In a cafe last week in Naples, Italy, I struck up a conversation with a mature woman named Giuliana. She turned her head halfway toward me, and with the voice of a veteran smoker and the kind of dignity that mafiosos and mafiosas might impress upon their audience, she asked where I was from, what I do for a living… and I answered her in the best Italian I could muster. When I told her about my culinary experiences in her home country, she threw her head back, took a long breath, and stated with pride, “Napoli è la patria della pizza” (Naples is the homeland of pizza). Speak the sentence out loud with your best Italian accent — it sounds great.
Even as Giuliana sensed I was struggling more and more to follow our dialogue — and she was struggling with her patience — she kept talking in what sounded to me like beautiful Italian. And I had to keep my head above water — or awkwardly exit the conversation in shame. I picked up some Italian pretty quickly that afternoon — because I needed to.
How they used to learn Hebrew
When Israel was founded and the ulpan system was introduced, immigrants from all over the world formed a melting pot that required a common language: Hebrew at the time was both an ideal and a necessity for communication. Those who made aliyah from English-speaking countries in the 1950s and 60s learned to speak as well as Stanley Fisher not only because they wanted to, but because they had to.
But as Israelis began to travel to lands beyond Europe, and their country’s economy globalized more and more, the pride that pioneering Israelis felt about the language that they themselves had revived from a 2,000-year slumber, started to give way to a growing thirst for English, the language that promised to open the wide world to them.
The challenge today
As a result of this shift, today’s English-speaking immigrants to Israel’s major cities find themselves hard-pressed to learn Hebrew, because the locals are so eager to welcome them in the current lingua franca. Whereas immigrants from places like Mexico, Russia and Ethiopia must learn Hebrew to get by, “Anglo Saxons” in the major Israeli urban centers and a number of English-speaking enclaves do not have this necessity.
They may no longer require Hebrew to get by day-to-day, but many English speakers I’ve met over the years of running an ulpan have taught me that there is another necessity left unfulfilled by a lack of Hebrew knowledge: The need for a sense of belonging. Anglos may find Israeli natives accommodating them professionally and even socially, but they’ll still feel a sense of foreignness when everyone else on the bus listens intently to the Hebrew news during a time of crisis and they are lost, or when to understand the announcement in a theme park — or at a parent-teacher conference, for that matter — requires asking one’s child for translation. The natural gap between generations widens dramatically when immigrant parents can only watch without listening as their children grow up to be Israeli teens, speaking rapidly to one another secrets that would not be secrets had their parents learned Hebrew.
The deeper need is there, and yet learning Hebrew in Israel is especially challenging for Anglos because the immediate need for communication is largely absent. The immersive environment that the state-run ulpan system relies upon for its students’ success no longer exists in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other places.
So how is one to learn Hebrew in Israel today?
While it’s true that one does not need Hebrew to survive, immersion opportunities are everywhere.
- When you walk by street signs and historic sites, read the text in Hebrew, trying to get the gist — don’t worry about understanding all the words. Do the same with your favorite Hebrew daily such as Haaretz or Israel Hayom. Start with reading just a few words, but do so consistently and you’ll soon find yourself reading sentences and paragraphs. If you don’t yet know how to read Hebrew, you can learn here.
- Turn on the radio while you’re mopping the floor and listen to the news, talk shows and music stations, even if you only understand a couple of words – this will change over time as you continue listening.
- When you read or hear a word being repeated over and over in different contexts, know that it’s core vocabulary, a word worth making an effort to learn because it will clue you in to the meaning of other written or spoken communication.
- When you meet Israelis at a cafe or at the bank, engage them in Hebrew as much as you can – even if you’re embarrassed, even if they switch to English. Persistence is key, and it will pay off.
And take a quality course. Learning a language, especially one that is so different from English, usually requires some formal instruction. I founded Ulpan La-Inyan with the English speaker in mind, who needs an extra boost of confidence in her language ability when faced with a native Israeli yearning to practice his English. The incubating nature of a small class plus an immersive experience is a שילוב קטלני — a killer combination, and will take you far in your journey to feeling fully at home in Israel.