Lost in Translation

Moving to Israel – making aliyah – is hard enough. Whether you arrive as a single person or married with eight children, it can be fraught with pitfalls, difficulties, and loads of frustration. But when it comes to learning a new language, let’s just say there’s a lot that gets lost in translation.

Things like opening a bank account, grocery shopping, paying bills – just imagine doing this without speaking the language properly. What if someone helped you along the way so you didn’t have to go it alone?

That’s just one of the reasons that Olim Advisors was started by sibling team Lara Itzhaki and Brad Shulman. The company helps new immigrants get started with a bit of help from veteran olim who’ve been there and understand what acclimating is like.

Hebrew For Dummies

If you come to Israel with zero Hebrew language skills, you get to start from scratch, and more power to you! But if you’re like me and come from a Jewish day school education, you probably think you’re better off because at least you have a basic foundation.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Supermarkets are the New Ulpan

I’m often asked, “Did you do ulpan”? Sure, I did ulpan…for about a week. It was a daily five-hour class that was pretty good, but I found out I was pregnant soon after arriving in Israel, and my soon-to-be-Israeli fetus was clamoring for twice-a-day naps. That was the end of that.

Instead, I discovered that the best ulpan is the grocery store. Nothing brings back seventh grade Ivrit class than trying to remember the word for onion (בצל) vs. pastry dough (בצק). A hot dog is נקניקיה, but deli meat is נקניק. A difference of two letters, but it makes a big difference to my stomach.

Stopping random people to ask what things are called in Hebrew is vastly entertaining. There’s always the moment where you see someone who looks like they could be an English-speaker, but you aren’t sure, so you warily approach them and hope for the best.

Of course, the opposite also happens. You naively think that your Hebrew is improving, so you ask someone where to find shampoo and they answer, “Sorry, could you say that in English?”

I Know That You Know I Know, You Know?

Then there’s my personal favorite. A random stranger asks you for directions in Hebrew (they’re probably on their way to the supermarket), and you stupidly think your Hebrew is great, so you answer them in Hebrew.

It’s at this exact moment that you both hear each other’s American or British accents, which is precisely the moment you both realize you should just switch to English, but neither of you do. No one wants to be the first to break! So you both continue speaking in Hebrew, pretending that you don’t speak English and righteously feeling annoyed at each other.

And don’t think “I’ll never see this person again”, because this is Israel, and you WILL. Probably next week at the supermarket.

Step Away From the Crazy Immigrant

At some point, learning Hebrew becomes an exercise in patience and miming skills. You’re in a store, but you can’t explain what you need, so you motion with your hands all over the place until people start slowly backing away from the crazy immigrant in aisle 5.

Suddenly you understand European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island trying to make sense of a new, foreign world. You realize that your elementary school Hebrew was a joke and you silently curse at your Ivrit teacher while also apologizing to her for not listening in class.

Here Comes Camera Girl

For a while, I became known at the local hardware store as Camera Girl. This was 2005 and smartphones didn’t exist yet. I needed to buy a new light bulb, but I didn’t know how to say that in Hebrew and it wasn’t in my pocket-sized Hebrew-English dictionary. Again, pre-smartphone era, so no quick check on Google Translate.

I took a picture of the broken bulb and showed it to the lady at the hardware store. “Oh, you need a menorah?”, she asked. I thought she was confused because it wasn’t Chanukah. Turns out, I was the confused one because in Israel, menorahs are called חנוכיות and light bulbs are called מנורות. From then on, the clerk would happily shout, “!אישה המצלימה” (Camera Girl) whenever I walked in.

Are You Wearing Pants?

There’s a famous story about a girl on a bus in Jerusalem. She often took the same route and got to know the driver, who wore glasses. One day, she got on the bus and she noticed he wasn’t wearing his glasses. She mentioned this to him, and the other passengers burst out laughing.

It turns out, instead of saying “לא הכרתי אותך בלי משקפיים” (I didn’t recognize you without your glasses), she blurted out “לא הכרתי אותך בלי מכנסיים” (I didn’t recognize you without your pants).

I’ve always wondered if she got a free bus ride that day.

Same Word, Very Different Meaning

Always confusing to new immigrants to Israel is when one word means different things. Not only do we have to learn how to say new things, we have to spend time contemplating if it’s the right context.

My Hebrew level is like a dart board. I say what I think it means and hope I hit the right target.

Case in point: my husband and I went to אסיפת הורים, a parent-teacher conference. The teacher spoke almost no English and our Hebrew at the time was…well, it was what it was. She asked if our daughter had a machzor, and I answered, “Of course”. To me, it was a weird question because this was a religious school, and religious families usually have siddurim and machzorim at home.

The teacher looked confused and asked again, and I looked at my husband, and he had the same odd look on his face. I guess we both thought she was either hard of hearing or real confused. I again repeated, “Of course. We’re a religious family. What religious family doesn’t have a machzor? Of course our daughter has one. I have one, my husband has one, you have one, we all have one!”

Well, the teacher’s face turned bright red and it was then that we thought that maybe ‘machzor’ means something else other than a siddur that you use on holidays. That’s when we learned that “מחזור” literally means a cycle. She was asking if our daughter had gotten her 1st period, not if she had something to pray with on Rosh HaShana!

My friend, a native New Yorker who works as a biology scientist at an Israeli university, was once giving a presentation to a group of students. She stood on stage at the podium and repeatedly used the word חיזוי (prediction) as part of her speech, but soon noticed people chuckling to themselves. Unbeknownst to her, my friend had used the word חזייה (bra). That was some lecture!

Final Thoughts on Language Issues

Every oleh has their story. We’ve all had awkward, funny, embarrassing moments, but you’ve just got to roll with the punches. Acclimating to life in Israel takes time and patience. Surrounding yourself with the right people who understand what you’re going through is key.

Organizations like Olim Advisors get it. They’re olim themselves and help other new immigrants navigated the craziness that are government offices, municipalities, and yes, even supermarkets and hardware stores.

It’s been 14 years and I still say incorrect words in the wrong context, but I keep trying and I don’t give up. That seems pretty Israeli to me.

About the Author
I'm a Fintech professional with 20 years' experience in Finance and business management. As a mother of 4 daughters, I'm obsessed with career advancement for women.
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