- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

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 sits 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 now are being instructed in Aramaic. The children belong mostly to the Maronite Christian community, where members still chant their liturgy in Aramaic, though 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.

Language a sensitive issue

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 specialist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“They probably would have understood each other,” Mr. 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 has provided funds to add classes until the eighth grade, principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi said.

Several Jish residents lobbied for Aramaic studies several years ago, Mr. Khatieb-Zuabi said, but the idea faced resistance from Muslims there who worried it was a covert attempt to entice their children to Christianity.

Some Christians objected, too, 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, Mr. Khatieb-Zuabi, a secular Muslim from an outside village, overruled them.

“This is our collective heritage and culture. We should celebrate and study it,” he said.

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