Hebrew, as spoken by native Israelis, is one high, piercing pitch that never changes. It comes out in a rapid-fire staccato rhythm that never varies.
About 40 percent of the language is phlegm. Three of the 22 consonants in the Hebrew alphabet, including the R, are the sound that comes when the back of your tongue vibrates against the soft palate. We don’t have this sound in English; we can’t even spell it. When English speakers say it, it often comes out as a plain H, as in Ha, a K, or a guttural sound that is obviously forced.
Arabic has a beautiful, soft fricative that sounds like the wind rustling through the cedars of Lebanon. A native Israeli’s fricative sounds like he’s about to cough something up from deep in his throat..
There just aren’t many Hebrew words that don’t contain the fricative letters Chet, Choff, or Raish. Many Hebrew words have two fricatives, and practically all sentences have at least a few.
Israeli Hebrew is so ugly, and Arabic so beautiful, that it might be one of the reasons Arabs hate Israelis so much.
I had no idea why I was thinking about this until Friday afternoon, Oct. 15, 2010. I looked at the temple calendar and saw that the Torah portion for this week is Lech L’cha, Genesis, Chapters 12-17.
I read Lech L’cha from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah, October 20, 1961.
Lech L’cha. can mean “get out for you own good,” “for your own benefit,” or simply “get the hell out.”
In Genesis: 12, God tells young Abraham to get out of his father’s house, and follow God to a place God will show him. There, God will make Abraham a great nation.
As a teen-ager, I went to a Jewish summer camp, where we read a chapter of the Bible aloud in Hebrew before supper on Friday. They always gave the job to an Israeli.
One week, they decided to read Genesis: 12. The Biblical Hebrew is to modern Israeli Hebrew about what Shakespeare is to Ozzie Osbourne.
So the Israeli native who read my chapter ripped through it, with no feeling or inflection, in that loathsome, piercing, rapid-fire accent. Later, I mentioned to someone that I didn’t care for the way she read it.
“She’s from Israel,” I was told, “so it’s right.” That’s like saying any kid from England can read Shakespeare aloud, and get it right. I think that’s when I started to hate the Israeli accent.
The Bris: The Jewish Circumcision Party
Lech L’cha ends in Chapter 17, when 99-year-old Abraham
circumcises himself (OUCH!) “in the flesh of his foreskin,” along with his 13-year-old son Ishmael. On the same day, Abraham circumcised all the men in his household, whether they were born in it, or bought from a stranger. (OUCH! OUCH! OUCH!)
To this day, Jewish boys are circumcised in the flesh of their foreskins when they are eight days old. (OUCH!) It’s disgusting. We make a party for the occasion.
A dear friend of the family gets the honor of holding the baby in his lap while the mohel, a Jewish functionary who cuts penis parts off innocent babies, does his job. He’s trained to do it in one motion, so fast you hardly see it.
But the baby feels it. In my grandfather’s time, they killed the babies’ pain by letting them suck on a handkerchief soaked in whiskey. Yet, there was very little acoholism among Eastern European Jews.
Years ago, an old college friend offered me the honor of holding his first-born at his bris. Somehow, I weaseled out it.
So father and mother asked their other close friend, Itzhak Perlman, the concert violinist. Perlman is a very funny, down-to-earth guy in person. While we all waited for the mohel to arrive, he wandered around the large apartment aimlessly, saying “Why do we do this? I don’t like this. Does anybody like this? Do you like this?”
Judaism has many beautiful traditions and celebrations in the annual cycle and life cycle. The bris is not one of them. And to think, it all started with Lech L’cha.