Modern Hebrew – A Gateway to Understanding Israel

So, how do you recap the start of an entirely new chapter in your life? Obviously, you start from the beginning, but how far back do you go? You see, my story has many chapters, growing up in the Northeast US, joining the military (the first time), moving to Vermont, moving to New York City, etc., etc., etc. I think that it would probably be best to start a little sooner. Yes, let’s start with my most recent attempt at finishing school at the City College of New York.

After a second round of military service following September 11th, I had decided to complete my degree. Thus, began my journey. A journey that would take me to the Land of Israel. This sounds so Mosaic. Let’s wind it back a little bit.

Originally, I had been accepted to the Colin Powell School of International Studies and was going to get a degree in International Studies. But, due to conflicting ideas with the faculty on the source of society and the world’s problems, I decided that it would be best if I chose another major. I had already decided to add on a Jewish Studies minor to my degree, so confused about my future, I headed down to speak to Dr. Roy Mittelman, the program’s director, about my next steps. I was thoroughly not prepared for what was about to happen. After explaining my concerns to him, a smile spread across his face and he declared, “So now you’re a Jewish Studies major!”

This is how my journey to Israel started. In the director’s office of the City College of New York’s Jewish Studies Program. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but this place is a locus for Jewish thought in the Diaspora. The faculty in this program come from all over the world with insights and information about the Jewish world, both past and present. What is most amazing about this program though, is the way in which it introduced me to Israel. Through language.

Modern Hebrew is a component of the Jewish Studies curriculum at City College. Being the language most often used in the State of Israel it is also a gateway for students to begin discovering what life is like in the Jewish State. For me this was powerful, and the musical quality of the language had me downloading Israeli pop songs on iTunes and cramming my shelf with books from Amazon promising that I would be “fluent in fifteen days.” Although I was memorizing and singing songs to which I had no idea what the words meant, I definitely did not become fluent in 15 days. Becoming fluent (and finally figuring out what the words to “Mahapecha Shel Simcha” meant) would require a lot more work. For this, I would need to travel. Enter, Ben Gurion University.

Ulpan is, according to Wikipedia (yes, I used Wikipedia), “an institute or school for the intensive study of Hebrew.” Most universities in Israel, including Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, have an international program dedicated to the practice of teaching foreign students and faculty the language of Modern Hebrew. This program is instrumental in achieving a full and dynamic understanding of what life is like in Israel. Ulpan drops you into the mix immediately. Most programs are four to six weeks in length, so you are speaking and interacting with your classmates from the word go (or yallah). For me, though, what made my choice in my program so effective was its location. I was in Be’er Sheva.

Be’er Sheva is in the south of Israel. Far from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, far from the Tel Aviv beaches and night life and far from the gardens and vistas of Haifa. It sits at the edge of the Negev. Which is a desert. Which is hot. Needless to say, I was not excited to be going there, nor was Ben Gurion my first choice in schools.

I was SO wrong. Holy cow was I wrong! Before I get into it, let me give you a little bit of insight into the city’s demographic makeup. Be’er Sheva is unique. Generally, it is a city where everyone lives together. Jews and Arabs share the same space and within that, there is a mix of Moroccan, Ethiopian and every flavor of Ashkenazim that exists, all in the same place. Because of this, almost no one speaks English. Sure, there is a general understanding of the language, but for all intents and purposes, everyone speaks Hebrew. This is a blessing and a curse for the Ulpan student. You are forced to use the language. No problem though, let’s jump into the deep end of the pool.

Now, you would think that this would be scary, but the people in this city, surprisingly are extremely willing to help you in your journey to learn the language. Here’s an example. I used to go to a makolet while in Be’er Sheva (a cross between a corner store and a bodega) to get what I needed every couple of days, things like coffee, milk and bottled water. When the store owner found out that I was attending Ulpan, he would refuse to speak to me in English, but would patiently wait for me to hammer out my request in Hebrew. This would never have happened in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. A side note, I was actually told by a store owner in Jerusalem to stop speaking Hebrew because it was taking too long to get what I wanted to say out of my mouth. He said this in Hebrew, and ironically I understood it.

I guess what I am trying to get at is that if you are living in the Diaspora and you are like me and you want a relationship with the State of Israel, think about learning Hebrew. It’s a wonderful language, it’s a musical language and it is a gateway to creating a better understanding for yourself of the culture, the food and the people of Israel. It’s also where I started my journey. A journey that brings me to Israel every year, so that I can learn a new amazing fact about the place. A journey that allows me to be closer to a place that I love. A journey which led eventually to me making my podcast and my travel show. A journey that ultimately led me to what is now my mission, “Bringing Israel to the World.”

About the Author
With my microphone and my camera, I Michael Sahno, the host of the "12 Cities in Israel" Podcast & Travel Show want to show you the Culture, the Food and the People of Israel. So, get ready and join me on a journey to explore every corner of this big, little country.
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