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Author Topic: Keeping Alive the Language of Jesus  (Read 2508 times) Average Rating: 0
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Mor Ephrem
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« on: November 21, 2002, 03:08:01 AM »

Keeping alive the language of Jesus

Southland churches still teaching youth to speak and
write Aramaic

By Susan Abram, Staff Writer

Within the peaceful walls of a Burbank church banquet
hall, the soft murmurs of a language spoken by Jesus
and his disciples can still be heard.

And in a church classroom in Tarzana, the scene is the
same. Children memorize prayers and train the muscles
of their tongues to learn the language spoken by their
forefathers.

Despite a slight difference in pronunciation taught to
the students of both churches, the goal is the same:
to speak, read, write and preserve Aramaic, a
3,000-year-old language that has quietly survived,
even as war, assimilation and time have almost
silenced its speakers.

"My grandfather translated a lot of books into
Aramaic,' said 25-year-old Tracy Grair, who drives
from Camarillo each Monday night to take classes at
Burbank's St. Ephraim Syrian Orthodox Church.
"Learning the language helps me to understand who he
was. It's a part of who I am.'

Once the lingua franca of the Middle East, Aramaic
thrives now within church walls of villages of
Northern Iraq, Eastern Turkey and Syria, and also in
the United States, where Assyrians, Chaldeans and
Aramaens still use the language as part of their
liturgy.

But scholars believe its very existence hangs by a
fragile thread.

"I wouldn't say Aramaic is a dead language now, but it
is in a precarious situation,' said Yona Sabar,
professor of Hebrew and Aramaic languages at UCLA. "I
think the chances of its survival are doomed.'

Sabar points to several factors, including centuries
of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, which has
forced speakers of Aramaic to scatter across the
world.

In the Mideast, Aramaic-speaking villagers who move to
big cities in search of better opportunities must
learn to speak Arabic in order to survive, Sabar said.


Under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime,
Assyrians, who speak a modern version of Aramaic, have
been assimilated. Many have been forced to take on
Arab surnames and are referred to as Christian Arabs,
which they are not, Sabar said.

At one time, Assyrian priests were killed if they were
caught copying Bibles written in Aramaic, said the
Rev. George Bet Rasho of St. Mary's Assyrian Church of
the East in Tarzana. Priests and deacons memorized the
words and passed them down orally.

"Our people have been struggling so much to preserve
our language, which is a part of our culture,' Bet
Rasho said. "Because we have no land, no real country
of our own, we are losing the language. We have mixed
in the languages of the regions where we have lived.'

And yet, like hope, Aramaic lives on in some corners
of the United States.

"Living in the West has helped us a lot,' said Bet
Rasho, who teaches Aramaic to children, some of whom
he hopes become deacons and priests. "In church, we
use books that are pure Aramaic and that have never
been translated. And the Internet is a safe place for
us. That is where we unite. The opportunities for us
there have been great.'

Indeed, for many of the students who attend the Rev.
Joseph Tarzi's weekly classes in Burbank, learning
Aramaic is like reuniting with ancestors.

The irony here is that despite the fact that many hail
from all over the Middle East, such as Jordan, Turkey,
Iraq and Syria, for example, they have found
themselves in Burbank, all Christians united in
learning Aramaic.

"I like the language,' said Souzan Mirza of Van Nuys.
"My parents could not teach it to me when I was young.
Now I have the chance. I'm proud of myself.'

Despite the difficulty of relearning an alphabet,
reading right to left and pronouncing words that the
students joke is hard on the throat, many said they
have found wisdom and pieces of themselves within the
ancient words.

"We have a lot of valuable books we want to read and
be able to understand,' said Daniel Sengul of La
Crescenta, who is from Turkey.

"It was a challenge to learn,' said Liliana Khoury of
West Hills. "The men in my family were the ones who
learned it, so I am the first woman to learn it. I
started learning this when I was 30.'

Tarzi, who has taught Aramaic for years, said he hoped
more young people come to his weekly classes.

"I love this language,' Tarzi said. "I will teach it
to anyone who wants to learn it.'

Susan Abram can be reached at (818) 713-3000.
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Aklie Semaet
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« Reply #1 on: November 21, 2002, 04:50:00 PM »

Very disturbing,

Another reason why the Church; rather it is Coptic, Ge’ez, Church Slavonic, Greek, Malayalam and in this case Syriac should make it a first priority to pass the language and heritage to the younger generations.

Once a language becomes liturgical its survival period is in jeopardy. Once it is Liturgical it is up to the Church to preserve it; the minute the younger generations fail to receive the baton from the Church then forget it, its over, it will be gone by the next generation after them. So two things happen; one, people lose their heritage. Another, and worst, thing is that people do not understand the Liturgy in its fullness, they miss out. So you have people reading translations during the service. There is nothing more frustrating and distracting than having to read a modern translation of the Liturgy during service.

Ok, everyone can easily know what “Igzee’o tesahalene (Lord have Mercy on us),” “Misle menfesike (and with Thy spirit)” is. No problems there. But when we start saying things like “ma’itente zewerq inte sorqee fihime isate buruk zenesi’a imeqdesi zeyisereeGǪ” (The golden censer which didst bear the coal of fire which the blessed took from the sanctuary, and which forgivethGǪ) come one now, no one understands that excepts some faraoch (Fellaheen) and everyone is reading the Amharic translation (meaning those who care to really read and participate, while the rest are just moving their lips and pretending to say something). Either teach us Ge’ez as a priority or do the Liturgy in Amharic. I prefer Ge’ez just as a Copt would prefer Coptic but like the Ethiopian eunuch said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
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« Reply #2 on: November 21, 2002, 05:53:42 PM »

Aklie,

Seconding everything you have written here, I will add that since Arabs are thankfully more acquainted than Greeks, Slavs, etc. with the classical form of their tongue due to its frequent use in speeches, writing, and of course proverbs, the average person is able to understand the Liturgy and services more, able to pick up on statements and prayers beyond the generic "Lord, have mercy".

It still takes education however.  The classical form is difficult to master, given its grammar and the more sophisticated vocabulary it features.

I strongly agree with your preference.  Don't change the language.  Have those priests TEACH! (A joke these days in some quarters given some priests don't even offer the time of day to vigourously operate in the role of a spiritual father)  And those new generation Christians with their idle bums LEARN instead of complain and whine!

This directed especially to those on whom the survival of such fragile languages as Aramaic depend.

In IC XC
Samer
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Hypo-Ortho
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« Reply #3 on: November 21, 2002, 06:39:34 PM »

<snip
It still takes education however.  The classical form is difficult to master, given its grammar and the more sophisticated vocabulary it features.

I strongly agree with your preference.  Don't change the language.  Have those priests TEACH! (A joke these days in some quarters given some priests don't even offer the time of day to vigourously operate in the role of a spiritual father)  And those new generation Christians with their idle bums LEARN instead of complain and whine!
<snip>

Samer, forgive the intrusion into your Non-Chalcedonian discussion by, ugh!, a Chalcedonian no less.   Tongue

I belong to an OCA parish where both English and Old Church Slavonic are utilized in the liturgical Services.  I do not read Slavonic--it must be some kind of mental block tied in with my dyslexia that I lack the ability to learn new alphabets--but I can understand most of what I hear, even better than I can understand what Russian is thrown at me by "Old Country" parishioners.

Yes, have some priests TEACH!  But how about teaching the Faith first!  Isn't THAT what the Church is for?  We can have social clubs for language.  We have people who are extremely ignorant of their Orthodox Faith in a parish where all education outside of the Sunday homily has died.  There is no religious education of even the youth.  But, oh, we must have those RUSSIAN classes if we can find the teachers!  Oh, yeah.  Btw, being a NON-Russian Slav, hearing talk about the necessity of RUSSIAN classes and absolutely ZERO about the necessity of classes in Orthodox Christianity is a real turn-off for me.  Thankfully, after 44 years in this same parish, our priest is retiring in two weeks.  Prayerfully, we shall see changes with the new priest, whoever he will be.

Hypo-Ortho
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Aklie Semaet
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« Reply #4 on: November 21, 2002, 10:58:20 PM »

Hypo-Ortho,

how about teaching the Faith first!  Isn't THAT what the Church is for?  We can have social clubs for language.  We have people who are extremely ignorant of their Orthodox Faith in a parish where all education outside of the Sunday homily has died.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book Liturgy and Tradition (as well as many of his other wonderful work) has made the compelling case of the central role of the Liturgy in communicating the theology of the Church and that the Divine Liturgy is a lived experience. The Liturgy teaches the faith. So children should be taught the language of the Liturgy so that they may understand the faith.

Also, through out the millennia different sayings, proverbs, metaphors, philosophies and short stories have been formulated to pass the faith to Children. It is not always practical to translate these into English and many times when it is done then it loses meaning. In order to pass this to the children they have to learn their language.

Learning Slavic culture, language and tradition is not mutually exclusive from teaching the faith, why do you imply that?


God Bless,

--Fr. Dr. V.C. Samuel, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
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« Reply #5 on: November 22, 2002, 12:52:37 AM »

Dear Friends,

I've been wondering what to write here for a good part of the day, and I think I'll just offer these few thoughts.  

I agree with Aklie and Samer with regard to the language, but only up to a point.  People should take the initiative to learn the language(s), the culture, the traditions, etc.  They are a part of who we are, whether we are "cradles" or "converts".  They express things that do not come across in translation.  You guys expressed better than I could the reasons for learning the original languages.  I myself am (slowly...college takes up a lot of time) learning Malayalam better, and I hope to buy some books and take up Syriac.  

But I can't help thinking that we also need the vernacular.  When our Liturgy was translated from Syriac into Malayalam for the first time in the 1970's by the Holy Synod, people were overjoyed because they could finally understand what was going on.  I suppose they could've just said "Learn Syriac", but not everyone can do it...some haven't the time, others are not blessed with the ability to learn different languages, etc.  In making a Malayalam translation, they were able to open up the riches of Syriac theology as expressed in the Liturgy to the people.  

Not so many years later, we need the Liturgy in English.  I suppose we could tell the kids "Learn Malayalam and/or Syriac", but it's not that easy.  Malayalam is a hard language, and even after years of exposure, while I can read and write it well enough, and understand it well, I cannot speak it.  And liturgical texts are written with a vocabulary not accessible to most.  Furthermore, a lot of theological terms are not expressed in the Malayalam language, but are translated from Syriac into "loan words" from Sanskrit...so for a full understanding of our Liturgy as we use it today, one would need Syriac, Malayalam, and Sanskrit.  Slowly but surely, Malayalam is enjoying a resurrection among those of my generation, as more and more are learning the language.  Syriac, however, is far off still.  

But no matter how much they learn these languages, I still wonder if the vernacular would be of benefit, and I think most definitely.  I know, for all my knowledge of Malayalam (not the best, but better than most), I still want things to be done in English too...ideally, a mix of all three languages.  But even if a mix is not the easiest thing to do, I'd rather have things in English.  Telling people of my generation to learn a language is OK, but there's no guarantee they'll do it...the flip side of this is that they'll just go where they can pray in English.  I've seen friends leave the Orthodox Church for Protestant groups who use English or (much less disagreeable with me) start going to Catholic churches, marrying Catholics and converting for that reason (among others Smiley ), etc.  But when the young  are exposed to the riches of Orthodoxy, they don't want to leave.

I guess what I'm trying to say (and not so eloquently, at that) is that I don't see this as an either/or, but a both/and...we should attempt to find a "happy medium" and go with that.
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« Reply #6 on: November 22, 2002, 11:35:03 AM »

One should also remember that the OCA is an autocephalous American Church whose primary language should be English.

The non-Chalcedonians operate within a very different paradigm.

You forget I am Chalcedonian Hypo-Ortho.  But I mingle within non-Chalcedonian space frequently.

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« Reply #7 on: November 22, 2002, 03:40:26 PM »

Mor,

In general I can agree with you. If you notice my emphasis I say that if the Liturgy is going to be in the ancient language or language from back home then it is of the utmost importance for the Church to take teaching that language seriously. Liturgy is central, it is life, and the most important consideration is that people understand it. If push comes to shove then I would support the Liturgy to be done in whatever language people are most comfortable with, even if it’s English.

In other words if the Church demand that we use a certain language in the Liturgy then they should take the responsibility to teach it. They should not say things like “go learn Malayalam” they should instead say, “don’t forget to come to our Malayalam classes on Wednesday and Friday.”

I've seen friends leave the Orthodox Church for Protestant groups who use English or (much less disagreeable with me) start going to Catholic churches, marrying Catholics and converting for that reason

Yes, I have seen it too. But I don’t think this can be blamed on ‘the liturgy was not in English” if anything it is because they weren’t offered enough opportunities to learn. So two separate conclusions can come from this observation; change to English or increase opportunities to learn the liturgical language.

In the last analysis it boils down to the orientation of the recipient; how else can one explain the phenomenon that a ‘convert’ many times has a greater appreciation and sometimes even greater knowledge of the language and culture than a ‘cradle’ who was born in the west? This fact makes me laugh when someone tells me that the reason that they can not speak, read or write is because they were born here; everyone was born here.

God Bless
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« Reply #8 on: November 22, 2002, 04:21:08 PM »

Hypo-Ortho,

how about teaching the Faith first!  Isn't THAT what the Church is for?  We can have social clubs for language.  We have people who are extremely ignorant of their Orthodox Faith in a parish where all education outside of the Sunday homily has died.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book Liturgy and Tradition (as well as many of his other wonderful work) has made the compelling case of the central role of the Liturgy in communicating the theology of the Church and that the Divine Liturgy is a lived experience. The Liturgy teaches the faith. So children should be taught the language of the Liturgy so that they may understand the faith.

Also, through out the millennia different sayings, proverbs, metaphors, philosophies and short stories have been formulated to pass the faith to Children. It is not always practical to translate these into English and many times when it is done then it loses meaning. In order to pass this to the children they have to learn their language.

Learning Slavic culture, language and tradition is not mutually exclusive from teaching the faith, why do you imply that?


God Bless,

--Fr. Dr. V.C. Samuel, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church

Oh, Aklie, I agree 100% that the faith is preserved by the Church pre-eminently in its liturgy.  No agument with me on that.  But if the Liturgy is served in a language no longer understood by the youth, e.g., Old Slavonic, and only Russian is taught in "Sunday School," it is no surprise to me, that at age 62 and a relative newcomer to this parish, that I am considered "one of the youth."  Those younger than I am I could probably count on the fingers of one hand.  There are no longer children for Sunday School here, and most Sundays their parents are seen no longer either.  It is very discouraging.  What is more sacred about Slavonic than English in prayer?  Is God unable to understand English?  And I don't mean pedestrian English, but hieratic English which can be extremely beautiful in worship.  Is not the Church supposed to transform the society in which She finds herself, or is she supposed to perpetuate an ethnic ghetto--which, in reality, no longer exists as the old Russian ethnic neighborhood no longer exists around the church-- of which the youth no longer want any part because they do not find Christ in it?  Where is found Christ's commandment to go forth and baptize all nations here, in such an insular community? Where is the church's contribution to its immediate surrounding community?

Even in view of all this, however, I must tell you, I think the whole world would lose if the Aramaic language is forgotten.  I have heard Aramaic in the liturgy, and I was inwardly moved in that I knew that I was hearing the same language that was spoken by Jesus.  I could not understand a word: in this instance it did not matter.  I think Aramaic is a very special case and should be preserved in the liturgy for valid historical reasons.

Btw, people who convert to Orthodoxy, unless they be Russophiles, Slavonophiles, Grecophiles or whatever, are converting to the Orthodox Faith, which should be transmitted to them in their own language, e.g., Japanese in the Japanese Orthodox Church.  They cannot be converted into Russians or Greeks or Ethiopians or Arabs if they are Irish or German, nor should they be.

Hypo-Ortho

P.S.  Sorry this post is so out of sync.  For some reason, after my initial post here, OC.net would not allow me to either modify my old postings or to make any new postings until now.










« Last Edit: November 23, 2002, 01:04:35 AM by Hypo-Ortho » Logged
Tags: Aramaic liturgical languages 
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