Don’t Forget to Learn Hebrew

Do you plan on making aliyah anytime soon? Are you wondering which challenge you should prepare for? I was 15-years-old when I made aliyah, so I was anxious about making new friends and conforming to a new school. The pressure of making new friends and adjusting to a new school hit me so hard, as it should for a typical teenager; It felt like this monumental wave took over me, which made me unaware of a larger challenge that I would face as well. I did not consider that I would have to learn a new language until I was already up in the air.

Eight years ago, I was on a Nefesh B’nefesh flight with my family. It hit me when a stewardess handed me a package of chips, with Hebrew writing on it. I could not understand what was written on the package, and this troubled me significantly. I turned to my mom. “Mom, what does this mean”, I asked her, desperately wanting to know the translation. “I don’t know sweetie”, she laughed. Her expression was ambiguous. She thought that I was silly to think that she would know what was written on the package, as if to say, why would I think that she knew Hebrew. Yet, she seemed to be simultaneously perplexed at the fact that she likewise could not understand what was written on the package of chips.

When we finally arrived in the holy land, I was surrounded by Hebrew everywhere.  On the street, in stores, and in restaurants, I heard and read a language that I was unable to comprehend. Although I knew basic words from Jewish day school, my grammar and vocabulary were too minimal to understand my surroundings. Words were spoken too fast for me to even catch. I felt frustrated for not being able to comprehend my new surroundings.

I have always valued and appreciated the power and importance of words. Words are the essence of communication in this world, it’s how we get by daily. We need words to communicate on so many levels: professionally, socially, and domestically. Not knowing enough Hebrew to comprehend or communicate on a basic level daily was unbearable for me, which actually motivated me to learn the language.

For three months, my brother and I learnt Hebrew in Ulpan. My grammar and vocabulary improved tremendously, since I paid attention to each word my Ulpan teacher uttered from her mouth. I was finally content with the knowledge and understanding that I have gained from Ulpan. Despite the fact that my knowledge and comprehension of the language increased, I still did not speak the language.

Which Israeli immigrant would be bold and confident enough to speak a language that isn’t their native language? Very few. Only the brave and the confident immigrants would be audacious enough to take that risk. I certainly didn’t take that risk freely. Speaking Hebrew was an extra effort that I didn’t want to make. Also, I was too embarrassed of my strong American accent when I spoke Hebrew. I wanted to sound like a normal Israeli and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. As I recall, my Ulpan classmates didn’t take that risk either. We would initially always answer the teacher’s questions in our native language; but then we were forced to repeat our responses in Hebrew, as the teacher would demand: “רק בעברית”- “Only in Hebrew”! Despite my teacher’s best efforts, I didn’t leave Ulpan speaking Hebrew fluently because in actuality I wasn’t forced to speak the language.

Three years later, I was forced to speak the language. I was doing Sherut Leumi (national service) in a Kindergarden in Kfar Etsyon. Every person I encountered, only knew Hebrew: the children, the staff, and my roommates.  It was so challenging, I almost quit. But I stuck it out, as one of my friend’s advised me not to quit when something is hard. Six months later, speaking Hebrew was no longer a challenge or an extra effort for me. I didn’t have to translate from Hebrew to English or from English to Hebrew as much. Speaking basic Hebrew started to come naturally to me.

So my advice, fellow Zionists who plan to move or who have recently moved to the holy land is: learn the language! Go to Ulpan. Learn the rules and the words, but most importantly force yourself to speak the language. Whether if it’s by attending college courses in Hebrew or getting a job all in Hebrew, immerse yourself into the Israeli society. It’s challenging, but it’s essential for survival.

About the Author
Sasha Factor made Aliyah seven years ago with her family. She was in the Na'ale boarding school program for high school, after which she did a year of Sherut Leumi in a gan in Kfar Etsyon. Her family then moved back to the USA for financial and communication reasons. However, Sasha decided to stay and study English Literature at Bar Ilan University.
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