Imagine finding out at the ripe old age of 46 that there was a letter in the English alphabet that you never knew existed. Would you be left awestruck? Would you be temporarily blinded by this flash of enlightenment? After all, how often does a shiny new nugget about the language you speak, write, sing, read, think and feel in, fall into your lap? You may well come away from such a revelation altogether buoyed.
I felt my knees buckle, my head swirl, throat turn dry, and a cold sweat break out across my face.
“You look pale,” my wife observed. “What happened?” “Turns out that I’ve been mispronouncing ‘Tzade’ as ‘Tzadik’ for the last 40 years or so,” I lamented.
To the uninitiated, ‘Tzade’ is the 18th letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. Meanwhile, ‘Tzadik’ is a title in Judaism given to the most righteous among us. This A-list includes Moses and other characters from the Bible’s cast of thousands. There are also spiritual masters like Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the medieval Jewish philosopher, translator of the Bible into Arabic, commentator, and author of a Hebrew dictionary. There are even 36 hidden Tzadikim. According to Jewish mysticism, every generation produces at least 72 holy men, 36 who live in Israel, and 36 who live outside of Israel. We have no idea who these righteous among us are, except that their good deeds and sterling character keep our world going.
I’m not the only one who confuses ‘Tzade’ with ‘Tzadik’. It’s about as minor an infraction as the comma splice or split infinitive. Difference is that I KNOW about those common English language grammar mistakes, and choose to ignore them as I see fit. But the swapping out of ‘Tzade’ for ‘Tzadik’ was an act of criminal negligence.
Even more humbling was the fact that it was my eight-year-old daughter who cottoned onto my hint of illiteracy. She’s in second grade now, and developing a healthy addiction to letters, words, and reading. It was while I was helping her with her homework one evening that my terrible secret, a secret unbeknownst to me, was exposed
Getting skunked this way by a language I’ve struggled to make my own since moving back to Israel confirmed my fear that Hebrew will never supersede English as MY language. Sure, I read the daily newspapers, watch the nightly newscasts, and converse in the vernacular when arguing with the bank. But the soundtrack of my life, language of my dreams, and mapping of my thoughts remain stubbornly in English.
And perhaps this is as it should be. The language we imbibe as children contributes no small measure to the formation of our identities. To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.” My experiences, knowledge, and beliefs are coded in the same language used and mastered by Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. I quite enjoy being linguistically linked to such righteous fellows.
Yet by raising our children in Israel, my wife and I are ensuring that their unique personalities will be nourished by the letters, grammar, syntax, idioms, Biblical allusions, and quirks of a language that until about 70 years ago was buried among the ruins of history.
I quite like the idea of being linked by family bonds to the perpetuation of the Hebrew language, and the Jewish people.
This piece was originally published in Lay of the Land on February 19, 2020.