Learning the Service of the Heart … in Hebrew

By Rise Dimson | Issue Date: May 2012

Rise Dimson and Carol Dikman during a study trip in Israel. Photo: Penny DannenbergUntil I became a member of BJ I didn’t feel the need to read Hebrew. I knew many prayers by heart and was content to read the English translation while the congregation prayed. At BJ the passion and the power of the tefilah made me want to add my voice to my newfound community. I had learned my “alef bet” and Hebrew words, but, like many of my generation, I lacked the ability to translate the prayers I chanted each Shabbat into English. After becoming proficient in reading I joined a Bat Torah class and was called to the Torah, celebrating this achievement with family and friends. I continued my studies by traveling to Israel with Roly and fellow congregants and attending the Shalom Hartman Institute. Later I enrolled in Me’ah, a two-year program focusing on the chronology of Jewish history. Though these experiences introduced me to text study, biblical history, and Torah study, I was not capable of delving into the meaning of the liturgy.

Hebrew text.Six years ago I gave myself the gift of studying biblical Hebrew. My goal was to unpack the words of the Siddur and the Torah, an ambitious endeavor for someone who is, as I am, dyslexic. I searched for and finally found a patient, dedicated, and brilliant teacher, Danny Mond. He taught me the rules of grammar and encouraged me to build my vocabulary. Then we opened the Siddur and, with my dictionary, started to read and translate the Shema. I worked at home and in coffee shops, with Danny repeatedly writing the Hebrew and then the English. after I had achieved a comfort level with the Shema, we translated the prayers that make up the K’riat Shema and then the amidah, utilizing the same process. I loved doing my homework and found my lessons with Danny very fulfilling. The Siddur came alive in my hands and spoke quietly to me.

Several years into my studying, Danny expanded my study to include learning Torah. I asked Carol Dikman to be my hevruta partner. The writings of Rashi and Nehama Leibowitz formed the basis of our study, which was enriched with midrashim that Danny brought to each lesson. Line by line, Carol and I read and translated each parashah. After two and a half years of dedicated study we had taken in each word of Bereshit. We celebrated with our families and Danny’s family. Danny’s father is a rabbi, and he led a teaching to which Carol and I added our reflections.

When Danny took a full-time teaching position at Solomon Schecter School in Westchester, I envied his students. I am still finding it difficult to begin my search for a new teacher.

Did I accomplish my goal of learning biblical Hebrew? Yes and no. Yes, I can translate many of the prayers we daven on a regular basis. I find my interpretations resonate for me more profoundly than what is written in English in the Siddur. I find that the more I study, the more I grapple with what I don’t know and want to learn. This journey never ends, as throughout the history of our people study remains one of the pillars of Judaism.

Rise Dimson has been a BJ member for 14 years.