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.