Shlomo Gewirtz
?עולה חדש רוצה לנסות את העברית -- יש לך דקה

Me? On the TED stage? God willing

Featured image credit Ran Azulay.

How will I get to TED?  How do I know if the tale I tell and talent I sell really competes for one of those TEDxWhiteCity slots?  I’m throwing my hat into the ring as the last of the MADMEN with a long career on Madison Avenue in the heart of American advertising at the end of  ‘the glory days’ when my bosses could no longer could fit into their sharkskin suits, had their fill of office romps, and half were already dying of lung cancer. Camels and Luckies were the cigarettes of choice.  But these smoke-filled rooms were also where thank God I learned to become a ראש גדול, a big thinker, original, rising to the challenge, and trained to compete, כאילו.

Sure, today you can hear my stories and follow my lessons on how to discover what you do best, what the market needs now and how to match your skills to what it wants if you listen to my New York Podcast, but you and I know that for “ideas worth spreading,” nothing gets you the spotlight like TED. A TED Talk can be no more than 18 minutes, by the way, like the twilight zone in the quick setting of sun before שבת or the tipping point of a מצה bake when one second overtime crashes the program and turns holy into trash. But, hey, if these 18 minutes can take my עליה to a new level by making a sort of literary offering to this land for getting me to move to Israel, who knows where my audience will lead me next? Why not go for it? !לך על זה

So to scout out the scene one winter day after I saw it posted, I shell out good money for a WhiteCity ticket and figure the speaker lineup is well worth each shek. But why are they talking in English when, חברים, this is Hebrew-speaking country, שלום!!  Why should they have to break their teeth?  At halftime, I corner Yossi Vardi, the software godfather who tells me that to compete in the TED market what with thousands of  Talks on its site, what should emerge from my mouth is English only. OK, but when I tell him that עולים like me and my friends die for entertaining talks in good, witty Hebrew, he tells me to run straightaway to Ulpan.

סבבה. I counter: “Been there, done that, not enough.” I pause. “I printed this sign which I now carry with me.”  I show him a small rectangular board with the same Hebrew words that appear in this blog when you scroll up to my name and and see my ‘tagline.’  Got it?  He reads it in a hurry and laughs. So even if I hadn’t actually anticipated this encounter, well, now that it’s happening, why not milk it?  “I took this to the תחנה מרכזית and invited people to speak with me until someone came up to me and said, ‘You’re famous.  They put your picture on Facebook and you’ve got over 35,000 Likes.’” Vardi is now is more than just amused.  “You belong here on the stage.”                                            

Thank God. But I’m not through. I tell him I’ll do my talk בעברית — anything else won’t make sense.  But since I can see this idea is giving him a headache, I’m glad he urged me to take that up with whoever will direct the next WhiteCity show in Tel Aviv. So to prepare in advance for that meeting, I video and send off an 18 minute audition clip in Hebrew that takes me back to the beginning of my story several years ago when I made עליה and spent my mornings at Ulpan Mila where they fed me a diet of prime highbrow Hebrew that friends said turned me into Bialik. “It’s not you,” they insisted. But a nighttime Ulpan Morasha threw at me a ‘street Hebrew’ that turned me into Yossi Felafel, כאילו, who, by the way, I adore, but that, too, was not me.  Day and night with each voice I struggled, pulled in both directions:  What to do?  .התחרפנתי  But then I thought:

Why not use my MADMEN skills to solve this?

How can I not try to improve my Hebrew in just the same way I tackled my problems in New York…with a  ראש גדול? What are the obstacles I face? How can I recruit others to help me? Since I was trained from the get-go to define a problem and separate my main objectives from less relevant concerns, I come up with the idea of practicing my Hebrew through conversations in the public square with its natural opportunities to ‘start up’ a chat. And because I can spot the likely underlying agendas and motivations of potential ‘customers’ and  ‘clients,’ I can understand how Israelis are driven to help a new immigrant who seeks that help to adjust to a society like ours. As a result of all this ‘strategic thinking,’ then, I hustle over to the Old City Press where אלישמע prints me a sign that tags me as a new oleh who wants a minute of your time and bring it to Jerusalem’s תחנה מרכזית where I know there’ll be many people passing by who would gladly sit down with me. I grab a front table at the נעמן bakery cafe on the 2nd floor. And because I can anticipate obstacles to what I want to promote, I find ways to circumvent them. For those who ignore my sign and think I want their money, I buy strudels and other kinds of pastries and array them on a large, white plate sprinkled with powdered sugar.

So even if there’s nothing here in the station more precious than time, for the few who can budget a fraction of their attention on my sign, —”New immigrant seeks to practice his Hebrew. Got a minute?” —I offer some cake and ask,  “?לאן אתה נוסע” or,  “Where are you headed?”

At first, nobody looks at me. Am I turning into a חמור? But then, a young mother holding her little boy’s hand stops and says to him, Look what he’s doing, he wants to learn Hebrew, this man. I smile at the boy and his mom: “!תתכבדו” “Have a piece of cake, enjoy!” Those who see I’m the real McCoy and can sit for a bit are surprised and amused as I pull them into my tongue-of-war between Bialik and Yossi Felafel. סבבה. Nobody doesn’t have what to tell me.

How does a new עולה use this to develop his love for the people? I wanted to hear more from this sergeant who taught Hebrew in a military prison to those who ‘did not understand their orders,’ but she had to rush off to the base. I’m intrigued by a spirited engineer who’s desperate to launch his plan for a new plane part. I listened painfully to the Breslover Hasid who was crying over his 30 years of marriage from Hell…and asked me how to pick up the pieces from here. And what do you say to an eight year-old who tells me that his Bible hero is King Josiah, who began his reign when he was eight? I asked him if the king was good at Matkot.

That’s how it goes, from one shmooze to the next, talking and noshing, stories and laughs, “hello” and “goodbye.”  With my pen in hand, I jot down new words I learn which I use right then and there, כאילו, so people can see how they’re really helping me speak.

And then it happens.

A young man who looks like a stranger but, still, has a kind of familiar face, approaches me, matches me to that photo on his phone and walks into my life with, “Hey, you’re famous.”  “.אתה מפורסם.

What…? This is crazy, man!  Tens of thousands of Israelis are looking at this picture someone posted on Facebook with over 35,000 people clicking the “Like” button and hundreds cheering me on, as in: “…You are The King! — “!כל הכבוד! אתה ההמלך

I love it.  King of the Bus Station Kingdom and ruling over those rushing to Arad and Holon? King of the girls behind the jewelry counter who, to crown the moment, are snapping away on their phones at me eating a sandwich? And then –ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר  —‘there was evening, there was morning’ — in a flash, a klumnik becomes  a star. Straight from the Facebook ‘trending’, the whole ‘House of Israel’ out of nowhere shows up. Old and young, North and South, from the whole religious spectrum according to their affiliations, to the tattooed according to their tribes. Rashid and his beloved wife Nasreen also come. And two soldiers  serenade me, כאילו, with, “As our forefathers stood…והיא שעמדה.” We lock arms, as if at a campfire.  Nearly everybody wants selfies.  And then, hear this! The Naaman café manager is replacing the pastries with fresh ones, on the house!  Free! With cocoa dust on top! Thank you! And soon there will be a video of me on YNET, a speaking gig at Hebrew U., and wherever I go people will know me!  Friday afternoons, I head over to Machane Yehuda where I  compete with musicians, jugglers and ‘huggers’ who all become my friends. Walla, again!

Family and friends wrestle loudly over what caused those Likes, Shares and Comments. Do we Israelis feel pride in a picture we can’t imagine in any land but ours?  Do young Sabras like to see older Americans reveal their vulnerability? And especially in times of war and sadness, it may remind us in some way of why we are special — a Zionist story?  Or perhaps from a universal perspective, when we’re tethered to machines and smartphones controling our lives and every thought and feeling tapped out on glass, relationships suffering over dinner distractions or interruptions in bed, maybe it’s ‘cool’ to see someone say, “Talk to me!” and then give up WHAT’S APP for the sake of what’s human.  A soul-talk with a flesh-and-blood creature who invites you to “Sit down with me for a moment.  Let’s chat.”

Others ask me what I’ll do with my fame—is it a prize for what I’ve already done, or a spur to what I can yet do, I wonder. Then, a young lady named Nurit hurries to sit down at my table.  A pack on her back and in her hand, a Book of Psalms.  With my sign and pastries, I asked her the same question I had asked, כאילו, hundreds of others: “Where are you going?” In her Israeli English, she tells me:  “I going to כותל, the Wall, and I want sign on back of my תיק to stop womens from bothering me, כאילו, while I stand so close to pray.  You are an expert in signs, yes? I want you to look my sign.”  I translate from the Hebrew:

Dear Jewish ladies, today, the 18th of Tammuz, is my birthday.  I ask that you do not bother me from exercising my choice to read the entire Book of Psalms in the spot closest to our Heavenly God.  Thank you and I will be glad to bless all you at the summation of my reading.

That she needs my advice, hey, I never turn down the chance to help someone who needs direction.  And that I’m a ‘sign maker’ I have no problem with since what are all the ads I write if not signs for a product, service or cause that competes for your recognition, money or love?  If Nurit is competing for time and space, these are my secrets. Why should I not spill them?  But I’ve got to be honest with her. I summon up all the Hebrew I can say to her דוגרי — directly:  “’Don’t bother me’ makes me want to bother you.”

She tells me I’m joking, כאילו.  I pretend a stern face. “I’m dead serious, sweetheart. Instead of provoking these ladies, why not give those behind you the incentive to give you what you want – some quality time in this most intimate public spot?”  I press her, “isn’t your birthday the greatest day of your life?” I was hoping for a resounding ‘yes,’ but I should have known better. She says:


“So make today your headline. You want to draw everyone into that little circle you’re creating to spread your joy to everyone with a simple blessing. Great.  Who turns down a  ברכה? You’ve got ‘em hooked, so of course they’ll consider your request if you sound human.  It’s all in the ‘voice.’”  With a little give and take, we compromise and arrive on the final wording.  I translate again:

Today is the greatest day of my life!  My birthday!  I want to use the occasion to bless you together with the whole nation.  If you wish to speak with me I’ll be happy to do so when I finish praying.  Thanks much, Nurit.

And don’t forget to put a ‘smiley’ at the end,” I add.

On her way home later she whizzes by me and flashes a ‘thumbs-up.’  What a thrill. The puzzle is complete.  I’m grateful to her for teaching me that  “where are you headed?” can take us in a direction or, even, a crossroads more inspiring than Tzomet Golani, say. I helped her with the question, ‘where are you headed in life, and what purpose will each sign serve?” True, I’m not Cobi Peretz or Bar Refaeli, but at least 35,905 already know me and my nosh. So why not nurture my budding celebrity?  If you see me up there on the next TED stage, or in the square outside, or wherever I am, please be sure to say hi. Wherever we meet, I’ll probably invite you to help me with my Hebrew and then return the favor, if I can — and if you want —  help you get where you want to go to and redirect anew the signs in your life to reach the right place. Onstage or off, busy being famous is my new and busy job.  I’m only sorry Nurit didn’t take a @.

(To be continued)

About the Author
Apart from his work as an executive competition coach, Shlomo Gewirtz is a writer and performer in Jerusalem. His current one-man show, "The David Moment," is playing at the Hotel Yehuda. For show times, call 052.306.1783.