Use It or Lose It!

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

During the years (1948-52) when I was a high school student in Canada, we were required to learn Latin (good basis for many languages) for all four years if you were, like me, in an Arts programme (Canadian spelling).  Actually I was in an experimental combined Arts and Science stream, so I had to study Chemistry or Biology too on the way to university.

At that time, occasional doctoral theses were still being written in Latin in some of the more esoteric academic realms, especially in Europe, but at McGill University (where I earned two degrees) most Masters and Doctoral theses were required to be written in English (now they can be written in French too).

In order to get a doctoral degree at the esteemed McGill University when I began my arts college studies there in 1952 at the advanced age of 16 – and where from being called by my first name as Corinne, I was now being addressed formally as Miss Copnick – you had to have command of four languages, including one Romance (e.g.., French or Italian) and one Classical (e.g., Latin or Greek) language. As a Freshman undergraduate, I already knew Latin, French, and English, so I studied Spanish. I was even awarded a sought-after, summer scholarship to study in Spain, but my mother wouldn’t let me go. Women alone could not go out safely at night in Spain at that time; there had been reports of kidnappings and worse; and my mother worried that something dire might happen to her darling daughter. So, no Spain.

I cried because I could already read Spanish poetry, which has beautiful imagery. My professor was aghast. “You will lose your Spanish if you don’t use it,” he cried, dramatically shooting himself in the head with an imaginary pistol. “A language is a living thing.” Professors were still wearing black robes both at the podium and in the classroom, and you were supposed to listen to them lecture and save your questions for the Teaching Assistant. Nevertheless, since I was not yet an adult, I had to listen to my mother too, and she said “No.” The Spanish I speak today, some 65 plus years later, has indeed grown rusty and halting from disuse, but I can still read it fluently (with the help of a dictionary when needed).

I keep telling myself that it’s time to take a refresher Spanish course or two, especially necessary since I live in Los Angeles. But instead I just signed up for a 9-month virtual course in Modern Hebrew. Where? At Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Online. Yes, yes, I’m a rabbi now, and I’m well versed in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, and I’ve studied Aramaic (in which the Talmud is partly written). But in Modern Israel, my Hebrew would sound, well, shall we say a little Shakespearean? I need to acquire the modern vocabulary (Sababa, today’s Hebrew for “So Long!” or “Yallah” for “Let’s Go!” are actually Arabic!) because I plan to visit Israel again in the next year or too, and I’d like to be able to speak the vernacular beyond Cama zeh oleh? (“how much does it cost?”) or slicha (“excuse me,” elbows pointed outward as you make your way through the crowd). I’d also like to see a modern Israeli movie without needing the subtitles.

Why Israel next year? First of all, I want to go there once again while I’m still alive, and I’m getting on. Secondly, two of my grandchildren are now contemplating taking their Birthright opportunity to visit Israel next year, and two of my four daughters have not been there as yet either. So the idea is that we’d all go, and that my grandkids would hook up with us (at the end of their Birthright trip) for an extra week or two in the Holy Land. Use it or lose it!

And maybe, just maybe, if enough of us believe it will come, peace will at last prevail.


©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2019. All rights reserved