3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

A Brief Look at Some Native American Languages

Today is an American holiday fraught with controversy. In its honor, I have decided to reflect upon some indigenous languages of the Americas, one of which I know quite well and the other two of which I don’t.

  1. Sioux / Lakota

 

For those of you wondering what language was described in my book collection as a mixture of Polish, French and Chinese, wonder no more!

 

Obviously this statement can only be qualified in regards to the way the language sounds, and even then there are those that may try to call it into question. For one, the “l” sound in Lakota sounds very much like the English “w”, not unlike the Polish letter “ł”.

 

Lakota has a language forum for all levels (from beginner until Native Speaker) and a language consortium as well. Have a look yourself:

 

http://www.lakotadictionary.org/phpBB3/

 

http://www.lakhota.org/

 

One thing that is noteworthy about Lakota is that, unlike either of the other members on this list, it is a very purist language.

 

For those of you who have studied Chinese you may remember that various country names are given new versions that match a certain sound in the language being borrowed from and a meaning in Chinese that is deemed relevant.

 

Lakota is even more rigid in fact that the names given to countries don’t even match any sound in the language. The word for “Germany”, for example, literally means “the land of people who speak badly”

 

iyasica makhoche

There is a historical reason for this: American settlers were expected to speak English, and the Sioux picked up the language accordingly. As for the German-American settlers that spoke German and not English—they were known as the “people who speak badly” because they couldn’t be understood. The name stuck and remains in place until today.

 

I actually did some searches in the Lakota Dictionary for “Israel”, “Austria”, and “Switzerland” and it didn’t turn up anything.

 

The words for modern inventions are likewise all neologisms, not unlike the situation found in Icelandic, also noted for being notoriously purist.

 

Some things you may recognize in the journey to learning (which I have barely begun because of sustaining other languages): the word “tipi” comes from Lakota, as does a system for giving names to outsiders, similar to that of Chinese (also quite purist). Obviously this system has been featured in American popular culture depictions of Native Americans.

 

For those of you who might have played some of the Age of Empires games, I recall vaguely that one of the installments did feature Sioux soldiers using bits of genuine Lakota.

 

Before I go onto the next language, I should say that the Lakota Language Consortium has created a version of the Bernstein Bears cartoons dubbed into the language!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nta0aAQyVIA&list=PLWebueRr1D03NQzavj6yIHZimqbjFhQ1Y

 

  1. Greenlandic / Kalaallisut

 

“Oh, that’s the language with the really long words, right?”

kid banging on a typewriter

Greenlandic is an Eskimo-Aleut language with a good balance of purism and Danish import words. The word “Inuit” is actually a Greenlandic word, meaning “people”. For that matter, “Igloo” also comes from the word “illu”, meaning “house”.

The names of the countries in Greenlandic almost all come from Danish, with exceptions made for Greenland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and the Faroe Islands (arguably America, which could be referred to as “USA”, “Amerika”, or “Naalagaaffeqatigiit”, which is a literal translation of “United States”).

Some linguistics have referred to Greenlandic as the world’s hardest language, and therefore I should consider a blogpost as to why learning Greenlandic isn’t as hard as they might thing. But this is not that post.

I wrote about Greenlandic in more detail here: https://worldwithlittleworlds.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/thats-all-one-word-learning-introductory-greenlandic/comment-page-1/

Interesting fact: Greenlandic was featured in Gravity, spoken by an off-screen character singing a lullaby.

For those of you more intrigued by Greenland’s more modern side (which I get asked quite often about by people), look no further than these links:

Here is a show on KNR (the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation), in which video games and movies are reviewed:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NjR5uAaAZM

 

One of my favorite television shows back before KNR did a cleanup of its site a few weeks ago was this show, “Pisuttuarpunga” (a kid’s show, “I was out for a walk”). It is based on the premise of a Greenlandic children’s song about what kids think about when the adults in their lives are away working.

The premise is based on the song (featured in the video), and the main character who lives in a tent spends each episode trying out a new job in real-life modern Greenland, and learns the basics of each in a given episode. Extraordinarily educational, and I believe there are two seasons for sale on DVD (but hopefully the free episodes will come back to the site soon):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtjEdZ8XxiY

 

My journey through Greenlandic Language and Culture has been quite extensive so I invite you to look around this blog and read what you want on the topic, should you be interested.

  1. Nahuatl

 

“The Elegant Language”, as it literally translates to, was formerly known as “Aztec” by many. My Nahuatl book (which is in German) asks the following question in the introduction: “Aztec? Hasn’t it already died off?”

 

No, actually, and when you think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. If the Spanish colonists were trying to convert the local populations, wouldn’t it make sense to learn the local languages to reach out to them? (The same logic that led to the New Testament being translated into Yiddish…the result is positively hilarious, I assure you…)

 

That book also offers the following remark about the indigenous languages of Mexico: there are many of them, and they are about as diverse as German, Korean, and Swahili. (Hence: if you think that a given Maya Language is similar to Nahuatl in any way…rest assured that English and Icelandic are closer to each other than Maya Languages to Nahuatl)

 

Nahuatl is probably the best known of the “Nahuan Languages”, which is why my book regularly offers dialectal varieties.

 

Students of Nahuatl may be surprised with the amount of words that may be familiar to them in some context already—“Tomato”, “Avocado”, “Chili”, “Mexico” and “Chocolate” all have their origins in the language. Many place names of Mexico are similarly indebted, as are import words known to speakers of Mexican Spanish.

 

Like Greenlandic, Nahuatl is polysynthetic, as you could possibly guess from looking at the Nahuatl “Huiquipedia” : http://nah.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cal%C4%ABxatl

 

One thing that quite vexes me about learning Nahuatl, however, is the relative lack of multimedia material (e.g. the likes of the Greenlandic videos seen above). Maybe I just need to look in other places…

 

…but it is good to know that there are many universities throughout the world that are teaching it and that there are eager students willing to learn!

 

Will you be one of them?