Monday, March 1, 2004

By BARBARA WILLIAMS
STAFF WRITER

THOMAS E. FRANKLIN / THE RECORD

Joseph Marani went to the movies twice this weekend, to see the same film.
The first time he focused on the content and let his ear get used to the
accent.
The second time, he just enjoyed listening to his native Aramaic spoken on
the big screen.
Marani, from New Milford, was one of hundreds of Aramaic-speaking North
Jersey residents who flocked to theaters for showings of "The Passion of the
Christ." Although like moviegoers across the country they discussed the
brutality
and emotional value of the film, they admitted to being especially touched
hearing the words spoken in their own language.
"Listening to the people speak in my native tongue - Aramaic is my first
language - made the film so much more realistic for me," Marani said, adding
sadly: "I forgot it was a movie, I just felt like I was there, watching them
beat
and torture Jesus."
Actors in Mel Gibson's movie speak both Aramaic and Latin, two ancient
languages that some consider to be dying off. But for those who attend St.
Mark's
Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck where the Mass is celebrated in both
Aramaic and English, the language is still being passed down through the
generations. Aramaic is the official language of the Syrian Orthodox religion.
"Our language is still alive," said George Kiraz, an Aramaic scholar from
Piscataway who attends St. Mark's. "It may be in intensive care, but it's
still
alive."
Kiraz and dozens of others at St. Mark's discussed the movie Sunday, as
hundreds of others were planning on viewing it later that afternoon. St.
Mark's
bought out a showing in a Paramus theater for members of the four Syrian
Orthodox
churches in Bergen County. In addition to Teaneck, there are also churches in
Mahwah, Hackensack, and Paramus.
Teaneck-based Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim, who oversees all the Syrian
Orthodox churches in the Eastern half of the country, gave the homily Sunday
morning, encouraging the congregation to see the film.
"Focus on two things when you see this movie: the language, our language,
which is blessed; and not who killed Christ, but that he died for all of us,"
Karim said. "Hopefully, you will come out of the movie with more determination
to
be a better person, after seeing what Jesus did for us."
Aramaic was the language throughout the ancient Near East, and by the 8th
century B.C., it was the major language from Egypt to Asia Minor to Pakistan.
Experts agree it was spoken by Jesus Christ and his contemporaries. Following
the
rise of Islam about A.D. 700, it began dying out, replaced by Arabic.
Many of the parishioners and their ancestors at St. Mark's come from Turkey,
but some hail from Syria and Iraq. They say the movie will help people to
understand their roots. Their Christian beliefs are almost identical to Roman
Catholics, and their language is Semitic and close to Hebrew.
"When I say I speak Aramaic, people ask where I'm from," said Samira Yunan of
Boonton. "After seeing this movie, people will understand now. It makes me
feel so much closer to my community, that my language has been recognized."
Although the dialects are different - Karim said their dialect is the purest,
whereas the one in the movie is closest to what was spoken in Palestine and
Jerusalem at the time of Christ's death - many from the church understood
enough of the film that they didn't have to read the subtitles.
They reveled in the recognition coming from the movie.
"I always felt like we were a dying breed, and this reassured us of our
existence," said John Kavak of Maywood. "Our hope is that this film will
prompt
people already in the church to stay and bring outsiders in who may be
curious.
"I am always teaching my nieces and nephews about our language, now I can say
this major media event is in our language."
About 350 families attend St. Mark's and 1,500 Syriac families reside in the
New York/New Jersey area. In Middle Eastern countries, close to a half-million
people belong to the Syrian Orthodox religion, and another 2 million to 3
million practice in India.
"We are a diverse congregation," said the Very Rev. John Meno of St. Mark's.
"And we're a relatively small community, so having this film made in our
language is a wonderful thing.
"It's hard to witness. But it brings home the fact our sins crucified Jesus."
None of the congregation said they thought the movie would bring out
anti-Semitic feelings - something that has been a source of controversy since
sneak
previews of the film started weeks ago. In fact, many said just the opposite,
agreeing with Meno that Christ died for everyone's sins.
Marani said that was one of the most profound feelings he took away from the
movie.
"We're all responsible for this man's death - they said that in the movie,
and I felt it so much more after watching it," he said. "It just makes you
think
about religion more, makes you feel more attached to it, and to bring it into
everyday life a lot more."

E-mail: williamsb@northjersey.com

6494374