Learning Hebrew can be an embarrassing experience. At least it would be if the people weren’t so utterly generous, patient, and encouraging with every new learner and speaker. In this respect, it is the easiest language to learn — you’re welcome to try, to make mistakes, try again, and still feel in the right place. A nation of olim, immigrants, and aware of it, in truth.
Here’s what’s embarrassing about it. It is something in the language itself. In every foreign language you learn, you mix up letters or sounds at some point. Normally this doesn’t create confusion: it sounds awkward to native speakers, and you’ll be corrected. But in Hebrew, your mistake is almost always a proper word in its own right. Switch two consonants — it doesn’t sound awkward at all, it just means something totally different. In my case, usually something quite opposite to what I meant and for sure something obscene or rude. I would want to say “I hope” and come up with “I mourn”, I’d mean “I’ll see you tomorrow” and actually write “I’ll shoot you tomorrow”. My letter twists became a running gag in my Ulpan, at some point my Hebrew teacher seemed to almost wait for my “weekly slip”.
When I learned “hechlateti” (I decided), I already knew “hitchalti” (I began) and paid attention to the little switch of consonants — both words use exactly the same three sounds ch-l-t, only in reversed order. But when I tried to say one of them one day, out came “chitalti” (I diapered). I’ll spare you the construction of a connection between those three — which can be easily made, by the way.
But I’m beating around the bush — and I wish it were a bush. Yet, I will have to talk about stone walls, sand heaps on the beach, doorjambs, yes even the gate between the sidewalk and the passageway to our house. They all smell. And not of cats.
Israeli men, or let me say some Israeli men, seem to have a constant urge to pee wherever they can in the city. They will do it in front of a public toilet, or on the beach, in the open air, or at a street corner next to a restaurant (with decent bathrooms). It never occurred to me that Israeli men could be wimpy, weak, but they must be, because they just can’t make it to the next toilet. They are unable to hold it for another twenty meters until they reach what civilization has invented to keep beaches, and streets, and doorways clean.
Here in Tel Aviv, there are restaurants and public toilets (free of charge) at about every 100 meters on the beach. So the maximum distance a man would have to make is 50 meters. However, he can’t. Today, a man walked right to where I sat on the beach, pulled his pants down and peed at the lifeguards’ booth, in front of my eyes and despite my shouting at him and pointing to the toilets right behind the building. He must have had a weak bladder, poor guy. As with every toddler in the phase between diaper and toilet-training, when Mommy has to react really fast, pull baby’s panties down and hold him over the curb or the piece of earth around a tree in the city — there is no time between the urge to pee and actually doing it. Most girls arrive at an age, later on, when they can adjust the time span they need to reach the next toilet (including the time for standing in line), and they start out early enough before the urge to pee makes them walk as if they already had. They have to manage and they seem to succeed, because I’ve never seen a woman in Israel peeing in public. It seems to be more difficult for men though (and indeed, statistics show that toilet training takes longer with boys), and some of them are obviously still struggling with it as adults. It is a mournful sight.
There might be other reasons of course. Perhaps Israeli men — or some of them — are just so masculine-masculine (the Hebrew language likes to emphasize by reduplication) that they need to use each and every chance to wiggle their private parts around in public. (I hesitate to relate this one, but you will like it: I have mistyped the innocent word “achshav” (now) a few times, with my phone auto”correcting” it each time to: “ashchim” (testicles). Learning orthography the hard way.) They are masculine indeed, the men here, and I must admit that I like the self-confident and direct manliness of Israelis and their way of hitting on me; it is a welcome break from over-conscious European manners that often end up in never speaking to the woman next door at all. Not so in Israel, you are certainly noticed and treated as a woman here; and it is a relief (or should I say relieving) to meet men who don’t need to be encouraged to make the first move. But given this true charm, why does it have to be ruined with all this premature ej— sorry, exhibitionism? I saw a guy walk into the sea one day, until he was knee-deep in water (only knee-deep!), pull his trunks half-down in front of a crowded beach, and — you know. And at least twice a week somebody comes into our backyard downtown and pees right in front of my eyes: me, sitting at our kitchen window, reading, writing, eating — and shocked anew each time it happens. The smell makes our cat look for a new place in the shrubs and I have to close the window for the day.
And it could be so easy, for native speakers at least. The key word “sherutim” serves for another one of my funny mistakes. It comes from the word “sherut” which means service, and sherut likewise names one of my favorite means of transport in Israel: collective taxis that go almost everywhere at any time. No wonder that the sherut made its way into one my poems. Many of them in fact made it there — and I constructed the Hebrew plural as best I knew: I added -im. So my poem had “sherutim” cheerfully driving up and down Tel Aviv’s streets. It took me several weeks to understand why my teacher crossed my favorite Hebrew word out and suggested another one. “Sherutim” in the plural just means toilets. I will spare all of us a delving into this Freudian slip of mine.
Because maybe this is not about bathrooms and toilet training at all. Maybe these men are just marking their territory, like the cats. Israel is hard-fought terrain, so it’s important to ensure that everyone knows what is yours. This doesn’t explain why women don’t do it as they take part in the fight for and defense of their country as well as men. But let’s say men feel a stronger urge to visibly, or more exactly olfactorily, prove their point. Perhaps that’s why they want us to not only smell it, but actually see it happen.
However, this leaves us in a messy paradox. It has always struck me that these men are ready to be killed (or to kill) for their country — but they are not willing to walk twenty meters to the next toilet to keep it clean. Once you’ve risked your life for your country, you have earned the right to mess it up, it seems.
Too bad that now when I actually try to shout rude words at these guys I get the Hebrew wrong again and end up saying something totally different and droll.