98th World Congress of Esperanto in Reykjavik

I was in Reykjavik for the first time this week to participate and give a series of talks in the 98th World Congress of Esperanto. This was the third time to participate in the World Congress of Esperanto. In my second participation two years ago in Copenhagen I noticed a few things I had not noticed four years before in Bialystok. And actually my talks were on one of these things - problems of intercultural communication in Esperanto.

The main claim of my talks was very simple - it is not enough to share a common language in order to communicate with people from other countries without misunderstanding each other; the problems can be more severe in Esperanto ironically because it is culturally neutral and every Esperantist can use his or her cultural norm.

But this time I realized that there are at least two problems that are more fundamental than these in communication between Esperantists. The common denominator between the two is that for many Esperantists intercultural communication in Esperanto does not even constitute problems for very ridiculous reasons. First, in order to experience problems of communication, one has to communicate first. I have seen that many people participate in the World Congress of Esperanto only nominally and do not take the trouble of coming to the congress venue even once; instead, they are busy sightseeing in the city where the congress takes place and/or its vicinities, and many of them continue to speak their native language with those from the same country. Second, there seem to be quite a few, even among participants in the World Congress, who do not know Esperanto to communicate in Esperanto with speakers of other ethnic languages. They will definitely experience no problems of intercultural communication simply because they cannot communicate.

Not everything was negative. I have also had two new positive experiences. The first is that having participated as a new member of the Academy of Esperanto in its public session, I was so instigated by witnessing the depth and breadth of the linguistic knowledge of some of the more experienced members of the academy. This has made me realize that now I have a new responsibility and I have to improve my language more and more to live up to it. The second is that for the first time in my life as an Esperantist I had a conversation that was not superficial with two Japanese Esperantists, except for two fellow sociolinguists of mine in Japan.

I have also realized how deeply I have been affected by the study of the Talmud in the way I think and speak. I cannot fully enjoy anymore shmoozing with those who have never studied the Talmud in a traditional manner, so think and speak differently than we. In this respect it was a great relief to be interrupted and questioned when I shmoozed with a few friends trained in the Talmud upon my return to Israel.


End of the formal study of the Talmud at the yeshiva

Unfortunately, the formal study of the Talmud I started in the middle of October last year at Ohr Somayach, an English-speaking Ashkenazi haredi yeshiva catering for those with little or no background in the study of the Talmud, came to an end this Sunday. This was one of the most challenging but exciting and unforgettable learning experiences I have ever had in my entire life so far. It has also made me decide to commit myself to a life-long study of the Talmud, though, unfortunately, not in the framework of the yeshiva.

What was the main purpose of this study? It was to learn how to learn the Talmud independently. I cannot say that I can already learn the Talmud fully independently without using modern commentaries like Schottenstein Edition Talmud Bavli and Koren Talmud Bavli. But I feel I am on the right track. The fear of Aramaic, which used to be the main obstacle that prevented me from jumping into the sea of the Talmud, has also disappeared. Now I fully realize that the language is only a technical issue. What is far more important and difficult is to follow and understand the logic and dialectic of the Talmud.

While I studied at the yeshiva, I also continued learning the Talmud once a week with a Hebrew-speaking good old haredi friend of mine, who is far more advanced than I as he has been learning it since childhood. We will continue our weekly study. I am also supposed to start learning once a week with an English-speaking new study partner, who is also a linguist and studied the Talmud at another Ashkenazi haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem. This weekly study with two partners alone might not be the same as the formal study at the yeshiva, but it is the best I can afford now. I may also use an amazing online shiur called Daf Hachaim.

I am already planning to give a talk about this experience of mine at the yeshiva to a group of those interested in Jewish culture in Kobe, Japan during the next winter vacation in February 2014. I have even finished preparing the gist of the talk while my memory of this experience is still fresh. If I am to be sincere, I seem to have no choice to tell them, among others, that the Talmud is not what they think it is: its pages on the halakha, or Jewish law, which constitute the majority of the pages of the Talmud, are irrelevant to non-Jews (as well as non-observant Jews); unless one is a super-genius, one cannot learn the Talmud without learning first how to learn it from someone who is part of the unbroken chain of the Oral Torah.