Wednesday, May 03, 2006

My Hebrew Professor-- Philosopher, Genius, Episcopalian

Next week, two other students and I will be going to class to sit at the feet of a learned man for the last time.

It's been nearly two years since I signed up for WCU's Biblical Hebrew course. Unfortunately, I wasn't actually aware that it was Biblical Hebrew class. I was a young freshman, suddenly free from the shackles of my high school's obsession with Romance languages and ready to take something-- anything-- that didn't resemble Spanish. A quick glance at the offered language tracks presented me with the obvious answer: Hebrew.

Fantastic! I thought. I went to Hebrew school. This should be a breeze!

Filled with the vim and vigor that usually accompanies freshman (before they are savagely beaten down by poison-tipped punji sticks wielded by crazed bureaucrats, whose blood-shot eyes reflect the torturous hours spent applying red tape to everything-- not that I would know anything about that), I bounded into my first Hebrew class, only to be presented with "Introduction to Biblical Hebrew" by Thomas O. Lambdin.

I only wish I had been in the wrong class.

The class was taught by a man who embodies the word "professor." An Episcopalian pacifist of an indeterminable age, he dropped his Ph.D program at the University of Pennsylvania when he was blackballed for refusing to fight in Vietnam. He's a renaissance man and educated in eight languages. Instead of begging the university for more money, he took up employment at a local gas station. He doesn't own a television, doesn't e-mail, and has been driving the same car for twenty years.


At first, there were nine of us in the first introductory class. Most of the students were graduates or non-traditional students taking Biblical Hebrew before entering (Christian) seminary. Others, like me, thought the class was going to be of a more modern bent. One man was even a member of the United States Army and taking Hebrew in hopes that it would be like Arabic (needless to say, he quickly dropped out and is now a drill sergeant in the South).

Gradually, the class size dwindled. Three semesters later, only three intrepid adventurers remained.

These last four semesters have taught me some very important things. Allow me to list them:

  • Biblical Hebrew is only like modern Hebrew in that they share the same name.
  • A clever student can use Hebrew's gender specific nouns and verbs to his or her advantage. ("She broke a great wind"-- in reference to "cliff," which is a female noun. Fart jokes are classic.)
  • It is possible to be the living, breathing vessel of every pop culture reference in existence.
  • Low Episcopalians are lazy; Middle Episcopalians are hazy; High Episcopalians are crazy.
  • You can legitimately get a sixty year old scholar to say the words "bitch," "ass," and "whore." Hey, it's in the Bible.
  • An Evangelical Christian will try to convert a Jew in the middle of a Biblical Hebrew class.
  • A Hebrew class can and will be held on a Jewish High Holy Days, even if the Jews aren't there.
  • You know that letter? Vav? It's pronounced with a "w" sound. And that dot in the middle of some letters? That makes the sound fricative. Be prepared to pronounce your "t's" and "d's" like "th."

I may have griped before every single Hebrew class, but I'm glad I took it. There are some days that I walk away from the stuffy classroom feeling like I've garnered knowledge from Plato or Socrates. My professor is a true philosopher, be it about life, the Bible, or linguistics. Next week, when my classmates and I enter the Den of Light and Understanding, we will be presenting our hero with a poster of the evolution of Hebrew letters (see fig. 1) and a fruit basket, full with the apples that he served on a regular basis for two years.

The card reads:

"From Harry, Kate, and Noah. Thanks for feeding us...

and teaching us Hebrew."

Todah, sir. Todah.


Fig. 1

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