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Backgammon and ambulances: How language opens doors

Broken Arabic got me 60% off my purchase. My one word of Russian broke the ice at a volunteer gig. And Hebrew paved my entrance into Israel. These are my stories
Conversing with a Natur student. (courtesy, Abigail Leibowitz)

As the wheels of my United Airlines Boeing touched the runway at Newark airport and I took my first steps on American soil, I felt a strange uneasiness speaking to the airport staff in English. But when I picked up the phone and spoke to my dad in Hebrew for 20 minutes (he was late by 20 minutes, as usual), I felt at home. In that moment I realized one of the incredible gifts I gained during my year in Israel — improving my Hebrew skills and immersing in new languages. So I will take you now on my various language exploration journeys in Israel.

If you like Shesh Besh [=backgammon], you’d feel at home in Israel — and probably in most Middle Eastern countries. This game, formulated with a perfect balance of luck and strategy, is so integral to my life that I consider it a personality trait. As an avid player, I knew I’d find  myself welcome in Israel, where backgammon, like shawarma or street vendors, is a cultural staple.

Store owner showing us Shesh Besh boards. (courtesy, Abigail Leibowitz)

When my dad came to visit and we roamed the Arab shuk in East Jerusalem, it was the perfect opportunity to buy a Shesh Besh board. Enthusiastic for any business he could get after two very hard years of COVID and closures, the store owner tried offering us a beautifully-designed Turkish style board for 650 shekels! Before attempting to haggle with him, I struck up a conversation with the man in the limited Arabic I learned at Hebrew University. Not in any rush to sell us his board, the owner gracefully started talking with me about my studies, his work, his family — all in Arabic. Seeing my commitment to engaging with him in his mother tongue, the store owner didn’t just lower the price of the board to 250 shekels, but also gifted me a bracelet!

At Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School, Arab and Palestinian students spend time at Ulpan before they begin their degree in Hebrew at the main schools of Hebrew University. Stepping out of my comfort zone, every time I worked on Arabic homework around the campus, I decided to take advantage of the unique situation — being surrounded by people whose mother tongue is Arabic. So I asked random students to assist me with my homework. To be honest, I was wary that they might be resentful to help. I discovered, however, that their reaction was the complete opposite: they were ecstatic to share their knowledge and through it a bit of their culture. Even more so, they were appreciative that we were making an effort to learn their mother tongue while they are spending a year learning our Hebrew language.

While volunteering with MADA, I greeted my Arab ambulance drivers every shift with a “Marhaba” and every time they welcomed my greetings with excitement. Then, they proceeded to yap away in Arabic at top speed, forgetting for a second that I’m just a beginner. “Shwayeh, shwayeh!” I had to slow them down. And any time the driver would enter the station with coffee I would proclaim “hada ahweh  mnih?” [=is that coffee good?]. I could see the small joy a simple interaction in Arabic brought them,  even if it required some effort on their part to understand my strained attempts.

Coming to Yemin Orde and meeting the Russian speakers for the first time, they immediately took a liking to me when I started with the one Russian word I know — “Privet.” Volunteering in the Yemin Orde High School, my ability to form relationships with students was almost entirely reliant on my Hebrew skills. Being able to understand and communicate in Hebrew,  I became less of an intimidating presence and served as a friendly figure. Rather than seeing me as an imposing American intruding on their space, we would have friendly, down-to-earth talks about their days, exchange jokes, and relate to the issues and challenges they discussed amongst each other. Instead of a detached mentor, I was a little bit more one of them. I have learned that all people like to feel needed by others and helpful to others, and when I spoke Hebrew, it was a great opportunity for them to help me by correcting my Hebrew.

Conversing with a Natur student. (courtesy, Abigail Leibowitz)

Nativ has partnered this year with an Israeli Mechina called Natur. With the goal of delving into each other’s Judaism and exploring the differences between diaspora vs. Israeli teen Jewish lives and practices, I have gained much from this experience. My ability to hold prolonged conversations and convey my opinions to multiple Naturers has allowed me to participate in exciting political and cultural discussions.

This year, I have come to recognize the blessing of bilingualism and the power and potential of language learning in building relationships. Being in Israel an entire year, the main factor allowing one to integrate, form relationships, and break the ice with strangers has been the ability to speak Hebrew. Thus, I was able to initiate connections with those different from me, in a significant manner, and this was largely due to the absence of a language barrier for me.

This begs the question — why is language so significant? Essentially, our perceptions of the world depend on how we speak and interact with others. As we use language every day, these sequences of linguistic logic follow us around in our day-to-day life. For example, studies have shown that because in the German language there is no feature to describe an event as ongoing, the way that English-speakers can tack on “—ing” to a verb, German speakers tend to include the big picture of an action, and use more contextual clues. Further, I believe it is no coincidence that during my time in Israel I have witnessed a more antiquated, patriarchal family structure, because the Hebrew language is so gender-oriented.

If language shapes biases and perceptions, it should have the power to do the opposite as well — to build relationships based on conversation and dialogue, and enhance our appreciation of other cultures.  In many ways, this is what I experienced this year and I cherish this blessing.

Recognizing the centrality of language to societies and peoples, the great literary critic George Steiner once said: “When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.”

It doesn’t surprise me that the cultural renaissance of Hebrew predated the establishment of Israel. In other words, Ben Yehuda, Bialik, David Yellin and others began resurrecting the Hebrew language dozens of years before 1948, as this was necessary in order to change the outlook, the beliefs and the commitments of those immigrating and building the future State of Israel. So as I return to the US, I have added this as a goal: to improve and perfect my English-Hebrew bilingualism and continue to learn Arabic.

About the Author
Abby was a student and volunteer on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Originally from Israel, she moved to Silver Spring, MD as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. Inspired by Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish refugee narrative, she hopes to go to law school and work in human rights law. Back in the US, she led a student advocacy group called F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, taught at Temple Emanuel Religious School, and was a teacher’s assistant at CityDance School and Conservatory. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon (and win of course), and read!
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