In ”Return to the Orient: my experience as an Asian in Hebrew class” Martin Chen, a contributing writer to Ha’Am, recounts his experience as a non-Jewish student in a Hebrew language class at UCLA. Chen writes about why he chose this class and the hardships that he faced.
When I first entered Hebrew class during the fall quarter of 2011, I was nervous. This was my very first day as a transfer student in UCLA. Thus, a general lack of familiarity with campus life exacerbated my worries. I was a conspicuous Asian face amidst a sea of Jews.
I chose to take Hebrew, not because it fulfilled any particular requirement but because of my interest in the richness of Jewish history, culture, and language. This culture spans millennia of geographic and national fluctuations. Unlike any human civilization exposed to such turbulence, I believe that Jews have proved remarkably resilient amidst oppressive environments.
I believed that to bond with Jews, I would have to immerse myself in their language. Thus, I could better explicate the fascinating nuances of Jewish culture. I also sought to achieve literacy in the Hebrew scripts, for an enhanced understanding of Biblical texts. I see modern Hebrew as an astonishing composite of unparalleled spiritual tropes and intriguing modern sensibilities. Studying such a language could only be a fruitful endeavor.
Though compelled originally by self interest, I was initially overwhelmed by tremendous psychological burden of being the goy in the room. I was perturbed by my own conspicuousness. However, the warm acceptance I recieved led me to overcome my fear of discrimination.
The difficulties were many. We were required to master the entire Hebrew alphabet – both the printed font and the handwritten script – within a weekend. I remember drilling Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet, He, etc. over and over again but constantly falling short. This was an intimidating time; I had no foundation, nor did I have – as many as others did – an unwavering propelling force to explore the language. I am not religiously or ethnically Jewish. I survived the first phase through sheer presenarance.
When I finally grasped the consonant, the vowels augmented the complexity of Hebrew for me. There are so many different vowels to indicate the same sound in Heberw! Reading was also difficult because I would confuse different vowel types and be deterred by the similarities in the shapes of the consonants.
Baruch Hashem that the professor, Nancy Ezer, was extremely understanding and encouraged me to continue. At one point, I nearly dropped the class because typing Hebrew and the online assignments were initially so difficult. Nonetheless, in retrospect, I am glad I endured the first few weeks of the quarter.
-Martin Chan, Winter 2012