Cover, Michael

Name: Michael Cover
Location of Study: Jerusalem, Israel
Program of Study: Modern Hebrew Ulpan, Tantur Ecumenical Institute
Sponsor(s): Bob Berner


A brief personal bio:

I was born in Boston, MA, but grew up in Dallas, TX. College brought me back to New England, where I majored in Greek and Latin Classics at Harvard, sang baritone in the Glee Club, and lived three lovely years at Currier House on the old Radcliffe Quad. I spent the next year in Oxford, England, where in addition to continuing Classical studies I met my future-wife, Susanna. After seminary at Yale Divinity School, I was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, and am now completing my doctoral dissertation at Notre Dame on Biblical interpretation in St. Paul’s letters and the commentaries of Philo of Alexandria.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

In the past, a student with my specialization in the New Testament and Early Judaism would need only a reading knowledge of German and French in order to pass muster. In recent decades, however, the quality and quantity of Israeli scholarship written in Modern Hebrew has become so great that the canon of secondary scholarly languages is being opened once again.  Studying Modern Hebrew at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, under the tutelage of a certified Ulpan instructor from the Hebrew University, will provide me with a solid foundation in the rudiments of the language. Seven years of Biblical Hebrew, on which Modern Hebrew is linguistically based, and a working knowledge of Qumran and Rabbinic Hebrew, prepare me for acquiring the modern language quickly and efficiently. A basic reading knowledge of Israeli Hebrew would give me access not only classic works, like Hanoch Albeck’s Mishnah commentary, but also more recent studies relevant to my dissertation on Paul and Philo, such as Tali Artman-Partock’s dissertation (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010) on “parrhesia” in Rabbinic writings and the forthcoming Modern Hebrew translation of Maren Niehoff’s “Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria” (2011), which will contain a new chapter on Philo and Rabbinic literature. In the course of my career, I hope to continue to grow in my ability to engage Modern Hebrew scholarship, especially studies of Philo and Alexandrian Judaism, in order to better understand Philo’s relation to the Rabbinic movement in Palestine, and ultimately, the relation of both to Early Christianity.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

Studying Modern Hebrew (MH) in Jerusalem will provide a unique opportunity to learn Hebrew not merely as a scholarly language, but also as a living one. While studying at Tantur, I hope to acquire a thorough familiarity with the basic vocabulary and syntax of Modern Hebrew in the classroom and to learn the cadences of the language by listening to modern speakers throughout Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel and West Bank. One of the major difficulties for a beginner in MH (as in some other dialects) is the absence of vowels in written texts. By learning the language aurally, I hope to overcome this difficulty and render academic articles written in MH more accessible. MH should become more of a language to be spoken, less of a code to be deciphered.   In addition to these linguistic goals, I hope to gain a deeper grasp of the political, geographical, and archeological history of Israel/Palestine, not only during the Hellenistic/Roman periods which I study, but also during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, the Davidic monarchy, the Persian period, the Byzantine period, the Crusades, Ottoman rule, the British Mandate, and into the current period of Israel’s political independence as a modern state.  As a final goal, I hope to make academic and ecclesial connections at the various universities and religious institutions in the Holy Land, such as the Hebrew University, the Ecole Biblique, St. George’s College, and the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to carry on basic practical conversations in Modern Hebrew.
  2. By the end of the summer, I will be able to understand simple lectures in my field of study given in Modern Hebrew (such as talks at archeological sites).
  3. By the end of the summer, I will have increased my reading proficiency of unpointed Hebrew, both ancient and modern.
  4. By the end of the summer, I will have visited and made connections at several scholarly and ecclesial institutions in Jerusalem.
  5.  By the end of the summer, I will have acquainted myself with the topography and archeology of major biblical sites in Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Mediterranean coast, and the Judean desert(including Masada and Qumran).

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

The summer Ulpan at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem offers its students a host of language learning opportunities outside the classroom. In the first place, Professor Avi Winitizer, of the Notre Dame Theology Department, will be onsite organizing excursions in the Jerusalem area, which will introduce students to major cultural and historical sites. Some of these presentations (according to my current understanding) will be given in Modern Hebrew.  I also plan to practice modern Hebrew outside the classroom by navigating the city, visiting shops, and meeting with faculty from the Hebrew University. Additionally, there is a Hebrew-speaking Dominican community of the St. James Vicariate, founded by Fr. Marcel Dubois, where I will attend services and hear the church’s liturgy celebrated in the language of the Old Testament. Finally, several students from my cohort at Tantur have been invited to dinner on a Kibbutz by the parents of one of our colleagues.


Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

Barukim HaBa’im: “Welcome”

We’ve been in the Jerusalem Ulpan for roughly two weeks, and at five hours a day, I can feel my mind beginning to shift into Hebrew thinking. It’s strange to finally be speaking the modern version of a language that I’ve read for 7.5 years. As a thought experiment to try and understand my experience, imagine that you were a native Chinese speaker, who had read and studied Old English and also Chaucer’s Middle English. Then, this June, you travel to Notre Dame and sit an English class for international students, hearing many of the classical words and verb forms with new spellings used in a variety of novel ways, both in the classroom and the street. The analogy is imperfect, but that’s the idea.

The first week was largely devoted to learning the present tense: a paraphrastic conjugation, made up of the present participle and a noun/pronoun, which does not really exist in Biblical Hebrew (actually, Biblical Hebrew probably doesn’t distinguish tense at all). I’m learning to form participles quickly in my mind encoding–thankfully, many of the forms are quite familiar. This first tense has enabled me to begin having conversations with native speakers at a very rudimentary level, but a helpful one nonetheless.

I’ve also begun meeting my goal of reading unpointed texts. Usually in a Hebrew class, I insist on marking all the vowels (points) under the consonants. However, our teachers (Ira and Rachel) insist on us writing as few vowels as possible and seldom use them on the chalkboard. As a result, my facility at pointing (both in assignments and on road signs) has increased exponentially. Incidentally, having two teachers is quite helpful, since we get to spend extended periods of time speaking with two different fluent speakers who have different intonations and vocal ranges.

We’ve also done quite a bit of traveling, both into the Old City and around the Land. I’ve used my Hebrew on almost every occasion, from asking directions in Hebrew to the aqueduct in Caesarea, to finding out prices in the Old City markets, to talking with Israeli cab drivers, to interpreting grocery receipts, and even in navigating Hebrew phone menus while looking for a room at a kibbutz in En Gedi.

There’s much more on the horizon. We’ve begun a supplemental reading group in the afternoons (taught by Ira) where we practicing reading aloud unpointed academic articles in Modern Hebrew. We’ll also be going to Meggido on the 21st with the Hebrew University Bible Dept., and hearing much discussion there in Modern Hebrew. I also hope to meet with a professor or two at the Hebrew University in the coming weeks to discuss my dissertation and future research goals.

I’ll close with one of my favorite new phrases: “Baruk HaBa.” This is how you say “welcome” in MH, and the plural “Barukim HaBa’im” is printed at the exit of Israeli National Parks. This phrase, however, literally means “Blessed is he who comes” and is drawn directly from the Hebrew of Ps 118:26 (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD”). We Christians recite these words each Sunday in the mass during the Sanctus, in the words “Benedictus qui venit.” This is one of the most thrilling parts about learning and hearing modern Hebrew: to experience a language, which is intimately known through liturgy and scripture, being spoken in Israel as a vehicle of casual conversation. One cannot quite extricate the sacred from the secular, as the old idioms receive new life on the lips of their native-speaking daughters and sons.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

לאט, לאט

[NB: This post is a little late; it contains reflections from the end of Week 3]

It’s been three weeks now, and we still know only the present tense (paraphrastic participle) in ModH. Despite what might seem like minimal progress (in light of the full modern grammar), we’re actually moving faster than the usual level aleph as taught at the University (three chapters ahead, at least) and are learning lots of new vocabulary. And—there’s much one can accomplish with the present, including most basic inquiries about information.

A second difficulty is the speed at which most Israelis speak. Even if I knew all the grammar in a sentence, chances are the pace would still be too fast for me to catch it. A third frustration has to do with the complexities of socio-linguistics: when to speak in Hebrew and to whom. As is common knowledge, Jerusalem is a city rent by political and religious tension. Its sounds are a polyphony of (seemingly) every language on earth (cf. Acts 2:5–11), from Amharic and Armenian to Slavic and Yiddish. Most modern street signs, moreover, are written in three languages (not unlike another famous sign written in this city: see John 19:20): Hebrew, Arabic, and English. One hears Hebrew most places and many Arabs speak it, but the sounds of Arabic also color the environment, from the daily calls to prayer to the colloquial conversations or fiery radio preaching discernible to anyone who rides an “Arab bus” (East Jerusalem Bus Company). On top of this, most Arabs are (rightly) quite proud of their facility in English. At the Dead Sea I ask an Arab how much a drink cost in Hebrew, and he answered me in Arabic.

It was all the more my surprise when, riding back to Tantur on the Arab bus one evening, I fell unwittingly into a Hebrew conversation with the Arab man sitting next to me. He showed me a picture of his son on his cell phone and began speaking in Arabic. I replied in English, to which he mumbled that he didn’t know much English and suggested Hebrew. I assented and he began to tell me about his son’s study in Germany, his work for various international organizations, and found myself naturally asking questions in Hebrew. It was not flawless, but we never switched into English. This is the kind of conversation which studying here facilitates, and I hope I have many more like it.

Of course, other conversations have not been so successful. A day after my conversation on the Arab bus, I met a Jewish Israeli waiting for the Jewish (Egged) bus along the Derek Hebron. I was tired, my mental energy sapped from the heat. She began speaking quickly, and though I could tell she wanted to know when or if such-and-such a bus stopped where we were, I had neither the knowledge nor the energy to understand and respond. But, as they say in Hebrew, לאט, לאט, “slowly, slowly.” That is how to learn a language, by being patient with yourself.

There’s one more experience worth mentioning briefly before I sign off. On Thursday (June 21), my colleague Kristin Palacios and I took a field trip to Tel Megiddo (Armageddon: the ancient fortress overlooking the Jezreel valley, the historic war theater which, according to Rev 16:16, will be the stage of the eschatological battle of the kings of the earth) with the Hebrew University Bible Department. Lectures were given by a local archeologist, a HU professor, and a graduate student, on topics ranging from the archeological strata of Bronze and Iron age Meggido, to the campaign of the Pharaoh Shishak (1 Kings 14:25), to the spiritual importance of horses and chariots (there are several edifices which may have been Solomon’s stables at Megiddo) in ancient politics and religion (which were not separable). All the lectures were given in Hebrew. This was the first time I had had the chance to hear native speakers speaking at a University level for an extended period without concern for the presence of non-native speakers. At first, it was almost impossible to understand anything. Then gradually, לאט, לאט, with the help of Hebrew handouts and Kristin’s knowledge of the history of the site, we both began to piece things together. No doubt many of the nuances were lost. But by early afternoon, we could hear and look up Biblical verses spoken aloud in Hebrew (using Hebrew letters for numbers) and follow the major contours of the talks, including discussions of the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv schools of historiography. We checked our gleanings in English with the speakers later on. All in all, a success. לאט, לאט.

P.S. More to come on Journaling Task 4 in the next post, on life in Israel as a political (Arab Christian) minority).

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

This being my second experience in language immersion learning, I can see several things more clearly about my own process of language acquisition. First, learning from native speakers who resolve to talk only in their mother tongue and provide ample opportunities for students to speak is the surest way to advance. The other factors which directly contribute to one’s progress are prior grammatical training and the total time spent in abroad. Trying to acculturate in the course of one month when surrounded by the Anglophone community at Tantur proved something of a challenge. That challenge was met by daily trips into the Old City, navigating buses, visiting a professor at the Hebrew University, and going on an archeological field trip to Megiddo. I managed to visit most of the geographical areas that I planned (the Judaean Desert, Caesarea Maritima, the Galilee). Seeing places on weekends perhaps detracted from studying the language, but the acculturation benefits involved well made up for this. While I didn’t emerge from my first month of spoken Hebrew able to understand academic lectures, I did attempt this on several occasions and look forward to future opportunities.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

What impressed me most about the time at Tantur (in terms of worldview) were the unique intellectual and cultural efforts, of European Jews in particular, that went into the building of the state and culture of Israel. I was especially impressed by the diversity of the Israelis themselves, hailing from across the globe—Moscow, Ethiopia, Europe, America, etc. The more I got to know the place, the more the divisions between different groups of Jews became apparent: Sephardi and Ashkenazi, European and Arab Jews, Haredi, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, and secular. Perhaps one of the largest division was between the observant and non-observant Jews, typified by the religious capital, Jerusalem, and the cultural/financial capital, Tel Aviv. If one adds to these complexities the various Christian and Muslim groups for whom Jerusalem is also home, then the current political gridlock becomes far more understandable (although not less lamentable). To someone considering applying for an SLA grant, I would offer two pieces of advice. First, the more you have studied the language in advance of the immersion experience, the better. Second, two months is much better than one, but one is not none. If you can swing a longer stint abroad, your language acquisition will more than double.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

The SLA language experience has given me a foothold in Modern Hebrew, a foundation on which I intend to build throughout my academic career. To continue this process, in the coming year, some of my colleagues will be studying Modern Hebrew, Level Beth, in an online Ulpan. Due to teaching responsibilities I will not be able to do this. However, there will be various Hebrew reading, watching, and cultural opportunities which I hope to pursue. These include monthly Israeli movie nights, hosted by Professors Avi Winitzer and Asher Kaufmann; the Modern Hebrew reading group hosted by Professor Winitzer (Spring Term); and a visit from Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab and the creator of Israeli smash comedy hit, Arab Labor, in March. I will also continue engaging Modern Hebrew articles in my research on Paul, Rabbinic Judaism, and Philo of Alexandria, and continue to grow in my language acquisition, as they say in Ulpan, לאט, לאט, “slowly, slowly.”