Sunday, July 1, 2012

Aramaic Taught in Israeli Village

I found this great article last month --

The Israeli village where Christian children are learning Aramaic in bid to revive ancient language that Jesus spoke

By Julian Gavaghan
A Christian village in Israel is teaching Aramaic in an effort to revive the ancient language that Jesus spoke - centuries after it all but disappeared from the Middle East.

Maronite children from Jish, who speak Arabic as their first language, are learning the tongue of their forefathers after their elementary school became the only one in the country to teach the subject.

The language, which was the region's dominant language 2,000 years ago, is still chanted in the church – although few understand it beyond prayers.
But, rather than rebel against learning an idiom that has little practical use, the 80 youngsters aged five to ten are embracing learning phrases such as ‘ah chop’ – or ‘how are you?’

Many Muslim children are even happy to learn it because, according to the school’s head teacher, it is part of the Arab community’s ‘collective heritage’.

In the Arab village of Jish, nestled in the Galilean hills where Jesus lived and preached, about 80 children in grades one through five study Aramaic as a voluntary subject for two hours a week. 

Israel's education ministry provided funds to add classes until the eighth grade, said principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi.

Several Jish residents lobbied for Aramaic studies several years ago, he explained, but the idea faced resistance.

Jish's Muslims worried it was a covert attempt to entice their children to Christianity. 

And some Christians objected, saying the emphasis on their ancestral language was being used to strip them of their Arab identity. 

Passion: Atif Zarka, 64, a volunteer Aramaic teacher's assistant, plays the violin to forth grade students studying Aramaic in Jish
Passion: Atif Zarka, 64, a volunteer Aramaic teacher's assistant, plays the violin to forth grade students studying Aramaic in Jish

The issue is sensitive to many Arab Muslims and Christians in Israel, who prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, not their faith.

Ultimately, Mr Khatieb-Zuabi, a secular Muslim from an outside village, overruled them.

‘This is our collective heritage and culture. We should celebrate and study it,’ he said.
Carla Hadad, 10, who frequently waved her arms to answer questions in Aramaic from school teacher Mona Issa during a recent lesson, said: ‘We want to speak the language that Jesus spoke.’

‘We used to speak it a long time ago,’ she added, referring to her ancestors.

During the lesson, a dozen children lisped out a Christian prayer in Aramaic. They learned the words for ‘elephant,’ and ‘mountain.’ 

Some children carefully drew sharp-angled Aramaic letters. Others fiddled with their pencil cases, which sported images of popular soccer teams.

The children are helped in their studies by an Aramaic-speaking television channel from Sweden, of all places, where a vibrant immigrant community has kept the ancient tongue alive.

The only other filmed production to use the language is Mel Gibson’s biopic The Passion of The Christ.

The language is also being taught in the Palestinian-administered West Bank at a special school for Syrian Orthodox Christians.

In the village of Beit Jala, near Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem,  priests have taught the language to their 320 students for the past five years.

Some 360 families in the area descend from Aramaic-speaking refugees who in the 1920s fled the Tur Abdin region of what is now Turkey.

Priest Butros Nimeh said elders still speak the language but that it vanished among younger generations. 

He said they hoped teaching the language would help the children appreciate their roots.

Although both the Syrian Orthodox and Maronite church worship in Aramaic, they are distinctly different sects.

Ancient language: A copy of the Gospel of Luke in Aramaic script
Ancient language: A copy of the Gospel of Luke in Aramaic script

The Maronites are the dominant Christian church in neighboring Lebanon but make up only a few thousand of the Holy Land's 210,000 Christians. 

Likewise, Syrian Orthodox Christians number no more than 2,000 in the Holy Land, said Nimeh. Overall, some 150,000 Christians live in Israel and another 60,000 live in the West Bank.

They are helped by Swedish Aramaic-speaking communities who descended from the Middle East have sought to keep their language alive.

They publish a newspaper, ‘Bahro Suryoyo,’ pamphlets and children's books, including ‘The Little Prince,’ and maintain a satellite television station, ‘Soryoyosat,’ said Arzu Alan, chairwoman of the Syriac Aramaic Federation of Sweden.

There's also an Aramaic soccer team, ‘Syrianska FC’ in the Swedish top division from the town of Sodertalje. Officials estimate the Aramaic-speaking population at anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 people.

For many Maronites and Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, the television station, in particular, was the first time they heard the language outside church in decades. Hearing it in a modern context inspired them to try revive the language among their communities.

‘When you hear (the language), you can speak it,’ said Issa, the teacher.

Aramaic dialects were the region's vernacular from 2,500 years ago until the sixth century, when Arabic, the language of conquering Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, became dominant, according to Fassberg.

Linguistic islands survived: Maronites clung to Aramaic liturgy and so did the Syrian Orthodox church. Kurdish Jews on the river island of Zakho spoke an Aramaic dialect called ‘Targum’ until fleeing to Israel in the 1950s. Three Christian villages in Syria still speak an Aramaic dialect, Fassberg said.

With few opportunities to practice the ancient tongue, teachers in Jish have tempered expectations. They hope they can at least revive an understanding of the language.

The steep challenges are seen in the Jish school, where the fourth-grade Aramaic class has just a dozen students. The number used to be twice that until they introduced an art class during the same time slot - and lost half their students.

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