Religious Organizations Network

Keeping Alive the Language of Jesus

Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 09:52 PM CT

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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