So I seem to have inadvertently started learning Hebrew.

I was working for Hillel as an usher at Yom Kippur services, and after gleaning some useful Yiddish from a grad student (shabbas goy, "Sabbath gentile", because while there are seemingly-endless varieties of work observant Jews are not supposed to do on holy days, nowhere on the list does it say you cannot hire the goyim to follow you around and do it for you) and explaining to several people that I had no idea what the difference was between the Conservative and Reform services (my solid Irish family is technically Roman Catholic, entering into our fifth consecutive decade of lapsitude), I headed into the boring stretch of the job. Hillel issues (free) tickets to their services for gatekeeping purposes, and the ushers have to stay on duty in case anyone comes in late. Essentially, you just hang out at the door and eavesdrop.

I did the same for Rosh HaShanah. High Holiday services involve a lot of chant-singing. The rabbi at BU has a remarkably nice voice. The kid on the shofar needed to work on his embouchure, but I suppose you can't have everything. It's not like you're going to get a lot of practice using a ram's horn as a vuvuzela.

The services are a mix of English and Hebrew, much like Catholic Mass is mostly English with the priest occasionally muttering in Latin, and for the first couple hours of Rosh HaShanah the only things I could pick out of the not-English were shanah tovah and Adonai. I dragged maybe a half-dozen more words kicking and screaming out of that one, including noting that the plural of yom is yomim, and realizing that either I am missing some grammar or some idiosyncratic phrases. If shanah tovah is 'good year' and Yom Tov is 'good (holy) day', then adjectives must come after the noun (and there is some kind of grammatical gender thing going on with those two as well), yet Rosh HaShanah is supposedly 'New Year'. Either that's not a literal translation or there's something weird about being 'new' in Hebrew. I suspect the former; there was some talk of b'Yom Dim versus Yom ba dim -- spelling exceptionally dubious there -- in whatever is the Jewish equivalent of a sermon, so there are infix prepositions in play somewhere.

They gave me a chair for Yom Kippur, so I snaffled a prayer book off the Reform table and stuck my nose in it, at about six in the evening. By eight, I was marveling at the glorious, almost transcendental, inaccuracy and unhelpfulness of whatever system they were using to write the Hebrew out in Roman letters. I don't even really read Hebrew, and I knew that wasn't really what it said. I realize Hebrew is not one-to-one in its original form -- at least two of the niqud vowel marks must say 'ah', and there are two different ways to write /v/, among other things -- but it certainly wasn't a strict transliteration or they would have paid more attention to alef, 'ayin, and silent hei. And if it was an attempt at transcription, then there was some serious jiggery-pokery going on in the Q/K/Kh/Ch/H axis which categorically did. not. help.

I realize this is not normal, sticking my nose into a book and looking up two hours later having cracked about half of a new abjad out of boredom. On the other hand, it's normal for me, and it's annoyed me enough to go looking for a siddur of my own, because the format lends itself well to reverse engineering things via the Rosetta Stone method (the actual tablet, not the language lessons company, they're useless for me). I have a couple on the Kindle, but I can't flip back and forth easily, and they're PDFs with unadjustable font size. Hmph.


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