By Judith Sudilovsky
SOURCE: Catholic News Service
JISH, Israel (CNS) -- Aramaic language classes begun four years ago at
Jish Elementary School have changed the way youngsters experience the
"Before, I used to wonder how I would get through the one-and-a-half
hours at church. Sometimes we would even laugh at the how the priest was
praying," recalled Carla Issa, 9, who has studied Aramaic at the school
for two years. "But now I understand what I am saying. I love it."
Sunday Mass at St. Maron Parish is partially recited in Aramaic. But
Issa and friends also have found another use for the ancient language:
They sometimes use it when they pass notes to each other in class.
Some 110 students are now studying the language at the elementary school
as a result of years of effort by village resident Shadi Khalloul, 37,
chairman of the Aramaic Christian nongovernmental organization in
"This is our Maronite Aramaic heritage," he said on a recent visit to
the school. "We are hoping to revive (Aramaic) as a spoken language.
Hopefully the pupils will use it among themselves to communicate with
each other. It is our forefather's language. It is the language of
Jesus, we should not forget that, especially the Aramaic Galilee
Spoken Aramaic, the root language of all Semitic languages, is still
preserved in parts of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon -- and even by elderly
Jews originating from a region of Kurdistan -- but the spoken language
has been virtually lost in Galilee, where about 10,000 Maronite
Catholics use it solely for prayer. During their daily interactions,
they speak Arabic.
In all, there are between half a million and 1 million people worldwide
who still use Aramaic as their vernacular language, while another 15
million use it only as a holy language, said Khalloul.
In Jish some older residents like Issa's grandfather, who helped her
with her homework when she started studying, have retained their
traditional language, but most Maronites of the village only hear
Aramaic on Sundays.
Aramaic is taught regularly as part of religion classes by Father
Bishara Suleiman, but it was not until the priest offered a three-month
course for adults in 2006 that Khalloul, who had recently returned to
Jish after graduating from the University of Nevada, became hooked on
the language. A small group of adult students continued studying on
their own following the conclusion of the course and began connecting
with other Aramaic communities in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Khalloul initiated his own after-school classes for youngsters, then
started to negotiate with the Israeli Ministry of Education to include
Aramaic as part of the formal curriculum.
The ministry now provides funds for the classes through the eighth grade
as part of any enrichment program already in place. For now, it is the
only such project in Israel. A parallel art class is offered during the
same period, but almost 90 percent of the Christian children choose to
attend the Aramaic classes, said school principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi, a
She said classes have proven to be a matter of pride for the school, and even some Muslim students are taking the class.
"It is a language which is about to disappear," she noted. "A culture is
something precious, history is very precious to me, and we can't erase
history and build a new culture. You have to understand where you come
St. Paul's parents are traditionally believed to have lived in Jish,
which is near the Lebanese border. Sixty percent of its 2,800 residents
are Maronite Catholic, 35 percent are Muslim and 5 percent are Melkite
Aramaic was the dominant language in the region until about the sixth
century, when Arabic replaced it following the Arab invasion.
Sweden has the strongest tradition of spoken Aramaic, and Jish school
has been using textbooks and other learning material from that
Khalloul, who speaks to his 2-year-old son solely in Aramaic and
relishes seeing the boy respond, dreams of hearing Aramaic conversations
in the streets of Jish. But he is also realistic and admits that
perhaps the only place where the language can truly be revived to that
extent is in the Maronite area of Mt. Lebanon in Lebanon.
Still, he said, the Maronite children of the village will have this language for themselves.
"A nation without a language and without its forefather's language has
no future," he said. "Teaching them their heritage will strengthen our
Christianity. At least in the Middle East we should all unite in our
He noted that, by request of the children, in May the first Communion
ceremony at the church was conducted completely in Aramaic.
See also Maronites wish to regain ancestral lands in Galilee (Jerusalem Post)