Ben Greenberg
Rabbi & Coder. Solving one function at a time.

Forget nuance, just communicate: Lessons from aliyah

During the past couple months I have been thinking about my grandparents a lot. None of them is still alive, and I was only blessed to know two of them. Each one of them had a unique story and quite a different upbringing from each other. Yet, what they all shared was a sense of an immigrant story. Whether they moved to America as a child or were the children of immigrants themselves, they carried with them a sense of that immigrant experience. It is amazing what just a couple generations in a country can do to a familial sense of national belonging. In just a couple generations we went, as a family, from being immigrants to being born and bred Americans.

Well, now I, along with my wife and children, have reset that story and started as immigrants again. This time the immigration is not motivated by existential necessity or economic urgency, but rather we moved to Israel — made aliyah — in order to raise our children in the Jewish state and to be full participating members in what is, without doubt, the most audacious and greatest experiment in Jewish life in centuries. And unless we be seen as solely ideologically driven, we have also found a higher quality of life here compared to New York, from high quality universal medical care to an abundance of reasonably priced kosher food and public school that teaches Jewish history and Tanakh that doesn’t require a second mortgage, we have been blessed with a major upgrade in our lives.

So why does my mind turn to my grandparents? Because immigration requires a resetting of priorities and a re-evaluation of what is important. A prime example is the most basic and essential component of society: communication. In your native language you know multiple words that all convey the same idea, but with varying nuance. Are you upset? Are you perturbed? Are you frustrated? Perhaps you are dismayed? Each word reveals a different window into a broad emotional reality of being unsettled but within its own particular frame.

What happens when you move to a country where you speak the language, more or less, but struggle to find the right word for the right exact context? Well, if you are me, you get over the self-imposed need for exact precision and you learn to just communicate. You learn to speak more freely and more openly because you can’t rely on summoning the precise word at the precise moment so you just share. And in doing so, you find — at least I found — that people share back.

Interestingly, the inability to be as “sophisticated” in your second language as you are in your first humbles your communication and makes you more inviting for others to enter into conversation with you.

Was this what it was like for my ancestors who fled Europe for the safe shores of America? Did they too undergo a humbling as they grappled with a language that was not their primary language? Was the reset of place, culture and language for them an unexpected opportunity to connect in ways that they found hard to do within their settled routines in their old country?

As the facility with the language grows and the vocabulary expands will this phenomenon continue or will I find myself returning to my more concise and less verbose ways? I guess only time will tell. In the meantime, I will continue sharing in my broken Hebrew and, in so doing, entering into more meaningful and richer conversations with an array of people in this old-new homeland.

About the Author
Ben Greenberg is a rabbi, software developer and educator. He has worked as a campus rabbi at Harvard University and as a pulpit rabbi in Denver, CO. He currently works as a software engineer at a financial services company. He lives with his family in Israel and is originally from San Diego, CA.
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