Jish, Israel • Two villages in the Holy Land’s tiny Christian community are teaching Aramaic in an ambitious effort to revive the language that Jesus spoke, centuries after it all but disappeared from the Middle East.
The new focus on the region’s dominant language 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 New Testament says Jesus was born.
And in the Arab-Israeli village of Jish, nestled in the Galilean hills where Jesus lived and preached, 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 who frequently waved her arms to answer questions in Aramaic from school teacher Mona Issa during a recent lesson.
“We used to speak it a long time ago,” she added, referring to her ancestors.
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 become 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 (kilometers) 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.
Although both the Syrian Orthodox and Maronite church worship in Aramaic, they are distinctly different sects.
The Maronites are the dominant Christian church in neighboring Lebanon but make up only a few thousand of the Holy Land’s 210,000 Christians. Likewise, Syrian Orthodox Christians number no more than 2,000 in the Holy Land, said Nimeh. Overall, some 150,000 Christians live in Israel and another 60,000 live in the West Bank.
Both schools found inspiration and assistance in an unlikely place: Sweden. There, Aramaic-speaking communities who descended from the Middle East have sought to keep their language alive.
They publish a newspaper, “Bahro Suryoyo,” pamphlets and children’s books, including “The Little Prince,” and maintain a satellite television station, “Soryoyosat,” said Arzu Alan, chairwoman of the Syriac Aramaic Federation of Sweden.
There’s also an Aramaic soccer team, “Syrianska FC” in the Swedish top division from the town of Sodertalje. Officials estimate the Aramaic-speaking population at anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 people.
For many Maronites and Syrian Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, the television station, in particular, was the first time they heard the language outside church in decades. Hearing it in a modern context inspired them to try revive the language among their communities.
“When you hear (the language), you can speak it,” said Issa, the teacher.
Aramaic dialects were the region’s vernacular from 2,500 years ago until the sixth century, when Arabic, the language of conquering Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, became dominant, according to Fassberg.
Linguistic islands survived: Maronites clung to Aramaic liturgy and so did the Syrian Orthodox church. Kurdish Jews on the river island of Zakho 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.
With few opportunities to practice the ancient tongue, teachers in Jish have tempered expectations. They hope they can at least revive an understanding of the language.
The steep challenges are seen in the Jish school, where the fourth-grade Aramaic class has just a dozen students. The number used to be twice that until they introduced an art class during the same time slot — and lost half their students.