My Journey to Learning Hebrew

Ron Cantor —  March 11, 2019 — Leave a comment
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We’ve spent the last two episodes talking about Eliezer Ben Yehuda and how Hebrew became the language of the rebirthed nation of Israel. Now, I want to share with you my story, how at 38, I was able to learn a new language.

One of my biggest fears in moving here, in addition to terrorism, as it was the end of the second intifada, was sitting in a language school for five hours a day. I have been diagnosed as ADHD. Sitting still has never been easy. Just graduating high school was a small miracle. Which I did with a 1.7 GPA. Nevertheless, I knew it was God’s plan for me to preach His word in Hebrew.

As a 21-year-old student in Bible School one of my professors prophesied over me that I was to learn Hebrew. Over the years I took courses and was fortunate to marry a native Hebrew speaker, but there is nothing like total immersion when it comes to learning a language.

The plan was simple, take two years off of ministry and focus completely on Hebrew. Shortly after arriving, I entered what we call Ulpan—the Hebrew language school that you can find in every city. Most immigrants need to find a job quickly, so they get five months of free ulpan and then they’re off. However, I wanted to teach in Hebrew, not just order a hamburger—it would take longer. Each morning I would ride my bike from my apartment to classes. Inside the class we would sit in cliques according to our native tongue.

You see, the teacher would only speak Hebrew and it was up to us to figure out what she was saying. You’d have your English-speaking group, about five of us in a corner, and your Russian speaking group, as well as French and Spanish. This was before iphones or ipads where you could have instant translation. I struggled to keep up with the class. They like to throw you in just above your level and see if you can swim.

Many people, particularly kids, can catch a language, just pick it up by listening. Not me. I had to learn it word by word. I took a break from Ulpan to study on my own. I would spend hours conjugating verbs and memorizing nouns. At one point I simply asked the Lord, “Can’t you just download Hebrew into my brain? We are losing time!” He responded, “Yes, I could. But you are learning more than Hebrew. I am teaching you character and humility.”

It was true. I could stand in front of 100,000 people in Africa and never even think to be nervous before preaching. I could prepare a message on a napkin in 10 minutes. Maybe I was a little haughty about that. So the Lord sent me to a country where it would take not two years as I had hoped, but seven, before I preached my first message. And even then, I almost backed out.

Over the years, I met with private tutors and went through the full university intensive program—about 10 hours a day including homework.

When I finally started teaching in the congregation in Hebrew, it would take me a solid week to prepare. So much for 10 minutes on a napkin. I would preach it to my wife, my daughters, my dog—anyone who would listen. Fortunately, it now only takes a day.

Of course, then there is accent. I could barely say my own name. The R in Hebrew is very different from English. Instead of Ron, I am Ron. I remember when I first moved here, I would order coffee at one of our popular cafes, Aroma. They would always ask for your name. I would say, with my best Hebrew accent, ….

So from Eliezer Ben Yehuda—the crazy Jew from Lithuania, who sought to resurrect Hebrew, to a Messianic Jewish immigrant from the US, you know a little more about how Hebrew became the national language of the modern state of Israel.

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