Christian Arabs trying to revive Aramaic, language of Jesus

jish, israel | Two villages in the Holy Land’s tiny Christian community are teaching Aramaic in an ambitious effort to revive the language centuries after it all but disappeared from the Middle East.

The new focus on what was the dominant language  in the region 2,000 years ago comes with a little help from modern technology: an Aramaic-speaking television channel from Sweden, of all places, where a vibrant immigrant community has kept the ancient tongue alive.

In the Palestinian village of Beit Jala, an older generation of Aramaic speakers is trying to share the language with their grandchildren. Beit Jala lies next to Bethlehem, where the Christian Bible says Jesus was born.

Schoolgirls study Aramaic in the Arab village of Jish, northern Israel. photo/ap-diaa hadid

And in the Arab Israeli village of Jish, nestled in the Galilean hills, elementary school children are now being instructed in Aramaic. The children belong mostly to the Maronite Christian community. Maronites still chant their liturgy in Aramaic but few understand the prayers.

“We want to speak the language that Jesus spoke,” said Carla Hadad, a 10-year-old Jish girl.

During the lesson, a dozen children lisped out a Christian prayer in Aramaic. They learned the words for “elephant,” “How are you?” and “mountain.” Some children carefully drew sharp-angled Aramaic letters. Others fiddled with their pencil cases, which sported images of popular soccer teams.

The dialect taught in Jish and Beit Jala is “Syriac,” which was spoken by their Christian forefathers and resembles the Galilean dialect that Jesus would have used, according to Steven Fassberg, an Aramaic expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“They probably would have understood each other,” Fassberg said.

In Jish, 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, said Khatieb-Zuabi, but the idea faced resistance: Jish’s Muslims worried it was a covert attempt to entice their children to Christianity. Some Christians objected, saying the emphasis on their ancestral language was being used to strip them of their Arab identity. The issue is sensitive to many Arab Muslims and Christians in Israel, who prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, not their faith.

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

“This is our collective heritage and culture. We should celebrate and study it,” the principal said. And so the Jish Elementary School became the only Israeli public school teaching Aramaic, according to the education ministry.

Their efforts are mirrored in Beit Jala’s Mar Afram school run by the Syrian Orthodox church and located just a few miles from Bethlehem’s Manger Square. There, 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. Nimeh said they hoped teaching the language would help the children appreciate their roots.

Aramaic was the vernacular of the area’s residents, including its Jews, from 2,500 years ago until the sixth century of the common era, when Arabic, the language of conquering Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, became dominant, according to Fassberg. Modern Jews encounter Aramaic as the language of the Kaddish and much of the Talmud.

Linguistic islands survived through the centuries: Maronites clung to Aramaic liturgy and so did the Syrian Orthodox church. Kurdish Jews on the river island of Zakho, near the Iraq-Turkey border, 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.

The two schools teaching Aramaic found inspiration and assistance in an unlikely place: Sweden. There, Aramaic-speaking communities who descended from transplanted Middle Easterners publish a newspaper, “Bahro Suryoyo,” pamphlets and children’s books, and maintain a satellite television station, “Soryoyosat.”

 Officials estimate the Aramaic-speaking population at anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 people.

For many Maronites and Syrian Orthodox Christians living in Israel, the television station was the first time they heard the language outside church in decades.