Avi Rockoff

Hebrew deafness: Were you talking to me?

At the theater, I hand the cashier my credit card. He stares at his keyboard and mumbles something. Then he looks up. He wants a response. 'Sliha?' I mutter

The bus driver yelled angrily as we barreled down Route 6 on the last express from Haifa back to Jerusalem. His colleague heading north the night before had kept shouting at people who hadn’t paid their fare. But I’d paid mine, so I sat across the aisle in the second row reading a book on my phone and, so I thought, minding my business.

Soon the driver was at it again. A young haredi man tapped me on the shoulder. “The driver say your light bother him,” he said. “He say you can move to the back.” I thanked him, shut off my phone and sat rigid the rest of the way.

Hebrew deafness. When you’re in unfamiliar surroundings and don’t even know when someone is talking to you, you can’t hear them.

Exiting the bus, I apologized to the driver for failing to understand him: “Mitztae’er, adoni, aval lo hevanti ma she’amarta li.”

He shrugged. “lo yadati shelo mevinim Ivrit.”

Which wasn’t quite true: My Hebrew is actually not all that bad, at least for an American visitor (our daughter made aliya 12 years ago). The previous Shabbat I’d understood most of the drasha. At the cinema two nights earlier, I had followed the Hebrew subtitles on the Farsi-language film that beat “Footnote” for the Oscar. My paltry vocabulary even lets me shoot the breeze with a cabbie, though I take care not to sound Biblical. But much of the time I am functionally deaf.

At the theater, I hand the cashier my credit card (Bank of Jerusalem!). He stares at his keyboard and mumbles something. Then he looks up. He wants a response.

Sliha?” I mutter.

Me’a v’arba esre shekel,” he says. I approve the sum.

I know me’a v’arba esre means 114. But I wasn’t expecting it, so I couldn’t hear it. Deaf as a post.

Experts must know the right technical terms, but it comes down to this: people mumble, leave out consonants, swallow vowels. Native speakers fill in the blanks from experience, cues, and context. Strangers can’t.

Of course we miss the big things: we weren’t in the army, don’t know the cultural references, don’t get the jokes. Newspapers are too hard, radio and TV newsreaders too rapid. The ubiquitous acronyms — not the ones from the Talmud and halakhic codices — mystify. My eighth-grade dikduk teacher never taught the shoresh of datlash (an acronym denoting the formerly religious). For someone who has spent his life with antennae quivering, it’s awkward to be where things run on 220 and the receivers mostly don’t work.

Welcome to the Holy Land (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Welcome to the Holy Land (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

And of course we’re stuck with those barbarous American R’s. Some accents sound exotic, even classy. In the US, even low-end regional British sounds cool. But American Hebrew just sounds silly.

Growing up, I figured that since all Central European émigrés seemed to speak nine languages, smug cultural imperialism must account for Americans’ unique linguistic ineptitude. I should have known better.

My wife now teaches English as a Foreign Language. Her Korean students have a devil of a time of it. Ditto her Vietnamese, Brazilians, Japanese, Spaniards. Even Europeans who sound fluent have trouble connecting via small talk. In Denmark, it appears, nobody asks “how are you?” unless they actually want to know.

Our shul community attracts many Israelis, who visit with their families for a couple of years. Since we live near Boston, these guests seem to be mostly Harvard post-docs with IQs in the four digits. Many are nevertheless uncomfortable in English, and rarely agree to speak in public.

In my work as a physician, I see patients from all over the world. Nearby neighborhoods are home to many Russian Jews. Again, this being Boston, many of these were once high-level engineers, physicians, lecturers in prestigious Institutes. In St. Petersburg they were proud of their education, status, and linguistic finesse. Here they are old, displaced, tongue-tied.

“I am sorry for my English,” they always begin.

“I am sorry for my Russian!” I cheerfully reply.

Between the few Russian words I know, broken English, some Yiddish, and even a little Hebrew (many passed through Israel en route to this promised land), we get by.

My Russian is weak because I had the forethought to choose zaydes who fled the Czar’s army in time for my parents to be born in the USA and speak without an accent. My wife’s folks were greenhorns, something of an embarrassment to the younger generation (as all parents are, only perhaps more so). Eighty years later some of our family has made aliya.

“Don’t speak English at our school,” their kids warn Mom. “And for heaven’s sakes, don’t speak Hebrew!”

Linguistic deafness has a lot in common with the real thing. Because hearing aids don’t work very well, older folks often miss cues. They hesitate, freeze. Was someone talking to me? The effect is isolating. Nobody wants to stand out, to annoy, to look as though they are losing it.

I am old enough to remember the New York dairy restaurants where I. B. Singer set his last stories. Old men ate blintzes, drank tea with sugar cubes between their teeth, and argued fiercely over faded ideologies debated in the mameloshn periodicals that shriveled and disappeared along with their readers. There are big differences — in class, style, and cost — between those forgotten eateries and the trendy cafes in Baka and along Emek Refaim, with their elegant fare and optional English menus. But Pavlov could have predicted the aversion of many diners to venturing outside the enclave, the “bubble,” as some call it, the environs of “the swamp” of “Srugim.” Out there are risks: of being taken for deaf, daft, soft in the head.

Living in a bubble. Rehov Emek Refaim (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Living in a bubble. Rehov Emek Refaim (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Family and work commitments will keep us in the States for some time to come. If I take an inter-city bus on my next visit to Israel, I will sit in the back and scan the auditory horizon for outbursts from the driver. But should they come my way (my forehead shining on his rear-view mirror?), I will probably manage to miss them. Sorry, sir, were you talking to me?

Love the stranger, says the Torah. Sound advice. But a stranger he remains.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.