English, meet Hebrew

Two months into Ulpan I have reached a crossover point where there is a slight improvement in my Hebrew, but at a big cost to my English, and I get the sense that this point might drag on a while.

I sometimes start speaking in my slightly-improved Hebrew without even thinking about it, but I now have gaps in my English and am clumsy typing anything longer than a Facebook status (like this bolg psot). When I’m hand-writing something in Hebrew or in English, somehow letters from the other language will end up on the page. On the plus side my Hebrew handwriting is much better than my English – which I wish I could take as a definite sign that I am Meant To Be an Israeli citizen, except that in 2014 handwriting doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

But I can go to the dentist to get fillings and speak entirely in Hebrew. And feel absurdly proud of it. (I celebrated by buying baklawa in the shuk to check whether I could eat while my mouth was still numb.) I can also have a Hebrew phone-call with the bank. Sure I didn’t understand everything they said, but it’s a learning experience – they learnt that when I answered yes when they asked if I had a loan, I meant no; I learnt what a loan is in Hebrew.

As my Hebrew improves and my English worsens, I have had some realisations:

  1. The reason why I struggle to understand new Hebrew words when they are explained to us in Hebrew, is because I have forgotten their English equivalents.
  2. The reason why I sometimes can’t read a Hebrew word, is because it is actually an English word: קריירה, בייביסיטר, ריאליסט
  3. I now know exactly why Israelis speak English in the way that they do – because they translate it literally. So, this country, she is beautiful. The soup, he is cold. That room – go in him. Why you won’t answer to me!

Being surrounded by Olim from around 25 different countries, I am no longer content with just learning Hebrew. I want to know French, Russian and Spanish as well. Ok, just the slang! It feels like a failure to know less than three languages here, which is why it is completely normal to find people showing off what they’ve learnt from each other by using three languages in one sentence.

Well I may not be able to speak those languages, but I do find myself thinking Hebrew in my head – in French and Russian accents. I would be lying if I said I’m not worried this could transfer to my spoken Hebrew! I can also, by accident, speak a sentence half in Hebrew and half in English, confusing both myself and whoever I’m talking to.

If you do it on purpose, Hebrish is actually fun to try because there are no mistakes, so you can talk about ‘holech-ing’ places or ‘kotev-ing’ things.

It makes a nice change from the intense classes, where the least demanding thing we do is listen to the news headlines on the radio nearly every day. I can now tell you a bit in Hebrew about rebels in Syria, terrorists firing rockets, police arresting suspects, racism, John Kerry, peace talks, negotiations, surrogate mothers, sanctions, John Kerry, boycotts, John Kerry, strikes at the bank, strikes at Hadassah hospital, John Kerry, and the army: striking terrorists and weapons convoys and raiding Iranian missile shipments. Oh, and the weather forecast: warmer than usual for this time of year (until today).

Two months into my Aliyah, and as well as improved Hebrew, I also unintentionally look like the kind of reckless settler that some would say is the reason the entire Middle East is in turmoil! Living in Talpiot Mizrach over the green line; turning up in an alley in Beit Safafa because Waze said to go there; spending Shabbat with friends in Maale Adumim; or visiting Yosef’s tomb because it is our heritage – yet this trip has to take place in the middle of the night, on a bulletproof bus, escorted by the army – and Palestinians hurling only one rock at the bus makes it an uneventful, peaceful trip.

Despite that – and the getting lost in Beit Safafa – I know that I am lucky to be an Olah Chadasha, and privileged to be able to do all those things.

About the Author
Mizrachi Jew. Israeli-in-Progress. But I only drink tea with milk.
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