Sunday, December 5, 2010

How NOT to teach a convert or BT to pray in Hebrew

Dear creators of resources that teach people to pray in Hebrew:

I have some problems with your products, and I would like to discuss them.

Let's begin at the beginning. If I am coming to your CD/book or website to get help learning to pray in Hebrew, it's very likely that I either a) Do not read Hebrew at all or b) I read Hebrew poorly. Certainly, A is not your business; there are many other resources for that. However, you are not serving your poor Hebrew readers as we need you to. And I am willing to bet that we are the overwhelming majority of your customers.

1) Be very clear about what kind of pronunciation you are teaching us. I would rather not get into a habit, only to discover I'm using some very niche pronunciation of a vowel that the members of my community doesn't understand. There are many more accents than "Ashkenazi" and "Sefardi," and your information is not enough.

2) I will cover this more in #3, but I don't want to hear your tunes. I want to hear clear, accurate pronunciation of the prayers. I find it difficult to be sure I am pronouncing a word correctly when it is being sung, since that is so different than speaking. Amazingly, easy-to-follow pronunciation of prayers that are usually sung is apparently impossible. I am a poor Hebrew reader. Causing me to sing something "close" isn't the effect I was hoping for. I sang Aleinu wrong for months without even knowing it! Until it was pointed out, of course.

3) Getting to the tunes. Quite frankly, I don't want to learn this prayer to a tune initially anyway. If I learn the words plainly, I could apply them to any tune. But if I learn the words specifically to one tune, I can never say it with another tune. Personally, this has already happened with Aleinu. I can't just "say" it, I HAVE to sing it or else I don't know the words. My new congregation does not sing it. This is difficult and annoying. Further, there are 4 million prayer tunes in the world. I want the freedom to use the tunes of my community rather than being locked into the tune of a CD I learned with when I first began. The average FFB person grew up hearing multiple tunes to those prayers that have them, which prevented him or her from "locking in" a tune. I don't have the mental and linguistic flexibility of a child, unfortunately.

4) I know that no one wants to (nor should) say a bracha in vain. However, my understanding is that instructing a person in prayers and brachot is not halachichly a bracha in vain. I know that one adult may even say a bracha word-by-word so that another adult can say the bracha correctly. Why must these recordings only use Hashem and Elokeynu? Again, you're just confusing me and getting me into bad habits. I'm not good enough at this to be switching words around, and I will inevitably memorize the wrong thing. Do you remember how hard it is to see one word in a foreign language and have to remember that in some circumstances you must replace that word with a different foreign word? When you don't understand what you're saying, that's even harder.

All future helpers of the converts and BTs of the world, please take these things into consideration. You have the potential to make our lives much easier.

And that's what grinds my gears.


  1. I completely agree. I also got some bad habits because of this!

  2. Hello, Chavi =) I stumbled upon your blog a couple days ago, and it's a complete godsend to me since now I feel that much less lonely in my journey towards Judaism. So thank you for blogging, you're wonderful =)

    Commenting on this entry: YES. Yes! Good to know I'm not the only one with this frustration. Being trained in linguistics, I'm quite picky about learning a language as well. Once I know enough about Hebrew, I'm considering working with someone to produce much more effective learning resources. My dream.

    - ruby

  3. A very good post. I agree with about 85%. But I will hazard a guess that the point about tunes isn't universally shared. Not even close. Many older folks (50s) like myself recall that in youth movements and outreach centers, the tunes were how they got us to first learn prayers. Agreed, one should be able to daven by reading and understanding; but many people who want to be able to participate in, say, birkat hamazon/the grace after meals, rely on a common tune being used at public gatherings to help them and include them. Personally, I don't like many of the 'popular' tunes. They don't help my davening, and maybe hinder it. But it seems lots of folks out there count on them. (My personal peeve is when tunes seem inappropriate or incongruent with the content of the particular prayer.)

  4. Ha! Good points! Good luck learning Hebrew despite the dearth of resources. I wonder if there's anyone in your community who could spend a little time with you weekly or bi-weekly to help out.

  5. Have you looked into the Migdalor materials? They're for kids in classrooms, but I think they look good and they include CDs. Maybe they would work for self-teaching too. Link is here:

  6. Hi! I have a cd that I make for my students which has clearly recited versions of the prayers in addition to the chanted versions. I made this for all the reasons that you say. It wouldn't be all the prayers you might want or need, but I'd be happy to share via email if you'd like. They are Sephardic American pronunciation. Lover your blogs!
    -Cantor Neff

  7. Please can I take you up on that offer, Cantor Neff?