Kol Ami — The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community

Positive Aging Blog: Hebrew and the Aging Brain – March 2020


Hebrew and the Aging Brain

by Harriet Epstein

Hebrew was not required during my 1940-50 Reform Jewish education – at least not for girls.  Although Reconstructionist Rabbi  Mordecai M. Kaplan had created the  Bat Mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith in 1922, it took time to catch on. I picked up a good Hebrew vocabulary by simply sitting in Shabbat services and listening, but I couldn’t read the words in Hebrew and rarely knew their meaning.  Over time, I also participated in Hebrew classes from many sources, but never reached the point where I could actually read Hebrew fluently with correct pronunciation.  Something was missing. That something was how to properly interpret and pronounce Hebrew vowels.

As an adult, my career in Aging included direct experience with people who had dementia – a condition which occasionally strikes people in midlife, but damages folks in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s more often.  Gerontologists today are divided over whether or not the brain can be exercised like a muscle to help prevent this outcome.  Clearly there are physical habits people can develop to help prevent dementia, such as getting good physical exercise, eating a nourishing diet, keeping their weight under control, getting sufficient sleep, avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol intake.

Keeping an active mind is an approach offered by the “work it like a muscle believers.” At the top of any list of mental activities is learning a new language, followed by playing mental games and puzzles, starting a new hobby, maintaining social contacts, etc.  Now I didn’t decide to prepare for my Bat Mitzvah to avoid dementia.  I took this on to enhance my Jewish and spiritual life, with a sense of urgency once expressed by Theodore Herzl, “If not now, when?”  It has turned out to require an amazing amount of effort to finally be able to pronounce the words of my parsha correctly, and it will require more hard work (or maybe a miracle) to be able to chant and memorize them.  But I have made some progress already.

I congratulate the Kolamites who have also chosen to take this journey under the inspiring leadership of our Rabbi Gilah Langner, and wish for all of us increased brain power and spirituality.


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