How to learn Hebrew as a New Immigrant

The most important thing you need to do to succeed as a new immigrant to Israel is to learn Hebrew. The Israeli government understands this and for this reason they give every new immigrant six free months of intensive Hebrew classes known as “Ulpan”. These classes are a great opportunity to make friends with other new immigrants. It is not a great opportunity to learn Hebrew. The Hebrew you learn in Ulpan is not the Hebrew that is spoken on the streets of Israel.

Israelis are warm wonderful people. But let’s be honest, they don’t have a lot of patience to listen to you butcher their language with the Hebrew you learned in Ulpan. As soon as you say “Shalom”, they have switched to English. First, everybody in Israel speaks English better than you do. Second, Israelis love speaking English almost as much as they love honking their car horns. I have a friend who made Aliyah four years ago and lives in Jerusalem. Everywhere he goes he keeps index cards with Hebrew phrases on them so he can try and improve. Forget about it, he hasn’t learned anything. My dog speaks better Hebrew than he does.

Let me give you some advice on how to learn Hebrew in Israel.

  • Date only Israelis. Even though your new boyfriend or girlfriend will speak to you only in English, she will talk to her family members in Hebrew. After one date with an Israeli, you are immediately invited to all family events. So if you can pass the first date, you will soon be surrounded with people arguing in Hebrew about politics. This will help you learn important words like לְשַׁחֵד and לְהַסִית – to bribe and to incite. But you have to be careful or like me you may end up married to an Israeli.
  • Go to the mall and compare cell phone plans. The most desperate people in Israel are those who work in the malls trying to sign you up for a new cell phone contract. They have lots of time to talk to you as there are more people working these cell phone stands than there are shoppers walking around the mall. If you insist on practicing your Hebrew they will be happy to agree. I was at the mall last week and got to practice my Hebrew by telling my whole life story to workers at both Cellcom and Orange. I also learned how to say “contract” in Hebrew: חוֹזֶה
  • Talk to people while standing in line at the grocery store. I like to do my shopping on Thursday afternoons when the grocery stores are packed with people preparing for Shabbat. Lines at the checkout stands can easily take an hour. Then you can have deep discussions about how to make peace with the Palestinians with the people standing next to you in line. Try not to express any of your own opinions as this can be very dangerous. I learned how to say I agree in Hebrew: אני מסכים
  • Hebrew is the language of our people. The rebirth of Hebrew being spoken in the Jewish State of Israel is a miracle. How exciting it is to be able to participate in this miracle.

    About the Author
    David Brent is a NASA engineer with a master's and bachelor's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned candy entrepreneur. He made aliya in the spring of 2013. David commutes between Israel, where his heart is, and Florida, where his business is.