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Oh say, can you speak: or how to succeed in Hebrew without really trying

I've been managing Israel well, with my elaborate mixture of chutzpah, creativity, and roughly 25 Hebrew words... At least, I haven't been sued yet
Illustrative. Learning Hebrew -- Ulpan Morasha students repeat sentences in Hebrew. (Ulpan Morasha)
Illustrative. Learning Hebrew -- Ulpan Morasha students repeat sentences in Hebrew. (Ulpan Morasha)

I’ve decided that I no longer require Ulpan. Of course, this would be a more dramatic statement if I had started Ulpan in the first place, but when I finally do begin, it will probably be wasted on me. The obvious assumption then, is that my Hebrew must be excellent. My honest answer is no, it’s abysmal, but I think I have found a way to beat the system.

I’ve been here just over two months now, and without meaning to brag, I firmly believe that my Hebrew skills are as good as any Israeli living in Tekoa. This is what I modestly tell people back home. Of course, what they don’t know is that by “Israeli,” I mean an Israeli infant. I have roughly 25 Hebrew words in my vocabulary, of which five are variations of “aizeh keif.” Yet here I am, in a Hebrew speaking Sherut Leumi position, spending most of my time attempting to communicate in the Holy Tongue. I think I’ve been doing a good job so far. By that I mean I have not yet been sued. 

So, what is my secret, you ask? The answer is a complex strategy called “bluffing.” This term, which was originally coined by William Shakespeare, means “making stuff up so people think you know more than you do.” (Did Shakespeare actually coin this? No idea. I’m bluffing here.) For your convenience, I am going to share some of my best tips to bluff your way out of lacking basic Hebrew skills. With these techniques under your belt, you can work your way up to being a valuable member of Israeli society. Or at the very least, a member of Knesset. 

Firstly, I rely quite strongly on facial expressions and hand gestures. A crucial component of Hebrew conversational skills is harnessing the right emotions, hand movements, and adequate levels of outrage. A good example of this would be the time that I attempted to open a bank account. Bureaucracy is challenging enough in one’s mother tongue but here the very nice woman behind the counter could speak no English, and I spoke infantile Hebrew. By the end of my grueling four-hour appointment, we were best friends and had perfected our system of communication. When she inquired if I wanted to open an account, I smiled widely and encouragingly. She asked if I had a lot of money to deposit, I gave her a sad face and a thumbs down. She asked me about taxes, I ducked under the table. See? Couldn’t be easier. I also signed millions and millions of forms without having a clue as to what anything meant. For all I know, I could have sold my kidneys to some shady organization in the Congo. I don’t even care, I just kept signing to make the forms go away. The point is, I successfully opened an account.

Another great tactic is what my friend calls the “Ja Gutt” method. Her brother spent five months in Germany, made many wonderful friends and memories, all without knowing a word of German. His secret? He just nodded and said Ja and Gutt to everything anyone said to him.

You can do this too, with my adaptation which I call the “Ken Todah” method. Let these words become your mantra. Using an elaborate mixture of chutzpah and creativity, shuffle these words around and use them for all appropriate occasions.

I am aware that this is a dubious modus operandi and it certainly doesn’t always work. (My boss once told me I owed him change and I thanked him graciously and told him to keep the money and give it to charity.) Nevertheless, I’m willing to risk the Russian Roulette aspect of this technique, in the hope that if I say ‘ken’ with enough conviction, the person will be satisfied and go away. At work, my supervisors will rattle off a list of instructions in rapid speed Hebrew. I furrow my brow, look concerned and at any appropriate interval where they appear to be waiting for a response, I say, “ken, ken.” Ever seen that touristy Mossad T-shirt that says “My Job is so Secret, I Have No Idea What I’m Doing”? That would be me. 

However, I must include a disclaimer because I don’t want a barrage of angry comments accusing me of trying to sell a half-baked Ponzi scheme. Much like a child who hides behind their hands and thinks no one can see them, I am aware that Israelis are not fooled by these methods. At a certain point, they realize that I don’t have the faintest idea what they are saying. Sometimes they will throw their hands up in disgust and go and find someone competent. I have had the memorable few who angrily questioned my decision to move to a country where I can’t even speak the language. Yet there is a persistent majority of wonderful people who see straight through my bluff. They gently correct me and assure me that my Hebrew will get better in no time. 

They know that I’m new and that I’m trying. When I knocked on a kind lady’s door in Alon Shvut and instead of asking to use her bathroom, I frantically requested to be her toilet, she took it in her stride. When I informed a sweet elderly couple that I had 30 brothers, they smiled broadly and congratulated me, before suggesting that perhaps I only had three. Or my favorite — those who insist that they want to improve their English, and allow me a brief respite and a shot at sounding intelligent by allowing me to converse in English.

Someday soon, I do hope to speak wonderful Hebrew. It would be nice to sign documents and not have to wonder whether I just authorised the selling of all my possessions. It will be a long road to get to that point, but until then I’m going to shamelessly bluff my way through. So to all those kind Israelis who let me get away with this: “Todah” (smiley face, thumbs up).

About the Author
Tehilla Katz made aliya from South Africa and is currently doing her year of national service. When she's not weightlifting or writing, she spends her time pretending she speaks more Hebrew than she does. (Fooling absolutely no-one.)
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