How’s your Hebrew?

It’s decided. The family archives were carefully combed for evidence of Jewishness, and any potentially relevant documents are already prepared in a separate folder. A multitude of information on various sites was studied, and a consular appointment set. Now we wait, anxiously trying to learn about life in Israel. We hungrily collect the minutest bits of information to even slightly smooth over the apprehension of a lengthy wait for a tremendous unknown. The reason for repatriation is to each his own, and plans for a long and happy life also differ, but whatever the specifics of any situation, I guarantee the first advice you will get is to study Hebrew.

This advice does not fall on deaf ears, and even as we wait, we begin to thoroughly study Hebrew on self-teaching sites online. We call the Sochnut to find out when the next Hebrew course begins. We take a large notebook and a pencil with an eraser and, just like first-graders, start to draw the wormy squiggles that represent Hebrew letters. Soon enough, we happen upon the initial miracle — we can try to read a word. Of course this means not exactly to read, but to recognize all the consonants and launch the super-quest game: find the vowels and guess the word.

The consular interview date is here. The consul greets us pleasantly, reviews the documents, asks several questions, and finally states — OK, I will grant you the visa. The question that follows almost immediately — what do you plan to do in Israel? — and the inevitable — how’s your Hebrew?

We happily inform him that our Hebrew is not bad at all; we have already learned the alphabet, are extremely motivated, full of optimism and intent to conquer Hebrew — it’s not the worst we’ve had to overcome.

In the old terminal of Ben Gurion Airport, there is a vast crowd — several planes landed at once, and we would have to wait at least three-four hours for our immigration documents to be processed. We examine the signs and try to understand them with the help of a translating app. We look around to become acquainted with our new-old motherland. Nothing particularly frightening is happening: almost all airport staff, as well as employees of the Misrad HaPnim and the Ministry of Absorption speak Russian, and only rarely, when communicating between themselves, we hear them speak an unknown language: Hebrew.

Finally, our turn comes. The officer from the Ministry of Absorption asks about our experience, education, and profession. He tries to understand our comments — wholesale and retail sales, marketing — and suddenly exclaims gaily — shivuk (שִיווּק, marketing), enters something in the computer with great satisfaction, and promptly loses interest in us. Shivuk it is. We memorize our first Hebrew word, obtained in combat conditions, and continue to wait.

We got settled in and enrolled in the Hebrew course, Ulpan. The first question that we are greeted with: how is your Hebrew (but you probably figured it would be). After we happily demonstrate our practically nonexistent knowledge of Hebrew along with our through-the-roof motivation, we are placed in the first step — Aleph.

The daily routine has begun and we soon realize that the thick beautiful textbook is nearly useless. First of all, instruction does not follow the topics sequentially, but hops around from section to section while also supplying a multitude of printouts and copies from other textbooks. Besides, all the explanations are given in a language that we don’t know. I do not know of a more ingenious idea than teaching adults the grammar of a foreign language by explaining it in that unknown foreign language. And at that, the course is super intensive: five days a week with five lessons a day. After a couple of months of this race, you angrily give up, accept your inability to learn a language quickly and effectively whether you complete the course, or, more likely, drop out halfway through.

My mother told me: learn English… well, not exactly — the consul told me: learn Hebrew… The clock is ticking, it’s time to look for a job. After yet another hundred resumes sent out, there is still no response. The absorption package given for the first six months ends, and finding a job is urgent. Another couple hundred resumes sent out — again no response. Nearing total despair, we go to meet with a curator in the Ministry of Absorption, and what is the first question we hear? Indeed — and how is your Hebrew?

By this point, the children have begun school, or at least they leave in the morning and return in the evening. After a short period of time, the realization dawns that no one is working with the children in school. Three months have passed, but the children only have Hebrew classes scheduled, if even that. There are no lessons in any other subjects. It is time to take control of the situation — time is passing and something is clearly not going right.

We visit the school and meet with the teacher and … sure enough, the first question-statement — your children don’t speak Hebrew. Then follows the explanation that since your children do not speak Hebrew, they cannot be educated at school. You can contact the municipality, the Ministry of Absorption, the Ministry of Education, the Premier Minister, or, better yet, get private tutoring; alternatively, wait until the children start to speak the language. Your patience is wearing thin and you, inhaling deeply and gathering the remnants of your self-restraint, attempt to politely inquire — is this the first case in Israel that immigrant children began school right away without knowing Hebrew? Well, of course not, this is not the first such case, but how is it that you, the parent and adult, cannot understand that it is not possible to teach a child math until he knows Hebrew. At this point, your pressure cooker of patience blows its lid as you shout at the top of your lungs that, how is it that six billion people living in this world learn math if only six million speak Hebrew. One person in a thousand knows Hebrew — how in the world do the other unfortunate souls get an education?

Money has run out, there’s no way out, no jobs better than washing floors or doing heavy lifting in a warehouse or store. There’s no choice but to begin working anyway. Despite wanting a qualified job, despite the dreams of career prospects in this splendid country, all these rosy dreams cruelly crashed into the harsh Israeli reality. There’s a rumor about a new repatriate who began working practically right away in Israel and for practically the same salary as he had earned in Moscow. Everyone tells this happy story to each other, but no one is personally acquainted with this lucky devil. Of course it’s possible that he is a myth, but as for me, I believe that there is, in fact, one such repatriate who found a job in his field right away, while I just wasn’t so lucky. Oh well. Once begun working, what do you think was the first question? …Nope, that wasn’t it. They asked me if I was ready for physical labor. They then showed and went over everything, and simultaneously discussed my Hebrew ability and whom I could communicate with in which language.

After working for a few months, I suddenly realized that my knowledge of Russian-international Esperanto and limited Hebrew are quite sufficient. When the supervisor failed to notice that he assigned me the normal workload tenfold, I could not precisely formulate in Hebrew that “perhaps you may have accidentally distributed the tasks unevenly, and I am just a bit overloaded,” and declared in the simple Russian-international: “FML!” The message was conveyed, everyone understood each other perfectly and the tasks were redistributed accordingly.

The following few months brought no issues with communication. I quickly learned the names of things in Hebrew as well as simple sentences: bring this, take that, wait, help, and so on. When I threw my back out and tried to explain to the supervisor that my back really hurts, he understood me right away and, as a matter of habit, translated to our international code — f**k. We had mutual understanding: I went to the doctor’s for sick leave while the supervisor searched for a new employee.

Must find a new job. I signed up for an appointment to the Ministry of Absorption, arrived on time. Sitting across from the curator, I present as friendly a demeanor and as positive a facial expression as possible. She asks me what she can do to help. I tell her that I couldn’t find work in my field, so worked at a manual job, threw out my back, and am now jobless, not being able to work at the old job and not having a new one. I sit and smile like a big overgrown kitten in hopes that she would smile and decide to help this sweet repatriate with his job search. Maybe she could give some training course or simply share some mysterious secret with the help of which I could quickly find a normal job. What do you think she asked? Yes — how’s your Hebrew?

Instantly the sweet-kitten mask disappears and I transform into a ferocious tiger. I inhale deeply, broaden my chest and am about to launch on a tirade on the topic of Hebrew, but manage to regather my self-control. I take a few deep breaths, calm my pulsing heartbeat, and as evenly as possible say — well, my Hebrew is not great, not yet, but it was enough to work as a loader. I put the kitten mask back on and prepare to hear some sacred knowledge about how to find a job. And what do you think turned out to be this sacred knowledge? As you suspected, “Well, you understand, until you speak normal Hebrew you have almost no chance to find a normal job; after all, how are you going to communicate with your colleagues?” “In f**king Esperanto,” I snapped, exiting the office. How else to communicate?

If you happen to meet an unhappy repatriate and want to cheer him up or give some encouraging advice, tread carefully in asking about his Hebrew. In proper Olim society you could get beaten with a candlestick for asking such questions. When immersed in a language, it’s impossible not to start speaking the language. But the problem is that by remaining in the “Russian ghetto” for lack of Hebrew, you remain a hostage of the ghetto and the situation. If you want to help a repatriate, help him find a normal job. Believe me, the language will catch up faster than you expect. If you want to help, help with the integration, instead of looking for reasons to isolate. Language is a means of communication, not discrimination.

About the Author
Experiences project manager from High-Tech changed his direction from business to psychology. Now I study, research, do articles and books on the change management topic.
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