Riordan, Joseph

Name: Joseph Riordan
Location of Study: Israel
Program of Study: Hebrew
Sponsor(s): Robert Berner

24 thoughts on “Riordan, Joseph

  1. I’m very excited and anxious to begin my ulpan or intensive language course in Modern Hebrew. The journey to Israel is rather long (I have an eight-hour layover in Newark, then an eleven-hour flight to Tel Aviv), though I’m hoping that I’ll have some time to get started and to pick up a few helpful phrases. If nothing else, I’ll try to understand the flight instructions in Hebrew and to read some of the signs and indications on the plane.
    To be sure, I stand in a very strange relation to Hebrew, which perhaps can be described as a form of “docta ignorantia” or learned ignorance. On the one hand, I have studied biblical Hebrew for several years, so I’m very familiar with the grammar and I know many words. I work with ancient Hebrew texts on a daily basis, but up to this point it’s been primarily a language of study for me. I really have no idea how to ask where the bus runs or how to order a cup of coffee in Hebrew, as that is not the sort of language that you come across in the Bible. I’m very curious to see what biblical words and forms are preserved on the tongues of Israelis and what sounds archaic or pious or strange to their ears. I have a feeling that the only Hebrew I know will sound like all three in turn, though my aim is move from reading the texts of ancient Israelites to speaking with modern Israelis, or at least to take some strides in that direction.

  2. Beit Ticho (Ticho House) is a 19th century Arab manor, one of the first private homes built in the new city of Jerusalem. I had never heard of Dr. Ticho (much less his house) before this summer, but something about him piqued my curiosity. There was a short passage about his life in our Hebrew textbook, but I wanted to learn more, so I made the trek to Ticho House, which is now a museum and cultural center in his former home and office. Born to a Jewish family in Moravia, Avraham Ticho trained as a doctor in Vienna before moving to Jerusalem in 1912. As the founder and director of Jerusalem’s first ophthalmic hospital, he became a renowned and beloved figure in the city. There are stories about how he would somewhat brusquely drag Arab and Jewish children off the streets and into his clinic for treatment. He took all comers, rich and poor alike (including Emir Abdullah, the king of Jordan), and waged a heroic campaign against trachoma and other eye diseases that had blinded thousands of locals. The museum displays many sketches and paintings of his wife, Anna Ticho, a famous artist in her own right, along with some of their books and an eclectic collection of menorahs, which he sometimes accepted as payment for his services. However, the “relics” that most impressed me are the letters of prayerful support in many languages that arrived in the wake of his stabbing during the riots in 1929. It doesn’t take any deep familiarity with the divisions within Jerusalem to appreciate how extraordinary it is to find Jews, Christians, and Muslims all praying in unison for his speedy recovery. I felt moved to join in prayer for Dr. Ticho, who had opened the eyes of the blind and, like his namesake, became a father to many peoples – may his memory be blessed, and may his tribe increase!

  3. For whatever reason, I don’t find it very easy to get the Israelis to speak Hebrew with me. As soon as they hear my accent, they immediately switch to English, so I have to make a point of either playing dumb (which I do only when I don’t have much riding on the transaction, as it cuts off any escape into English) or insisting on Hebrew, which they tend to find puzzling, since it’s clear that their English is better than my Hebrew. They are somewhat mollified when I come clean as an ulpan student, though it’s an uphill battle all the same. I’ve traveled widely and studied many languages over the years, but I’ve never had to fight this hard to interact in the local language (even in countries like Germany or Switzerland where they speak English at least as well as the Israelis). I’ve tried out various “journaling tasks” meant to provoke conversation, albeit with mixed results. I’ve had the best luck talking about food, more specifically about hummus. I’m surprised at how passionately they fight over the title of best hummus (top contenders include the self-professed “King of Humus,” Lina’s, Abu Shukri, and Ta’ami). I confess that I had no idea that mashed chick-peas could inspire the kind of loyalty and rivalry that is usually associated with sports teams, but I’m happy to enter the fray, even if it means pontificating on a subject that is very far off my radar. If nothing else, it makes for entertaining conversation and good Hebrew practice.

  4. The monastery of Saint Étienne (St. Stephen) lies a stone’s throw from the old city of Jerusalem, just outside the Damascus Gate. It is home to the École Biblique, which is the oldest school for biblical and archaeological studies in the Holy Land. I contacted the Dominicans who run the École and arranged for our ulpan class to visit. We had a private tour of the subterranean library, which is one of the best in the world for biblical studies and cognate fields. It is also in some sense the cradle of the sort of Hebrew I am learning this summer. The librarian pointed out the well-worn grammars and dictionaries that Eliezer Ben Yehuda had used to write the first dictionary of Modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda had a very large family (his son would become the first native speaker of Modern Hebrew), and at that time the École had the only library in Jerusalem where he could find the quiet and resources to conduct his research. It is astonishing to think that the ancient language of the Bible, “dead” for so many centuries, passed from these books to the lips of millions of Israelis, including the teachers who are now instructing me. The image that comes to mind is that of Ezekiel prophesying over the dry bones that rattle and dance to life, only this miracle or “resurrection” (to be sure, a resurrection of the word rather than the flesh) is not a vision from an ancient prophet, but the reality that confronts and surrounds me the moment I walk out the door.

  5. The large placards (with bold capital letters, in Hebrew and English) that ring the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Meah Shearim are meant to stop you in your tracks. The warning is polite, yet stern: “To women and girls who pass through our neighborhood, we beg you with all of our hearts, please do not pass through in immodest clothes.” The modesty code that follows is more than mere fashion advice, as the line that residents are “severely offended” by breaches of decorum makes clear. The stories about Meah Shearim are legion, though the recent article that sticks in my mind describes a riot that broke out when a young Haredi soldier showed up to visit relatives in his IDF uniform (there is intense opposition to the government’s upcoming plan to enlist Haredi men in the military). They needed to send in riot police to extract him. Obviously, they take clothing, and the symbolism conveyed by clothing, very seriously in this neighborhood. I’m anxious to see what a latter-day shtetl looks like, though I would prefer to come and go without incident. I read the signs carefully and try to gauge the modesty of my peers. To my Gentile eyes, we all look modestly dressed, but to err on the safe side, I approach a young Haredi man to check. Fortunately, he speaks Hebrew (many Haredim only speak Yiddish, though that is changing), and he agrees that “all is in order.” My only reservation is that he studiously avoided looking at the women whose clothing I asked about (no doubt for reasons of modesty), so I ask again more directly, but he assures me that it’s OK, and we are happily and, thank God, uneventfully on our way.

  6. Just before I came back to the States, I had the chance to concelebrate Mass in Hebrew with the kehilla in Jerusalem, and it was wonderful to actually understand about 90% of the homily. Even in such a short period, I managed to move from picking out random words and phrases to recognizing complete sentences and thoughts. I’ve also noticed that my ability to read unvocalized texts has increased dramatically, and I can plough my way through scholarly articles in Hebrew, albeit at a slow pace and with dictionary in hand. I hope to continue my studies back in South Bend via an on-line course (unfortunately, Modern Hebrew is not offered at Notre Dame), and I expect to put my newfound skills to use right away in the seminar on rabbinic texts that I’ll take in the fall. All in all, I’m extremely grateful for this experience and amazed at the progress I’ve made.