The ancient Aramaic language (or group of languages, depending on who you ask) has long been endangered, clinging to life in small pockets of the Middle East. While Aramaic was once the lingua franca of the entire region, by 1996, there were only 500,000 speakers left. The language is still used for services in the Syrian Orthodox and Maronite churches, but that’s not enough to keep it alive. Some experts put the number of Aramaic speakers worldwide at 400,00 in 2004, when the Passion of the Christ was released.
In the past, Syria had made some efforts to revive it, and now two small Christian villages in Northern Israel are throwing their hats into the ring as well. They’ve been receiving some help from groups in Sweden, whose immigrant community has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve the ancient tongue.
In one village, Beit Jala, the efforts seems to be more informal, consisting of older residents who know the language teaching it to children.
In another village, Jish, Aramaic is now taught as an optional subject in school, using an Aramaic-language station from Sweden as a teaching aid. Given the ethnic and religious tensions woven into the fabric of life in the Holy Land, this decision was not without controversy. However, the controversy was not enough to sway principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi. He told the Associated Press,
“This is our collective heritage and culture. We should celebrate and study it.”
It’s difficult to say which approach will work best, or whether either will ultimately be successful. In fact,the class in Jish saw about a 50% drop in enrollment after an art class was put on the schedule in the same time slot. But the class in Jish has at least one enthusiastic student: Carla Hadad, aged 10. She told reporters:
“We want to speak the language that Jesus spoke. We used to speak it a long time ago.”