've lacked the ability to comprehend any further, as my previous abortive attempts to learn seem to indicate. I'm ready now.
My Hebrew class is down one student (V. didn't show up this week, no explanation), and R. will be away on vacation for the next three. She promised Yossi that her Israeli boyfriend would quiz her every night by the fire, aprés ski. That leaves just Vinnie Barbarino and I. (He's very motivated; his fiancée demands a thorough report after each class.) I'm kind of surprised that in this city boasting more Jews than all of Israel, only a handful of schools offer adult ed beginner Hebrew, and they attract barely enough students to fill a class. Maybe the picture (temunah) is healthier at more advanced levels.