Kehillah High students discover cool side of speaking Latin

They came, they saw, they conquered.

Kehillah Jewish High School’s Latin Club took part in Certamen, a Latin proficiency tournament for students held last month in Southern California.

Kehillah Latin Club members (from left) Joshua Booth, Mark Treitel, Noah Weiss, Iddo Fuhrmann, Jonathan Nozik, Amiel Cox, Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin and Leah Talyansky

Making up four teams — one for each level of Latin study — the 35 Kehilla students clearly knew their genitive from their accusative. The Palo Alto school did well in Certamen (which means “struggle”), with its Level 2 squad taking first place and earning a spot in the nationals this summer in Atlanta. Last year, Kehillah’s Level 2 team finished sixth at nationals.

Sponsored by the California Junior Classical League, Certamen is the Latin version of “Jeopardy,” according to the CJCL website. In a typical round there are 20 toss-up questions, each followed by two bonus questions.

Those questions cover grammar, translation, culture and history. They may range from the quasi-nutty (“Translate this hit song title from Latin to English”) to the arcane (“Who was the defendant in Cicero’s famous oration given on April 4, 56 BCE?”).

Joshua Booth, an 18-year-old senior at Kehillah, competed on his school’s Level 4 team, which finished second at the competition in Irvine. He began taking Latin as a freshman, mostly to fulfill the language requirement. But over the years he fell in love with it, enjoying both the language and the history that goes with it.

“Latin is really impeccably beautiful,” said Booth, who is the son of Rabbi David Booth of Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth. “Learning to become skilled in Latin is less about memorization and more about learning patterns. It’s more pristine than most spoken languages — not the mishmash that English is.”

The California Junior Classical League has 54 chapters with a total of 2,557 members; more than a thousand go to the state convention. Kehillah is the only Bay Area Jewish high school with a Latin club (the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy in S.F. offers a Latin elective).

Joshua Booth, who also speaks Hebrew, credits his teacher, Sandra Janda, for inspiring him and his classmates.

“She knows all the things that are cool about Latin,” Booth said. “She is one of the most passionate teachers I ever had.”

Booth said he intends to continue his Latin studies once he arrives at college. Meanwhile he keeps his interest alive by reading the poetry of Horace and the disputations of Cicero.

He even has a favorite quote: “Natura inest in mentibus nostris insatiabilis quaedam cupiditas veri videndi,” which translates: “By nature is planted in our minds some insatiable longing to perceive truth.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.