JISH, Israel -- Aramaic language classes begun four years ago at Jish Elementary School have changed the way youngsters experience the weekly liturgy.
"Before, I used to wonder how I would get through the one-and-a-half hours at church. Sometimes we would even laugh at the how the priest was praying," recalled Carla Issa, 9, who has studied Aramaic at the school for two years. "But now I understand what I am saying. I love it."
Sunday Mass at St. Maron Parish is partially recited in Aramaic. But Issa and friends also have found another use for the ancient language: They sometimes use it when they pass notes to each other in class.
Some 110 students are now studying the language at the elementary school as a result of years of effort by village resident Shadi Khalloul, 37, chairman of the Aramaic Christian nongovernmental organization in Israel.
"This is our Maronite Aramaic heritage," he said on a recent visit to the school. "We are hoping to revive (Aramaic) as a spoken language. Hopefully the pupils will use it among themselves to communicate with each other. It is our forefather's language. It is the language of Jesus, we should not forget that, especially the Aramaic Galilee dialect."
Spoken Aramaic, the root language of all Semitic languages, is still preserved in parts of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon -- and even by elderly Jews originating from a region of Kurdistan -- but the spoken language has been virtually lost in Galilee, where about 10,000 Maronite Catholics use it solely for prayer. During their daily interactions, they speak Arabic.
In all, there are between half a million and 1 million people worldwide who still use Aramaic as their vernacular language, while another 15 million use it only as a holy language, said Khalloul.
In Jish some older residents like Issa's grandfather, who helped her with her homework when she started studying, have retained their traditional language, but most Maronites of the village only hear Aramaic on Sundays.
Aramaic is taught regularly as part of religion classes by Father Bishara Suleiman, but it was not until the priest offered a three-month course for adults in 2006 that Khalloul, who had recently returned to Jish after graduating from the University of Nevada, became hooked on the language. A small group of adult students continued studying on their own following the conclusion of the course and began connecting with other Aramaic communities in Sweden and the Netherlands.
Khalloul initiated his own after-school classes for youngsters, then started to negotiate with the Israeli Ministry of Education to include Aramaic as part of the formal curriculum.
The ministry now provides funds for the classes through the eighth grade as part of any enrichment program already in place. For now, it is the only such project in Israel. A parallel art class is offered during the same period, but almost 90 percent of the Christian children choose to attend the Aramaic classes, said school principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi, a Muslim woman.
She said classes have proven to be a matter of pride for the school, and even some Muslim students are taking the class.
"It is a language which is about to disappear," she noted. "A culture is something precious, history is very precious to me, and we can't erase history and build a new culture. You have to understand where you come from."
St. Paul's parents are traditionally believed to have lived in Jish, which is near the Lebanese border. Sixty percent of its 2,800 residents are Maronite Catholic, 35 percent are Muslim and 5 percent are Melkite Catholic.
Aramaic was the dominant language in the region until about the sixth century, when Arabic replaced it following the Arab invasion.
Sweden has the strongest tradition of spoken Aramaic, and Jish school has been using textbooks and other learning material from that community.
Khalloul, who speaks to his 2-year-old son solely in Aramaic and relishes seeing the boy respond, dreams of hearing Aramaic conversations in the streets of Jish. But he is also realistic and admits that perhaps the only place where the language can truly be revived to that extent is in the Maronite area of Mt. Lebanon in Lebanon.
Still, he said, the Maronite children of the village will have this language for themselves.
"A nation without a language and without its forefather's language has no future," he said. "Teaching them their heritage will strengthen our Christianity. At least in the Middle East we should all unite in our Aramaic heritage."
He noted that, by request of the children, in May the first Communion ceremony at the church was conducted completely in Aramaic.