Language Learning: Hebrew, French, and Japanese

By Samara Cogan

I inherited many things from my father. His smile, his quiet persistence, and his inability to retain a language other than English are a few examples of the things we had in common. His first and final attempt to learn Hebrew was the Torah portion he was required to read for his Bar Mitzvah. He ended up memorizing a recording of the portion, and after the ceremony, he never thought about Hebrew again.

I, too, struggled to learn Hebrew. Though in my case, it wasn't for my Bat Mitzvah (thank you, Folkshul, for not having a language requirement!). My next door neighbor, who was a bit more observant in her Judaism than I was, took me on as a Hebrew student when we were both in middle school. This lasted for one whole afternoon, and then we never spoke of it again. I can't pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Was it the new alphabet? Was it reading the letters backwards? Whatever the reason, I just didn't get it.

Next up was my attempt to learn French. This lasted a bit longer than one afternoon. I took French classes for six years in middle and high school and one semester of French in college. The root of my struggle to learn French was easy to suss out: I hated speaking in front of other people. I got that from my dad, too! Speaking in front of others in English was nerve wracking enough, but speaking (and making mistakes) in front of other people in French? My worst nightmare. I dreaded each class, but I managed to get passing grades. Writing and listening balanced out how badly I stumbled during speaking lessons. I still have some French vocabulary retained; pamplemousse is a favorite of mine. But other than that, I haven't practiced speaking, reading, or writing in French for years, and much of what I learned has faded away.

All of this brings me to my current efforts to learn another language: Japanese. This may seem like a random choice, but it is related to my father. During the Vietnam War, he was stationed at a military base in Okinawa, Japan. He developed a taste for sushi, adopted a dog (RIP Eloise), and picked up a tiny bit of Japanese. He's the reason I know how to use chopsticks, and his love for Japan is reflected in all of the pieces of art in our house that he brought back with him after he was finished serving. I have wanted to visit Japan for years, particularly to see Okinawa and Tokyo. Now that I have enough money saved up and a date in mind, it's time to buckle down and learn some Japanese!

The difference in my language-learning endeavor this time is that I have a personally motivating and specific goal in mind. I want to learn enough conversational Japanese to make my trip more enjoyable. I have heard that the Japanese are usually encouraging of visitors who try to speak the language, even if they make mistakes. I'm not focusing on Kanji (characters used in the Japanese writing system), and I don't have to learn every Japanese word ever uttered. All I have to do is study common Japanese phrases that are useful while traveling. Still a challenge, but not impossible for me to accomplish.

Who knows? Maybe my study of the Japanese language will reignite the spark in me that gave up on French and Hebrew! We shall see.

2018 New Year's Resolutions

By Samara Cogan

We are now into the solar calendar year of 2018! I try to make at least one New Year's resolution every year. Some are successful (buy fewer books by going to the library instead!), and some are ... not (start running every day; yeah, that's not happening). This year, I'm going to take on three Jewish-centric resolutions. 

1. Learn how to cook Jewish food

My first experience with attempting to cook Jewish food was trying to make hamantashen with my Grandma Yetta and my sister. I have no idea what went wrong with the dough we made, but those cookies were hard as rocks. My next Jewish cooking experience was many years later when I was finally deemed old enough by my family to contribute my own dish to our Passover seder. I made a delicious batch of charoset that I was pretty proud of. One failure and one success so far. At some point last year, I bought matzo so I could test out a fried matzo recipe. One thing led to another, and I was very busy, so it just never happened. I still have a full box of matzo in the cupboard, waiting to be fried. It's probably stale by now, but honestly, I'm not sure I would be able to taste the difference anyway. So, this is the year! I'm frying that matzo and hopefully testing out some more recipes. 

2. Read more works by Jewish authors

I was completely spoiled in college because I took so many Jewish Studies courses that I always had something Jewish to read. As a college graduate, I now have to find my own reading materials. So far, my list of books to read includes Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex and I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron. There are plenty of works to choose from, but I'm starting with a small sampling of Jewish American writers first. Of course, I'm always open to recommendations!

3. Take a more active and structured approach to tikkun olam

This is perhaps my most meaningful resolution, but also the most difficult to get started on. There are so many worthy causes that I could devote my time to, so my first step is going to have to be picking a lane and committing to one thing. Once I've done that, I'm hoping to find a local group to volunteer with on a regular basis. I already donate monthly to several non-profits, which I highly recommend if you have the means! Recurring donations, instead of one-time donations, are vital for an organization that needs stable funding. However, I would also like to incorporate my time and effort, as well as my money, to my tikkun olam activities.

I hope everyone has a wonderful new year!

My Journey to Become a Madrika

By Jamie Ireland

Have you ever taken courses that you felt were designed for you? Well, I have. Having been a long-time CSJO-er, it was nice to be certified as a Madrikha earlier this month in Detroit in a beautiful ceremony at the Birmingham Temple. As my certification suggests, now I may legally perform all of the similar duties as a minister, priest or rabbi- pretty cool! As a Secular Humanist Leader, I can be the legal officiant at weddings, conduct memorials and other ceremonial functions and engage in moral counseling upon request. 

During my 5-year leadership program, I learned about the history of the Secular movement, the history behind our holiday and life cycle celebrations, as well as educating our youth and managing our organizations. Much of my studies reinforced ideas that I knew but bolstered my knowledge in these areas. But there was new learning as well when I took courses on Sephardic and Israeli Jewry. My favorite, because I knew the least-therefore learned the most- was the course with hands-on practical skill learning of philosophic guidance and counseling.

As a teacher of our Jewish Culture School and serving on the board I have been active in our Tri-Valley Cultural Jews community since its inception 12 years ago. I wanted to have more background knowledge of our movement and as a lifelong-learner, I knew there was always more to learn so I went for it, tackling the feat of this program that I had heard of as a teen and now I have completed it … it feels so good to accomplish this long-held goal.

Jamie Ireland
Tri-Valley Cultural Jews
November 2017

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