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Dreaming in Hebrew

Ulpan has taken over my waking life, but I'm still waiting for it to invade my sleep

It’s seven in the morning on a Sunday and I am awake. I’m up to run, which is very on-brand, but even if I weren’t up to beat the mid-morning Middle Eastern heat, then I would probably still be up within the general vicinity of seven. I would be awake not just because I tend to naturally rise early, but also because come 8:30 a.m. I need to be on the Tel Aviv University (TAU) campus, ready to absorb and retain the Hebrew language for five-ish hours. This skewed weeklong experience of waking up at seven constitutes the notoriously intensive study of Hebrew, known as “ulpan.”

Though I got back to Israel during the end of July to begin my semester not-abroad at TAU, my actual semester begins in mid-October. Until then, I am in ulpan, attempting to immerse myself into Israeli culture through language. For a consecutive six weeks, I have the pleasure of waking up at seven from Sunday through Thursday to then sit in a classroom for five hours of pure Hebrew (occasionally interspersed with English when our teacher thinks that “shchuna” is too difficult a concept for our foreign minds to comprehend). Despite some initial skepticism, this mode of teaching is seemingly effective due to the consistency and the continuity. Moreover, ulpan does not end when I leave the classroom. Rather, Israel conveniently (and at times begrudgingly) serves as an extension to my formal ulpan class, though in this supplementary, unsolicited lesson, my evaluation is not the scores of six tests.

When TAU’s ulpan ends and Israel’s informal ulpan begins, I am more motivated to use Hebrew (unless I think that English will for some reason benefit me, given the situation). Perhaps it’s because I know that I typically won’t get berated for incorrectly gendering an adjective, because I presume that I’m not speaking to Israelis whose trades are exclusively the mechanics of their native language. While I am vocal in class, I’m also slightly insecure to speak, as I know that I will likely be corrected. Within a classroom context, learning the proper grammatical forms of the binyanim and tenses is appropriate and expected. But I wouldn’t expect a taxi driver to discourage me from attempting to converse in a language that isn’t yet my own.

I have been in taxis (RIP Uber), coming home from late night trips to Abulafiya at the Port, and held conversations entirely in Hebrew. Sometimes the conversations are nothing more than me asking if the song playing is by Omer Adam (it usually is). Other times, I’ve been with friends who have also insisted on joining in on the conversation with their limited yet usable Hebrew. Once, a friend and I were coming home, and I set the precedent by immediately addressing the taxi driver in Hebrew. He responded with enthusiasm, which prompted my friend to join in and begin sharing our story with the driver. We explained to him our extreme agitation that the pizza at the port only had cheese on it, and I excavated the word “rotev” (sauce) from the depths of my knowledge, impressing both my friend and myself. At the culmination of the ride, our driver turned around and declaratively told me in Hebrew, “You went to Jewish school, and she did not — your Hebrew is much better.”

Because of Jewish day school, my Hebrew is much better. It would be concerning if 13 years of day school and two semesters of GPA-boosting, college-level advanced Hebrew had not paid off. My prior Hebrew education has manifested in good literacy, good enough speaking, and very good comprehension. In my Hebrew’s current state, I manage just fine. Managing just fine placed me at level 4B (or ג) for ulpan, which is also just fine. My vocabulary is much more expansively random than my grammatical knowledge, meaning that I reach for higher-level words and use them within sub-par (occasionally grammatically imperfect) sentence structures. Despite this disparity in my preexisting Hebrew knowledge, engaging with Hebrew in an intensive, academic setting has been enormously helpful to my advancement with the language.

It is useful to write essays on seemingly random topics and take tests on equally as arbitrary subjects with the sole commonality of Hebrew uniting them. It is also annoying, but practicing my Hebrew literacy is only something that I organically do through WhatsApp, and even then I have been told by an Israeli friend that I text like their grandfather (which is perhaps a compliment in disguise). Having to write and read about topics that the authors of ulpan books think are worthy of learning is difficult, but it usually pays off when I enter the extended ulpan portion of my day. When I’m at the shuk and the man I’m buying shakshuka spices from refuses to respond to me in Hebrew, I’m not learning. But when I am met by the chagrin of the cashier at the university bookstore as I begin my transaction in English, I switch to Hebrew so that he doesn’t have to tap in his coworker to help, and I learn that I know more than I think I do.

One of the main things that I have learned about myself through engaging with Israel in Hebrew is that my biggest roadblock is my accent. It’s not as bad as some of my other American friends, as I typically reserve the worst of it for ulpan, where the teachers are accustomed to hearing Hebrew overly annunciated by Americans. Though my accent isn’t horrendous, it’s noticeable. I’ll be at the mall (in order to reasonably support the Israeli economy and to not at all fuel my capitalistic cravings), and the girl at the register will notice, “You have an accent.” This is then followed by the obvious, “Do you live here?” I explain that I’m American and that I’m studying here, presently, and then I buy my Herzl shirt and go on my way.

Fortunately, my accent has not yet prevented me from serving as a resource in Hebrew-only situations. When a friend recently received a call from the healthcare provider Clalit, I had the pleasure of conversing with them. Essentially, they needed her to take a picture of her ankle and upload it to the link that they sent her, in order to determine whether she needed a follow up appointment. Holding a conversation on the phone with Clalit may be my most noteworthy Hebrew triumph to date, as it gave me a glimpse into dealing with the socialistic influences of Israel without grasping for English.

Throughout my past few weeks in Israel, I have been making an effort with my Hebrew. Though I am not always successful, I am practicing and I am learning. What I have not done well yet, despite my best efforts, is dream in Hebrew.

On the rare occasion that I wake up with a faint memory of a Hebrew dream, I’m always slightly confused. In my experience, Hebrew dreams have occurred because the last thing I was doing before I went to sleep was thinking in Hebrew. If I send a late night WhatsApp message or decide to watch HaYehudim Ba’im before bed, then my thoughts are in Hebrew, which sometimes carry over into my dreams. Dreaming in Hebrew signifies to me a new level of fluency. If subconscious Sophie can process thoughts in Hebrew, then so too can my awake self. But I haven’t been thinking in Hebrew enough to spark any real, memorable dreams yet.

In the next five months, I want to push myself to not revert to English when my accent isn’t taken seriously. I want to order food in Hebrew, and possibly even request a menu that isn’t a diluted translation riddled with charming typos. When a cab driver greets me in English, I want to show him how much day school and ulpan have taught me. In order to dream in Hebrew, though, I can’t study or practice — I just need to think and push myself to not automatically mentally translate everything into English. I need to accept that I have some command of the Hebrew language and that if I will it, I will dream.

About the Author
Sophie is an undergraduate student at Tulane University. She likes aloe water almost as much as she likes Zionism and writing.
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