Sunday, August 12, 2012

Overcoming Embarassment

Am I the only one who has a hard time admitting when they don't know something?

Growing up I was always considered the family scholar because I could be readily counted on to provide some sort of quip or connection to nearly any topic. The flip side of this, though, was that like many autodidacts, my depth of my knowledge was limited to my select areas of personal interest. History? Religion? Judaism? Genealogy? Check. At one point I even used a Scottish craft magazine to memorize tartans and triumphantly called them out when we would drive past them in the car (my time likely would have been better spent studying subjects I was actually tested on in school, but that's why hobbies are hobbies).

The downside of this, however, was that as I got older, I got progressively more uncomfortable admitting when something was beyond my grasp, or simply not very familiar. With my family I would usually admit it, sometimes pseudo-proudly ("What do you mean you don't know how many ounces are in a cup?"), but with people I didn't know very well, I would usually just pretend. Even now, my usual fall-back when someone makes some sort of art or literary reference I don't know is not to say, "Never heard of it," but rather, "I think I've heard of that somewhere..."

This wouldn't be such a big deal except that there are significant life skills that I wish I had acquired much earlier and am now struggling to catch up on. For instance, driving a car. Growing up in a city with good public transportation (and not much sprawl), driving seemed entirely unnecessary, and since it also seemed a little dangerous, was something I decided to avoid until I absolutely had to learn it. Hence me going many years without even getting my license, much less regularly practicing with a car. With my new job I will be commuting around 40 miles a day on the highway, so the past month has been devoted to practicing the route with whoever will put up with me, usually Mama Yid. Usually it goes fine but when things foul up, my first reaction, after fear and anger, is shame. It's humiliating that this is so hard and that it's taken me so long to get to it. It's not made any easier by the fact that Abbot Yid has very little understanding about why this is so challenging for me. Frequently his response to me saying something like, "I still haven't figured out parallel parking," or, "I'm not comfortable driving at night yet," is, "Well you're going to need to figure it out!" Yes, I got that, thanks for the help.

I think I see a similar connection to trying to learn Hebrew. Again, it's a skill that under different circumstances I would have learned much earlier, but due to various factors (including parental inertia/indifference), never happened. So now it's up to me and Mrs. Yid to make it happen. When we're on our own we're usually ok-- one of the things we've started doing regularly on Shabbat is using our Alef-Bet flashcards and are slowly working our way towards deciphering words-- but when we're at shul, it's hard to not care about what other folks might be thinking. When I go to minyan and have to flip around because I'm using a transliterated prayer book, or go up for an aliyah and botch it because it's only my fifth time saying one... it's hard. I feel like I should be able to do this, and I'm frustrated that I didn't start earlier so I could have ten years of driving practice by now, or twenty years of Hebrew practice. I'll also admit that it's been a while since I had to learn brand-new skills or struggle do to things that I wasn't already competent in. Usually my response to not being able to do something well is to stop doing it. Here, though, that's not an option-- or should I say, it's no longer an acceptable option. (Which I suppose is a bit of personality development that's been a long time coming.)

I know that in the end being frustrated or embarrassed won't get me where I want to be. Rather than focus on what didn't happen in the past, I need to use the negative feelings as increased motivation to stick with these new skills and develop them to where I want them to be.


Antigonos said...

FY, if Beth Elderly is the kind of shul I think it is, I'll let you in on a little secret: I bet at least half, or more, of the congregants have no idea what they are reciting. Yes, they learned the aleph-bais [not the aleph-bet, alas] in heder, and learned the main prayers by rote, gabbling the syllables without comprehension, and years of synagogue attendance have given them a familiarity with the order of service. That was, in fact, the way I was taught.

Another little secret: the person leading the introductory Psalms [pesukei d'zimra] isn't actually reading each word and is a whiz at Hebrew. He reads the introductory phrase, which he probably knows by heart, then it's mumble mumble mumble --here a word he recognizes and says a little louder to give the impression he's reading the whole thing -- until he reaches the last line or two of the Psalm, which he chants out loud [again, he's memorized it]and immediately begins the first phrase of the next. The service per se begins with "Nishmat kol hai".

I suggest you get an Artscroll siddur. They drive me crazy with the use of HASHEM instead of "the Lord" but they have some good features. On the English side they have the introductory word of the paragraph in Hebrew. So you can put a note: "Nishmat" in Latin letters in the margin next to the Hebrew word and you will know where you are, and so forth for the other sections. The Artscroll also gives you helpful "stage directions" on when to stand, etc. It also provides some explanatory material. And lastly, for the pesukei d'zimra, it shows you where the hazzan/shaliach tzibur begins his end-of-psalm chant.

Read the prayers in English for the time being, maybe trying to puzzle out a section each week at home. The vocabulary of the prayers is not large, apart from sections from Tanach, and after a while words which repeat will become more comprehensible to you. It doesn't help if the person reciting, whether rabbi or some old geezer, is using a pronounciation alien to you. I tried listening to a Daf Yomi shiur in English the other day and the speaker's quotes in Hebrew were impossible for me to understand any more, his accent was so extreme.

R. Haim Halevy Donin wrote a book called "To Pray as a Jew" which I found too basic for me, but might help. I'll also see if I can dig out the links to a cantor who davvens the entire shacharit service on the internet, so you could follow him with a siddur at home.

BTW, I know people who've been driving for 20 years who can't park decently. Sablanut v'hatzlacha!

Friar Yid said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Antigonos!

I've been impressed by the average level of Hebrew literacy I've encountered at Beth Elderly, but it definitely varies. I've been particularly impressed with the leiners (several of whom are converts, so they clearly didn't grow up learning Hebrew). I'm not saying I aspire to that, necessarily, but it would be nice to be able to if I needed to-- sort of like driving a stick shift :)

The rabbi's Hebrew is quite good-- he and his wife spent several years in Israel and he leads everything, but yes, I'm sure that some of the guest shaliachim tzibur have faked a little.

I've actually taken the opposite approach that you suggest-- I've tried to daven the Hebrew more regularly, glancing at the translation to gain familiarity with some of the vocabulary. I'm hoping more of this plus more Alef-Bet drills will eventually help me transition to reading the Hebrew more fluently (as I mentioned, I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to follow along with a lot of Eicha at Tisha B'Av).

I have an old Artscroll that belonged to a friend but my Hebrew isn't yet at the point where I can really use it yet, but I found their transliterated machzor helpful and I'm considering getting their transliterated siddur next. I've found their font & type very easy to read, and their segmented approach to transliteration (literally line by line), while sometimes annoying, seems like it might be helpful as a next step. The only drawback is that they use Ashkenazi pronunciation, which is one more headache I'd rather skip.

I have both of R. Donin's books on my Judaica bookshelf (well, one of four). It's next to our six chumashim and kitty-corner with Mrs. Yid's Blu Greenberg. :)

Antigonos said...

There are leining sites as well on the internet. It's a big step from reading the prayers to being able to lein. I never learned the cantillation [and am slightly tone deaf, or at least can't carry a tune] so I will happily leave leining to others.

But do whatever works for you. However, don't be upset that you don't conquer the siddur at one go. Shwaya, shwaya as we say in Israel [that's "slowly, slowly" in Arabic].

I spent one entire High Holy Day period some years ago ONLY reading the English side of the page, and it was a very deep experience. Even now I don't read novels in Hebrew -- I could, if I wanted to, but I'm a very fast English reader, and having to go slow in Hebrew drives me bonkers. Ditto with Hebrew newspapers; there's English online, and there's the TV news. Spoken and literary Hebrew are quite different. Wish you were here -- I'd have you reading easily from the siddur in less than a month!