Keeping alive the language of Jesus
Southland churches still teaching youth to speak and
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
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
But scholars believe its very existence hangs by a
"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
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
"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
"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.