My Endless Ulpan

Seven years after my Imma [mom] made her daring voyage across the atlantic ocean to follow a man she’d met three months before, her first child spat out his first word: galgal [wheel]. This auspicious start made ripples across my mom’s family, who all remained back in her childhood home of Israel. When I connected the part to the whole and discovered auto [car] three words later, my inevitable bilingual fluency became a badge of pride for all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who’d had to say goodbye to my beloved mother and send her to the state of Michigan.

Five years later, my curly brown head belied the stalled status of my hebraicization. Rather than a free-spirited Israeli, I was sounding like an anti-immigration Michigander; my first years with American friends had me demanding that my mom “talk regular!” instead of sharing our special gift. Being the endlessly understanding person that she is, my imma let me go my own way. This is the short version of how I got to where I am now, or, more specifically, where I end up a couple times a year: a twenty-something surrounded by the people I love most, my family, treading water in the noise that is their conversation. Our infrequent reunions, which happen either Ba’aaretz [in Israel] or on the Upper West Side, fill my nose with the beloved smell of paprika and soothe my tongue with the gorgeously simple taste of tahini. Each time, I hear a new story of my mom’s past life and feel as if I’ve discovered a previously unfelt bone in my still-growing body. There’s immense joy in picturing her, younger than myself, standing in line until her legs tire to earn the first warm pita after a Passover suffered together by the entire nation. There’s dread in visualizing her, my age, dropping a bouquet of flowers on the casket of a teenage boy forced to fight by the same state that forced her to attend his funeral. There’s catharsis in learning for the first time that her father’s rogue purchase of a run-down gas station would bloom into a booming local business that would help fund my education (Sabba [grandpa] died of a heart attack just after I was born).

At these get-togethers, there’s an invigorating growth in self-understanding the suddenness of which I doubt many have experienced. There’s also a subconscious discomfort, the feeling that I know so little, and minutes before knew even less; I’m hearing the people I love through a sheet of glass–it’s thinning, but it remains nonetheless. At the dinner table, this feeling begins as a mild pain, a kink in my neck or back; I can walk it off. But on the flight across the sea, I see my mom write a note in her journal, and I know I couldn’t cheat over and read it even if I wanted to. When we walk together to claim our bags, the pain has returned to cause a little limp, that I hide.

Last year, I decided to cure the pain for good. On the first day of what would be five months living and studying in Tel Aviv, my new ritual began with the 7:30 shriek of my alarm clock—time for ulpan [study]. This semester would be my reckoning: after five months of classroom warfare, it would happen—I would speak Hebrew.

It didn’t happen. After six weeks of stumbling around Tel Aviv on five hours of sleep and four cups of cafe hafukh a day [upside-down coffee: latte], I decided that my accidentally militaristic campaign to reclaim the language I felt belonged to me was the very thing standing between me and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience my mother’s fist home. And I was right: a semester in Tel Aviv on English alone would lead me to discover countless new corners of myself.

The following summer, I had the dreadful task of announcing at the next family reunion that my Hebrew-speaking skills remained charah [shit]. I prepared for the well-intentioned jabs, and to sink slowly again into the chorus of familiar but funny sounds that flew up and out of the mouths around me.

Late one night, after packing for my return trip to Michigan the following day, I walked into the miniature kitchen of my aunt and uncle’s two-bedroom apartment on 99th street. In search of a bite of labne cheese on whole-grain bread, I quietly opened the fridge. My imma sat at the table, across from her imma, wearing a stone-faced look she so rarely wears. They continue their private quarrel at full volume, as the Hebrew wall has always allowed them to do in my presence. Through the cold hum of the refrigerator, I listen:

Ekh att yoda’a?, my grandma asks.
[How do you know?]

Ki ani yoda’a, my mother responds.
[Because I know.]

Att lo yoda’a.
[You don’t know.]

Lo, ken ani yoda’a.
[No, I do know.]

Att khoshevet she att yoda’a, aval att lo yoda’a.
[You think that you know, but you don’t know.]

Imma, maspik.
[Mom, enough.]

Behind the open door of the refrigerator, I understand these simple words; they say so much. My face curls into the smile of furtive discovery.

About the Author
JJ is a recent Bates College graduate who studied philosophy and wrote his thesis on some of the ethical questions surrounding Israel's existence. He still has not found authentic hummus in NYC, and is taking suggestions.
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