The melting pot boils in America.
Where else could you find Jewish schoolchildren playing New York Puerto Ricans who sing their hearts out in Latino-tinged Hebrew?
Tonight, eighth-graders at the Krieger Schechter School on Stevenson Road in Pikesville will mount a production of "West Side Story" sung and acted almost entirely in Hebrew.
Only such universal phrases as "Hey, Daddy-O" remain in the original English. There is also the occasional "vamanos" ("let's go") retained from the play, which hit Broadway in 1957.
The female lead is still named Maria you were thinking maybe, "I just met a girl named Miriam?" and is played by Andrea Molinatti. Josh Madoff is Tony, the male lead. They are both 13.
"It wasn't hard," says Josh, who has been speaking Hebrew since kindergarten with the benefit of a mother who teaches the ancient language. "The idea of us doing 'West Side Story' is pretty funny, translating English with Spanish accents into Hebrew."
"You really have to know what the words mean so you can act them out," Andrea says.
Throughout the Baltimore area, about 12,000 children between the ages of 3 and 13 are studying Hebrew for reasons religious and secular. It is used to pray, to prepare young Jews for their rite of passage to adulthood and to help Jews claim a spot in a global Jewish community connected by conversational Hebrew.
Josh Madoff's confidence notwithstanding, it can be difficult to get your tongue around a 3,000-year-old language that was preserved only in writing for almost half its existence. The revitalization of the language began at the beginning of this century.
Putting on popular stage productions in Hebrew which Jewish summer camps have been doing for generations with such diverse works as "Oklahoma!" and "Hamlet" is a way to drill the language into a child's marrow.
"The Hebrew poet Bialik said that reading in translation is like kissing a beloved through a veil," said Dr. Steven Fine, a professor of Rabbinic literature and history at Baltimore Hebrew University. "It may not be what the author meant, but translations have a way of making a work new and significant to the intended audience. It creates a distinctly Jewish literary form. It's not the same thing anymore."
On stage, it's harder to improvise if you don't know exactly what you're supposed to be saying in the first place.
"For the most part, in Jewish day schools, Hebrew is used to study sacred texts," said Amy Jo Shapiro, the Krieger Schechter drama teacher directing the play. "This helps to reinforce it as a living language."
"You can hear the children talking during the day, using words from the play," said Shuli Raffel, who was raised in Israel and teaches Hebrew at the school.
In about two weeks, the Krieger Schechter eighth-graders will take a class trip to Israel, where making oneself understood in Hebrew will carry a lot more significance than whether the Sharks crush the Jets at the rumble.
"I learned how to read and write it in Hebrew school growing up, but I didn't always know what I was saying," said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
After a 1967 visit to Israel, Mr. Abramson committed himself to becoming fluent in Hebrew, but it wasn't until a 1994 visit to the Ukrainian city of Odessa that he truly savored its worth.
"We were meeting Jews from the various former Soviet republics and the common tongue was Hebrew," he remembered.
"I don't think at any point did it more come home to me how important it is for Jewish kids to learn Hebrew. Beyond simply being Jewish, Hebrew allows us to learn from each other better than anything else. Few of us can speak to an Ethiopian Jew in Amharic, but we can speak to them in Hebrew."
"West Side Story" will be performed tonight and tomorrow in the auditorium of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road in Pikesville. Show start at 7 p.m.; tickets are $5 in advance and $6 at the door.
Pub Date: 3/20/96