Back in the days when I worked with adult university students, I had a secretary who got frustrated when a student, calling for an appointment, spoke English with an accent. It annoyed her to have to work so hard to understand. Plenty of people in the United States feel similarly. There’s a good deal of hostility towards non-native speakers. “This is America. Learn English if you want to live here!” they demand.
I have to admit, the immigrant experience was completely theoretical for me. My great-grandparents were all naturalized American citizens. My children are 5th generation Americans. No one in my family even spoke with an accent. There hadn’t been an immigrant in the family for a hundred years.
Until I made aliyah.
It was then that I began to understand the inherent indignities of being an immigrant. We go from being full-fledged, functional adults to being humbled by having to ask how to accomplish the simplest daily tasks of adulthood. We often lose our social standing, our financial stability and our cultural competence. We have to relearn how to write a check, how to mail a letter, how to shop for groceries. We lose the ability to read the myriad non-verbal cues around us.
It ain’t easy.
But by far, the most courageous thing many olim do is give up their ability to communicate effortlessly with those around them. True, some people make aliyah with a solid foundation in Hebrew. Others, particularly young people, or those able to immerse themselves in a completely Hebrew speaking environment, learn Hebrew relatively quickly. But for the rest, no matter how hard we try, we face a future of linguistic limitations.
In America, I earned a Ph.D. I belonged to the Mensa high IQ society. I was a dean’s level administrator at a major state university. I’m not bragging. I’m providing evidence that I am motivated, educated and intelligent.
It’s also true that I didn’t know a single Hebrew letter until I was 30. I learned the aleph bet song from watching Barney with my first child when she was a toddler. True story.
In order to make up for my late start, I studied Hebrew for years before making aliyah. I took two semesters of college Hebrew. I enrolled in private, small group Hebrew classes. I worked with books, tapes (then CDs and then mp3 files), software programs and flash cards. Upon arriving in Israel, I took the 5-month ulpan, leaving my house every day before 7 AM (a particular challenge for me as a night owl). I took a nap every day at lunch, but I studied Hebrew for five hours a day, five days a week for five months. After ulpan was finished, I hired a private tutor and sweat my way through hour-long, one-on-one Hebrew conversations. And, although my Hebrew is certainly better than when I made aliyah at the age of 51, I am still functionally illiterate in Hebrew.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not looking for sympathy. My eyes were wide open when I made aliyah and I don’t have a single regret.
I’m telling my story because I have been on the receiving end of derision for my linguistic lack. It hurts me to admit that it comes from other olim – those who came as young people, those who came with a yeshiva background, those who came with young children and learned as their children grew or those who simply came with a sharper ability to master another language.
I’m telling my embarrassing story because I have a simple request. Don’t assume the adult olah or oleh is too lazy learn. Don’t think, “I broke my teeth learning Hebrew. Why can’t they?” Don’t gloat. And please, please don’t ever say, “This is Israel. Learn Hebrew if you want to live here.”
Instead, I ask that you applaud the courage of olim like me who are so fierce in our desire to live here that, despite our best efforts, we suffer the daily indignity of not being able to communicate comfortably in Hebrew.
It’s not our choice. It’s not our preference. But for right now, ze ma sheyesh.