UJGS – April – A Hebrew Crash Course – Reading Gravestones

I conducted an experiment at the Utah Jewish Genealogical Society meeting in April. Somewhere between Daniel Horowitz’s presentation in February about Israeli web sites (generally all in Hebrew) and trying out the Rosetta Stone program to learn Polish (and still being able to remember some of the words months later) I had the idea to teach the Hebrew alphabet in a somewhat Rosetta Stone style way.

I never used flash cards as a kid to try to learn things, but maybe that’s one method I should have tried. The way Rosetta Stone teaches, it shows a picture, shows the word, speaks the word, and you have to choose the correct picture. Some rounds, as I recall, it spoke the word without showing it or showed the word without speaking it. Either way, it gave the word and you had to match it up with the picture. And it did this over and over and over again. It’s good that I didn’t watch the time because I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent multiple hours just on the first lesson.

Though I’ve given a few different presentations before, this was the first time I used PowerPoint. Previously, I used web sites or was teaching software, but this presentation needed a lot of slides and there was no better way that I could think of. After grappling with the title, I settled on A Hebrew Crash Course: Reading Gravestones.

I am by no means fluent in Hebrew, but I know the alphabet, a bit of vocabulary, and how to decipher the names and dates on gravestones. And after one of my members specifically asked me to teach the Hebrew dates, I went for it.

No English is allowed in this section of one cemetery.

The presentation started with a few gravestones as examples. I explained the different things that may or should be written on them, with an emphasis on calculating the dates from the Hebrew letters. Then I went into the alphabet. Usually five letters at a time, I showed the letter and explained something about a few of them, then the monotony began. I reviewed the letters and those attending the meeting had to tell me the sounds or names of the letters. Some had taken notes thus had their own cheat sheets, one new attendee knew the alphabet, and some were a bit lost rather quickly. Almost half of them were active in identifying the letters. I tried to get the others involved a couple times, but they just sat back and watched.

As we went through the letters of the alphabet, I introduced the months and some Hebrew names when we had all the letters in them, and the attendees sounded out the letters, sometimes with a little help from me, and figured out almost every name perfectly. They had more trouble with some of the months, not familiar with the names of the Hebrew calendar months.

I was hoping for some more comments at the end about things they thought I might change or things I had questioned but they thought were good. For instance, I questioned if I should have explained the gravestone information after the alphabet instead of before.

While I didn’t expect everyone or anyone to learn all the letters of the alphabet enough to remember them a few months from now, I was hoping that they might learn a few and become familiar with many of the other letters so that they can decipher some of the Hebrew on gravestones themselves. One person was considering taking a course in Hebrew, so this gave him a head start on any beginner class.

It might have been better to do this before Daniel’s presentation because his all-Hebrew web sites to them probably looked a lot like Chinese sites look to me. I was asked if I had submit this to the IAJGS conference, but I don’t think it would work with a very large crowd with the participatory nature of it.

Overall, I think the presentation went very well. An email from member Wilma Odell said, “Thank you for your hard work — the presentation was really impressive. I appreciate the time that you spent. You’re a GREAT teacher.” So I think that says it all. Thank you, Wilma.

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