On my final morning in a host-home in a moshav near Kiryat Gat, my host-father asked me in his best English, “Did you play pool?”
I was stunned. Throughout the entire weekend, I’d become accustomed to his English sentences halfway through defaulting to Hebrew. So, after his question, a few options flooded my mind. First, there’s a small above-ground pool in the farm out back that appeared to have been empty for years; perhaps, he wanted to know if I wanted to play in the pool. Second, I went to the beach in Ashkelon with my host-brother two days prior, so he might not have known the translation for “beach” and wanted to know how that was. Third, he only ever asked how I was feeling and how I liked the food at his home, his thick Israeli accent made “pool” sound identical to “poo” and I was pretty sure he knew that the pool at back was empty, so maybe he was just interested in how I adjusted healthwise.
I went for it. Rather hesitantly, I responded to him in basic Hebrew, “Yes, I pooped?”
Immediately, my host-brother spat out his tea, laughing. “He asked if you played pool this weekend, like billiards, not if you made poo,” he slid in between his outbursts. Apparently, living in an area with more than one language isn’t as easy as it seems.
The important lesson here is that the communicative challenges arising in a culture of many languages are much more common than just asking how someone’s weekend was. They’re evident on every street corner, in every shop and in every political discussion. Thus, every conversation crossing lingual, and therefore cultural, boundaries must be simplified into basic terms. Ergo, people who aren’t very proficient in popular languages can’t express their fullest and truest opinions and sometimes even lose a voice altogether.
Apply this to my political discussion with a Yeshiva student in Jerusalem. My first language is English and his is Yiddish; our only common ground is a limited knowledge of Hebrew. So, when I asked him about his thoughts on Operation Protective Edge, his only response was “Death to the Palestinians.” While his opinion may have seemed strong, he didn’t possess a more effective way to analyze the conflict in a nuanced way, at least not in Hebrew. In essence, he lost his voice as a price of cross-lingual communication.
Or, put this phenomenon in the context of Yad LaKashish, a nonprofit in Jerusalem that “gives approximately 300 of Jerusalem’s needy elderly and disabled a sense of purpose and self-worth through creative work opportunities, essential support services and a warm community environment.” Since many at Yad LaKashish immigrated from non-Hebrew speaking countries, like Argentina, Ethiopia, Brazil and Russia at such a late age, their years of being successful doctors and lawyers, among other professions, amount to nothing and their limited abilities to learn Hebrew make assimilation nearly impossible. Since translators for Spanish, Amharic, Portuguese or Russian aren’t always present, it’s easy to understand why many of these once-lawyers can’t even choose a political party that represents their beliefs, and how that can quickly diminish both their perceived self-worth and their ability to better their communities.
While lingual and cultural diversity can potentially lead to a culture that feeds upon global ideas and practices, that is not yet the case in Israel. But, there is hope: many Israeli students study Hebrew, English and Arabic, while speaking Russian at home. Most likely, language barriers won’t leave the country as fast as they arrived, but through exposure, younger generations will be able to bridge the lingual and cultural gaps left by their forefathers. And hey, maybe years from now, shakshuka and huevos rancheros may just be synonymous.