I’d like to share something personal with you; I hope you’ll treat this shared confidence with the seriousness it deserves. You may even sympathize with me, or realise that you too have been (possibly unknowingly), suffering from the same affliction.
It started fifteen years ago when I first made aliyah, ended abruptly when I returned to live in England two-and-a-half-years later, then immediately struck me down again when I returned to the Holy Land nearly five years ago and has been a serious impediment to me being taken seriously ever since! I’m taking a deep breath now, – sighs, closes eyes, and wrings hands momentarily – because it’s not at all easy for me to open up and leave myself fully exposed – in an emotional sense, of course – because I’m British, and we Brits often struggle to openly reveal ourselves to all and sundry, or as my mother invariably says, “All on Sunday”.
Well, here goes. I’m suffering from an incurable dose of vowel trouble, (my consonants aren’t all they could be either!), and I don’t believe I’m ever going to get over it.
I know exactly what the root cause is. It’s payback time for my scoffing at those other wretched souls who have suffered so dreadfully from this curse and had to endure the ignominy of glazed expressions, tittering, and open guffawing from those attempting to follow their drift. I should never have laughed out loud so damn heartily at that poor Officer Crabtree from the hit BBC series ’Allo ‘Allo!’ back in the 1980s, the farcical comedy show that ran for ten years and was based in a resistance-run cafe somewhere in France.
Officer Crabtree was, in fact, a British spy masquerading as a French policeman, only his command of the French language left a great deal to be desired. Combined with a dreadful accent and an awful case of IVS – Irritable Vowel Syndrome – he bumbled his way around the Nazi-occupied territory with nobody seeming to question his regular faux pas. Amongst the more memorable scenes was one where he burst into the resistance cafe after being startled moments before by the sound of a weapon being discharged inside, and declared (in a heavy, fake French accent): “Good Moaning. I was pissing by the door when I heard two shats. You are holding in your hand a smoking goon and are clearly the guilty potty!”
Well now the joke’s on me, (and most other Anglos across the State of Israel), regardless of how well, or otherwise, we may or may not speak the Hebrew language. It all started on my second day as a new oleh back in 1997 when, still bewildered by my arrival at the ‘legendary’ Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, I headed out into the big wide world that was the district of Talpiyot to do some shopping.
Exiting a grocery store with a couple of heavily laden carrier bags, I was stopped by a dishevelled looking gent who clearly was having a bad day and proceeded to regale me (in some detail), of his doubtless miserable existence. I put on my most sincere expression and nodded sympathetically as this went on for the best part of five minutes not understanding a single word, but being a polite Brit felt that the least I could do was hear him out. When eventually he completed his soliloquy, there was a pause and, (being a helpful sort of a guy), I realised I needed to offer an expression of sympathy but was in turmoil trying to remember the word we heard learned that very morning in class for ‘what a shame’.
Just when I thought my memory was about to completely fail me, the word sprung into my mind and offering him my most conciliatory face, I patted his shoulder and said – “halav”. He looked back at me with a pained expression, realising he had just wasted five minutes of his precious time on an IVS sufferer, shrugged his shoulders and walked off. I had most earnestly said ‘halav’ (milk), instead of ‘haval’, which means ‘What a shame’.
You see, the problem with being a Diaspora Jew is that you think you know Hebrew, but the truth is that you don’t. Those, like me, who spent time in Jewish education, or others who attend synagogue regularly, learn to read and write Hebrew but rarely have a clue what they are saying. I know Catholics who can recite mass in Latin till the cows come home, but if they were teleported back to Ancient Rome they wouldn’t have the where withal to even ask for a glass of water! So you come to Israel with false expectations of easing into the language like a pair of comfy old slippers.
Being married to a native Israeli helps a great deal as you are forced to speak Hebrew with friends and family. I like speaking the language and, for the most part am now fairly fluent, but still make schoolboy errors every day that expose my IVS affliction. Last summer I was asked to co-present and commentate (in Hebrew) on the Epsom Oaks horse race for Israel’s Channel 5+ sports network – I was for many years a racing commentator and journalist in Britain – and neither I, nor the producer and staff there had any qualms about me being able to cope with broadcasting live in Hebrew.
It transpires that they like the way Hebrew is spoken with a British accent when broadcasting on British sport, and they had always been satisfied with previous events I had covered. Speaking quickly in Hebrew on a live event is a big challenge, and even as I got into my stride during the mile-and-a-half world class race for fillies (female horses) of the classic generation, I was giving myself a virtual pat on the back for carrying it off so well. As the leader, Dancing Rain, went clear of her rivals inside the final furlong, I felt I had surely been correct in describing the scene ‘in the feminine’ – if you know what I mean – but glanced over to see my co-presenter Ran Malovani’s shoulders going up and down.
Dancing Rain won, we reviewed the finish then cut to a 90-second promo for a basketball game. I immediately turned to Ran. “Oh no. What did I say?”
“You said that Dancing Rain has gone three corpses clear”, he chuckled, “but it’s so cute”.
“How? I mean, what did I say?”
“You said ‘gufot’ instead of ‘gufim’, (n. Israeli racing parlance for lengths – the distance between one horse in front of another) – probably because the horses were female. It’s only a tiny mistake. You put the feminine instead of the masculine on the end of the word. But don’t worry – you’re British!”
And then, just this week, the latest IVS incident to strike me down and humble me in front of my own children – again. Having lunch with my two daughters at a local cafe whilst suffering from a nasty head cold, I felt I was just about to sneeze and realised I had forgotten to bring any tissues. Hurriedly summoning the waitress, I asked her to bring me a “mapa” to blow my nose.
“Daddy”, said my younger daughter, “your nose isn’t so big you need a tablecloth to blow it!” (So there’s one Jewish stereotype blown to smithereens!) I’d asked for a ‘mapa’ (tablecloth), instead of a ‘mapit’ (napkin/serviette).
In response to a Facebook comment on his witty and well observed ‘The top 14 facts they forgot to tell you about aliya,’ fellow Times of Israel blogger Neil Lazarus shrewdly suggested that “…happiness is not achieved by negating one’s past – but by blending it with the future”. I couldn’t agree more. You must continue to speak English with your children – it’s a huge gift to have the world’s most widely spread language as a mother tongue – but always try your best to at least have some basic command of Hebrew. Without it Anglos will become a ghettoised community and never have a cat in hell’s chance of eventually integrating into everyday Israeli life. So don’t let IVS get you down. Let’s fight it as one and stand together. Believe me, you’ll feel so much better once it’s out in the open.
The sage words of the much missed Officer Crabtree can well be applied to the collective Anglo experience in this frustrating, hilarious, heart-warming and sometimes (I’m afraid to say), highly embarrassing country, when he admitted his language frailties but remained solidly with the resistance, simply shrugging his shoulder and stating, “I admit my Fronch cod be butter”.