At Christmas, a Maronite Christian Village in Israel Revives the Language Spoken by Jesus Christ

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In the far north of Israel, in a stone church tucked onto a remote hillside, Christmas Mass will be recited, as it is every year, in the language Jesus Christ spoke. Aramaic remains the liturgical language of the Maronite Christians in the Galilee, where Christ grew up and a resilient congregation struggles to revive the language in everyday life.

“Two thousand years ago it was very known,” says Father Bshara Suleiman, pastor of the St. Maroun Church, named for the 5th century monk who inspired the movement in the Aramean region in what is today Syria. By then Aramaic had been the lingua franca from Egypt to Afghanistan for perhaps 1,000 years, though few Americans had heard of it before The Passion of the Christ. The controversial 2004 feature directed by Mel Gibson was the top-grossing non-English film in history.

“It was very easy to understand, for me,” says Shadi Khalloul, who saw the movie in the U.S. and promotes Aramaic education at the Aramean Center in the town of Jish. “It was almost correct. They tried.”

That’s about all a moviemaker could do. Outside of church liturgies, Aramaic is spoken only in parts of Lebanon and Syria, and taught to young people only in Sweden, where about 100,000 exiles have taken root — and in Jish, now that the Israeli government finally gave permission for instruction during school hours.

Until that approval, years in the making, the fate of spoken Aramaic hereabouts was linked precariously to the health of people such as Maron Alam, 81, who on a recent weekday stands in the 18th century stone church and sings the liturgy he grew up with. “When he sings the language, for me, it’s very emotional,” says Khalloul. “I feel like, ‘Why are we losing this language?’ A nation without its heritage will not exist. Let’s hope a few years from now we’ll be able to revive it, and revive our identity.”

The hope is real — almost all Maronite students in Jish opt to study the language — yet the odds of full revival might best be described as mixed. On the positive side, Maronites have the example of Israel’s revival of another ancient tongue. “Look what the Jews did with Hebrew 100 years ago,” Khalloul says. When the first Zionist Jews arrived in what was then a section of the Ottoman Empire, they decided to update their ancient language, which was barely spoke aloud outside of worship. Within 15 years, a generation was speaking it as their native tongue; polls today record Hebrew as perhaps the one aspect of Israeli life its Jewish citizens value most.

On the other hand, Israel’s experience with nation building worked out much better than the Maronites’. In the fluid years immediately following World War I, with expanses of the Ottoman Empire up for grabs, the victorious great powers of Europe redrew the map of the Middle East. The British took Palestine as a protectorate, having announced in the Balfour Declaration that it should become a homeland for Jews scattered around the globe since biblical times. France carved out Lebanon as a prospective homeland for the Maronites, an expression of Paris’ cultural affinity for Catholicism — Rome having taken the Maronites under its umbrella in the 12th century. But things didn’t really work out. After decades of bitter rivalries and civil war, the roughly 1 million Maronites who still remain in Lebanon account for barely a quarter of its population; most are scattered in a diaspora from Stockholm to Brasília.

Residents of Jish have their own story of displacement. It starts a few miles to the north in a village called Biram, which most local Maronites called home until 1948, when the Israeli army swept through the Galilee during the war of independence. The Jewish fighters found most of the villages deserted, the Muslim Arab population having fled before their advance. But Biram was still full of people, the church bell clanging to announce their presence.

Maronite residents say they stayed put because they regarded the Jews as allies. In the years before the independence war, they note, the town had sheltered Jews escaping hostiles areas and making their way to Zionist havens on the coast. The assistance was documented in letters between Maronite and Jewish leaders.

But the army ordered Biram emptied and residents to move down the road to the abandoned Arab village of Jish. They complied, but took the matter to Israel’s Supreme Court, which ruled they should be allowed to return. Instead of enforcing the court instruction to return the Maronites of Jish to Biram, the army leveled the place. Today Biram exists as an overgrown park with just enough old stone walls standing to pass for picturesque.

“I tell my Jewish friends, instead of treating your friends well, you treat us like enemies,” says Khalloul. “We helped them, and we expected the same treatment.”

Following the Arab Spring, some Maronites who still nurse nationalist ambitions sense a possible new opportunity. If Syria goes to pieces, Lebanon may be up for grabs as well. In the meantime, residents of Jish press their case with a zeal balanced by discretion. “I like my liberal, my democratic state,” says Elias Suleiman, who heads the local school system. “We can criticize the state. We can do many things our neighbors cannot do.”

Including, finally, teach Aramaic. Over lunch in a private home, eight fourth-graders gather in the living room to serenade visiting reporters. Their song sheets are in Aramaic script, which predates both Hebrew and Arabic and looks a little like both:

“It’s very important for us to have the same words,” says Suleiman back in St Manour Church, built with the $5 million raised by the parish and a few wealthy Maronites abroad. He points overhead. Encircling the interior of the church’s dome are the opening words of Our Father in Aramaic. The priest smiles. A few years ago, he says, a bishop was visiting from Australia, and when the time came in the service to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the parish priest happened to glance at his visitor. “He started crying,” Suleiman said.