In case you haven’t heard, the first time I went to Israel, I was 16.
And from Los Angeles.
We’re talking triple threat, people.
I was on one of those summer programs – you know, those Jewish hookup fests thinly disguised as “educational and spiritual trips” where hormonal teenagers hike, swim and share mono together in Israel. (I think most of our parents imagined that we’d all be earnestly singing “Hinei Ma Tov” around a camp fire, but no.)
It was a great time to be in Israel: The dollar-to-shekel exchange rate was in our favor, and Ben-Yehudah Street was our post-Sabbath smorgasbord, teeming with other Jewish American teenagers helping the economy. We’d sidle in and out of shops, convinced our amateur-hour haggling actually made a difference in the prices, and inevitably, we’d buy too many t shirts at Mr. T. But hey, you can’t leave Israel without an olive-green IDF t-shirt (in English) or a fire engine-red Coca-Cola T-shirt (in Hebrew.)
During that summer, I spoke bat-mitzvah Hebrew. And I was fluent in my mistakes.
Not that it mattered. Whenever we would have exchanges with “the natives” – and by “natives” I mean rich kids from North Tel Aviv who spoke English as well as we did – I’d inevitably end up playing around in their language, an ingenue tripping adorably over words with “chet,” “ayin” and “resh.” But in, like, a totally cute way.
And every time I’d stumble through the language, the Israelis around me would hold my hand and help me through.
Well, that summer was a long time ago, and while it’s true my Hebrew has improved a little, the language is still new to me.
In Hebrew, I misplace words, leaving them somewhere buried deep in memory.
In Hebrew, I’m a time traveler, turning past tense into present, future tense into past. My passive verbs go running. My active verbs are stoned on a beach in the Sinai. I confuse my masculine and feminine verbs and nouns so often that it’s as if they’re cross-dressing in the Tel Aviv Love Parade.
In Hebrew, I’m 16 again: breathless and giddy as I stumble over new words, wrapping my lips and twisting my tongue over unfamiliar sounds. Speaking Hebrew gives me butterflies in my stomach. And like that summer, as I trip over the language, I’ve found that others are still willing to pick me up and walk me through the nuances of something that is both a little familiar and still utterly foreign. (After all, I may no longer be 16, but I’m still from Los Angeles, and I’m still blonde.)
But this time, I am not going home in eight weeks. This is my home. I’ve got two children who need a mother and not a 16-year-old friend. They don’t need breathless. They need badass.
And they need a grownup.
So, I will practice and learn: Instead of grunting and pointing at something on a menu at Arcaffe, I will speak up and order. In Hebrew.
Instead of wandering around lost for an hour and a half in Florentine, I will ask for directions from a shopkeeper. In Hebrew.
Instead of letting my ex or my mother-in-law do the talking for me when we speak with our kids’ preschool teachers, I will find out how their day was. In Hebrew.
And even though I know that I will inevitably fall hard on my ass, I will take these first few steps. Because if I’m going to kvetch about living here, at least I’m going to do it so the Israelis around me can understand. Because nothing says “whiny Anglo” like bitching and moaning in English. And somehow, someday, with heart and hutzpah, I know I will toddle toward linguistic adulthood. In Hebrew.