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How to “CH”

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Some will say to clear your throat. Some will say to imagine coughing up a fish bone. But what, really, is the easiest and most accurate way to say the sound that starts chai, challah, and chutzpah?

The sound made by the Hebrew letters chaf and chet also can be heard in Arabic, German, Dutch, Scottish and other languages. So it’s also useful in imagining Gaddafi, Bach and van Gogh touring Loch Ness.

But for most of us, it comes up when pronouncing Hebrew or Yiddish words: congratulating the chatan under the chupah at his chatunah, greeting the Chasid at a Chabad house, or discussing the works of Chaim Potok, Itzhak Perlman, and Shmuley Boteach.

You might really use the ch sound during the Jewish holidays, wishing someone Chag same’ach on Chanukah… celebrating Rosh Chodesh… and especially searching for chametz or making charoset on Pesach.

My favorite dictionary (writers are allowed to have such things) is Webster’s Riverside III. Its pronunciation guide spells this sound kh.

Why that combination of letters? Well, it explains, that to say the sound, you should hold your mouth as if to say the k sound, and instead say an h. It even offers this tip— say the k sound four times, quickly… and then, without changing the orientation of your tongue, say the h sound.

In explaining how to say the ch sound to others, I have realized that the reason the sound is so difficult for so many is that it involves a part of our mouths that is never used when speaking English: the uvula. This is the small tab of skin hanging down over the back of one’s tongue.

We do use the uvula, however, in making another, non-speaking sound— snoring. The uvula, vibrating like a boxer’s punching bag against the back of your throat, produces this distinctive, raspy sound. A snore is made while inhaling, drawing air into the throat.

All the Hebrew/Yiddish ch sound is, then, is a backward snore. The ch is a vibration of the uvula while exhaling, pushing air up out of the throat. So try making snoring sound… and then, not changing the orientation of your tongue or lips, breathe out… snoring backward.

One final note: making this sound, you should not sound like you are clearing your throat from a bad cold (unless you are speaking in the Yemenite dialect). The sound is not made that low in the throat; it comes from a higher spot by the back of the tongue.

With a little practice, you’ll sound as comfortably convincing with the ch sound as Talmudic as a chochom, as authentic as an Israeli chalutz, and as melodic as a chazan.

Until next month: as an American president once said to a fallen Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin: “Shalom, chaver.”

For more ch words to learn and practice, visit  this page of JUF’s Jewish Word Glossary. B’hatzlacha… good luck!


More face time in 2010

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Just as we do around the High Holidays, I think New Year’s and the subsequent weeks after provide a good time for introspection and goal setting. In fact, I think society might be a whole lot healthier if people took quarterly inventories of their lives.

My recent conclusions come both from discussions with friends and also from having seen “Up in the Air.”

I started 2010 with your typical resolutions—eating healthier, being more active and spending more time with family and friends.

To date, two-thirds of these resolutions have not come into fruition, although I remain innocently optimistic.

It was difficult to start a healthy eating regime when my refrigerator was, and is still, jam-packed with goodies I baked over the holidays, including peppermint bark, cakes and the like.

More face time in 2010 photo

My resolution downfall

Also, not to sound like a 90-year old woman, but hauling my car out of a snow-filled parking spot in sub-zero temperatures is exercise enough for me on some days.

However, something I’ve taken to heart is the idea of spending more time with family and friends—which can be difficult with a crazy work schedule.

The holidays offered some time off that reminded me of what I was missing. I reconnected with out of town friends and had a daylong baking extravaganza with my mother on Christmas—what else are Jews supposed to do on Christmas?

The minute I welcomed these things more fully back into my life after having come off a work rush before the holidays, I realized what I had been missing. Immediately, I felt more balanced and as a result, I’m more cheerful now as I go through my daily grind.

I also spent last Sunday talking with a friend about how we needed to jumpstart our lives instead of moping about them—yes, we were talking about boys. However, the conversation evolved into talk of enriching ourselves with activities around the city.

However, somewhere in the back of mind, I’ve been realizing that I may have George Clooney to thank for some positive steps forward in 2010.

While Clooney’s not Jewish (to my knowledge), I think if he knocked on my door, I’d let that one slide. He certainly was more stunning than ever in “Up in the Air,” as was his acting.

I don’t want to provide too many spoilers in case there are readers out there who still want to go see it. But, the movie, while funny at times, was also quite tragic.

Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, who essentially traveled around the country and fired people for a living, thought he had life figured out, right down to each robotic moment—whether he was passing through airports or checking into hotels. However, he realized one big thing was missing from his life: human connection.

I think this movie was a cautionary tale for modern society. If we allow our jobs, our television sets, our computers, our cell phones, our iPods or our Facebook pages to consume our lives, we’ll forget about the real-life people around us.

My friends and I, for instance, are guilty of texting at the dinner table.

I also worry that our consumerist-driven society is only magnified during a time when people are panicked about unemployment and mere survival. Bingham’s task of firing people was downright heartbreaking for the viewer, though Clooney offered a cool performance. At the same time, his character faced the inevitability that his own in-person work was going to be transplanted by computerized interactions.

Are we better as a society for making things more efficient and less personal?

That’s something I’m grappling with in 2010.

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