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Psalms, the African-American Woman & Me

Psalms, the African-American Woman & Me

If you don't know what you're saying, why say it at all?


Thirteen years ago, I left work on a blustery afternoon in Los Angeles and sat down on the bench at the bus stop. I removed a Book of Psalms from the little case I'd sewn to keep it safe and clean inside my handbag. It was a tiny, white volume – in Hebrew only – the kind you often get as a freebie with a purchase at a Jewish book store, or receive when writing a check for tzedakah. Flipping it open, I began to read.

An older African-American woman approached the bench and sat beside me. Looking up, I smiled briefly, then returned to sounding out the Hebrew words written in small type across the page of my book. After a moment, I felt the woman's eyes on me. I looked up again.

"What are you reading?" she asked.

"The Book of Psalms," I said, "in Hebrew."

"Is that so? I just love psalms."

"Me, too." I smiled some more. I liked this woman. She reminded me of my many church-going colleagues at the public school I'd taught at before switching to working at a day school. Many of these women devoted themselves to saying psalms on behalf of the sick in their community, to cooking for the elderly, and so on. I'd identified with them in many ways.

"You read Hebrew?" she asked.

"Yes, but not well," I admitted.

"Read a little of that for me."

I read a verse or two aloud, stumbling over the pronunciation a bit. Her watchful eyes made me feel self-conscious, and I performed even worse than usual.

"Do you understand what you're reading?" she asked.

"Sometimes, when the psalm is one I'm already familiar with. One we say in synagogue, for example."

"What about that one?" She stabbed a finger forward, tapped the page in front of me.

I looked at what I'd read just a moment before. "I'm not sure…" I tried to piece together some meaning from the few words I could interpret.

"What's the sense of that?" the woman said. "If you don't know what you're saying, why say it at all?"

My cheeks burned with shame. I knew that on one level, she was right. But, I wanted to tell her, I've only been observant for the last couple years… I usually read from a book where the Hebrew appears side-by-side with the English translation… I might not know Hebrew well yet, but I will learn if I keep at it. I wanted to tell her, Reciting that psalm calmed me down after a difficult afternoon of teaching. Indeed, it had helped me refocus and put my trust in God, even though the situation with one of my students appeared hopeless.

Would she have accepted any of these excuses? I wasn't sure I bought my excuses. I'll never know, because I never got a chance to explain myself. The bus pulled up. We boarded and took seats far apart on a crowded bus.

If I sat beside that woman today, I could translate what was on that page, at least most of it. After that uncomfortable encounter, I picked up an old Hebrew textbook my husband had used in college. A short while later, he bought Rosetta Stone software, and I used it. I read psalms, the daily prayers, and the Torah with interlinear translation. That way, English translations appeared directly below each word or phrase, making it easier than ever to learn new words.

As my kids grew up, I read their Israeli picture books and the flash cards they brought home from school. Little by little, I built vocabulary and learned how to identify shorashim (the basic roots in Hebrew). Years have passed, and I still have plenty of room for improvement. For example, while my comprehension has improved, my spoken Hebrew has lagged behind. But the point is: I decided to improve, worked at it, and – with God's help – I've made progress. Today, I can not only read most psalms with comprehension, but understand most of the daily and Shabbos prayers, and I am starting to recognize delicious nuggets of wisdom in the weekly Torah portion that go under the radar when you read it in English alone.

I don't think I should've been ashamed at that bus stop 13 years ago. After all, I was doing the best I could with my abilities at that moment. God certainly knew about the limits of my previous Jewish education. However, remaining satisfied with only the most rudimentary understanding of Hebrew would have prevented me from tapping into a wealth of Jewish knowledge and a closer relationship to prayer.

Yes, I suffered a little embarrassment while I sat at that bus stop on a windy day. But being honest with myself in that moment of shame forced me to grow. And so, I salute the messenger God sent to me that day on the 212 bus.

February 6, 2016

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Visitor Comments: 15

(9) Neria, February 19, 2016 6:09 PM


Dear Friends, I say yes to reading Hebrew even if our understanding is limited. Step by step and with translations we will get the meaning. It takes time and each attempt is important. Moreover, the sound of Hebrew fills the world with divinity. We're on the way.
Many Adar blessings

(8) Malka, February 12, 2016 3:16 AM

Because our Lashon kodesh is beautiful!

And what better way to connect to psalms then in David haMelechs own language!

I dont understand all the words that I recite in Hebrew and I am motivated to learn. But the language itself is Holy! Ha-shems gave us the Torah in Hebrew!

(7) Dina, February 8, 2016 7:56 PM

Yasher Koach!

I realize that the point of the article is that she was spurred on to learn more Hebreww in order to understand her prayers especially tehillim.

I grew up Reform and at confirmation, we received the Tanach, totally in English. No Hebrew whatsoever. I never learned Hebrew in school, so it was perfect for the time.

When I made Aliyah in 1973, I was on an ulpan where not only did we learn every day Hebrew, but one class was for reading the Tanach which ironically was called "The Old Testament" and was basically the only Hebrew/English Tanach that they could find at the time. I learned a lot more about Hebrew and the differences in verbs used in Torah versus modern Hebrew. It was an eye opener.

So, after a bad divorce and a return to the US, I continued to participate in the Shabbat services which were Ashekanzi, but I could only read with Sephardic pronounciation that I has learned speaking and reading modern Hebrew.

Now, I attend Chabad, and always wonder how they know when a Tav is T or S. But, I continue with how I learned in Israel.

And, my siddur as well as my book of tehillim are in Hebrew with English on the opposite page. I like to have an idea of what I am reading, yet at the same time, I am able to read the Tehillim in Hebrew and appreciate the poetry and rhythm of the Hebrew. I may glance at the English just to get an idea of what the prayer or psalm means yet I do read in the Hebrew.

But, Hebrew isn't the only way to pray. I have learned that when praying from one's heart as in hitbodedut, one is supposed to pray in one's primary language. Hashem understands all languages, especially from the heart & soul.

Kol Hakavod for learning to read in Hebrew. It is the progress that is important.

(6) Anonymous, February 8, 2016 10:42 AM

you don't need to understand

the words of Tehillim have a power even if you don't understand what you're saying. I heard this in the name of Rav Shimshon Pincus zt"l, although I don't have a source for where you can read it, or hear a recording.

Batsheva, February 8, 2016 10:38 PM

The power of Tehillim

Tefilla is described as "becharbi uvekashti" with my sword and my bow. It can work as a sword, which is effective even without too much skill, or a bow and arrow, which in order to be effective requires skill and aim.

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