On playing chicken, speaking Hebrew, and emergency haircuts

What is an Anglo in Jerusalem to do when encountering another English speaker

As an immigrant, one of the best things about living in Jerusalem is that you don’t need to choose between English and Hebrew. There’s plenty of opportunity to speak in English, without it being a bubble like some nearby towns whose names I won’t mention but rhyme with Skefrat. The city has a wide variety of people who speak no English, people who speak some English, people who speak excellent English, and people who speak English as a mother tongue. My preference is to speak Hebrew to people whose native language is not English (unless they’re more comfortable in English) and English to people whose native language is English.

Easier said than done, especially when I run into English speakers who have that same tendency. You know… That Awkward Moment when you’re speaking Hebrew to a fellow English-speaker and neither of you wants to be the first one to switch?

I mean, you’re an English speaker, they’re an English speaker, and you both know it. But you don’t want to say it straight out. So maybe you try and exaggerate your accent a little bit. Or you let a common “lo’azi” phrase slip into the conversation, hoping the other person will note your lack of Israeli accent. Or, if you’re on the telephone, maybe you’ll tell your daughter out of the side of your mouth, in English, to please stop cutting her hair with the scissors from her sister’s pencil case already, because there are only so many miracles you can work. For example.

But whatever happens, you don’t blink first. Because maybe you’re wrong. Maybe you’re just imagining that accent (you were always kind of weak with accents, anyway). Or maybe they grew up in Israel and they have a slight accent because their parents are English speakers, but they really prefer Hebrew. Or maybe they’re an English speaker, but they’re trying to improve their Hebrew by speaking it all the time, and if you switch to English, they’ll be offended.

And that would be the worst. You don’t want to give offense. Because you know how it feels. We all know the shame of talking to an Israeli in what we thought was perfectly decent Hebrew, and then they answer you in broken English. The sinking feeling of oh-no-I’m-a-fraud, they-can-all-see-right-through-me, what-gave-me-away, did-I-speak-too-slowly/was-my-accent-too-strong/did-I-accidentally-say-“are-you-using-the-bathroom”-instead-of-“are-you-free.” As if our attempts at mastering the language were all for naught, as if speaking to us in Hebrew is just so horribly painful that this person would rather tough it out in a language s/he barely speaks than listen to our nails-across-a-chalkboard Hebrew.

Yes, I know that this is an overreaction. But being a non-native speaker of the local language really has a way of bringing out the self-conscious in a person.

The most common example of this phenomenon comes when giving or asking for directions. Because you are a total stranger whom they stop you in the middle of the street, they don’t know whether you speak English or not. (They could learn this skill from the Wall Street promoters, who almost always can tell just by looking at me that I’m a native English speaker. One time, a promoter approached me and asked if I was interested in learning English, and when I told him I was a native speaker, he said, “I thought you were, but I figured I’d try, just in case.”) So they ask you for directions in Hebrew, and you don’t want to insult them by responding in English (except for the fact that I’ve been here nine years and I still don’t know how to say “block” in Hebrew–as in “go three blocks and make a right”–but I digress. As usual. Am I in the middle of a parenthetical statement here? What’s going on? Close parentheses.) Okay, that’s better. Where was I?

Ahh. You give them directions in English-accented Hebrew, they say “Toda” in English-accented Hebrew, and then they go on their way and hopefully don’t get lost, especially if they’re in a car, because you don’t have a car and you don’t always know whether certain streets go one or two ways. Sorry about those driving tickets.

These directions-giving conversations happen all the time, but they’re also not as bad, because they only last for ten seconds and then may never see that person again–or, at least, if you do see them again, they probably won’t remember you.

It’s a little more complicated when it’s someone you speak to on a regular basis, like a neighbor, coworker or fellow parent at your kid’s school. These things can go on for years. Once you’ve already established someone as a Hebrew contact, it’s hard to break the habit. Usually, it doesn’t get that far, though–one of you will cave early on and say, “You’re an English speaker, right?” (As if there are two possible answers to that question, with that accent.) But if you get through three conversations in Hebrew, that means you have what’s called in halachic terms a “chazaka,” and you’re never allowed to speak English to that person. Which is fine, because odds are that they speak Hebrew over English out of ideological reasons, anyway.

You know, the only thing more awkward than the situation above would be if an English speaker who currently speaks with me in Hebrew were to read this post and then all of a sudden start talking to me in English next time they see me. I’m cringing just imagining that, and I can’t even explain why.

Okay, so nobody do that. If you currently speak to me in Hebrew, continue speaking to me in Hebrew. For that matter, if you currently speak to me in English, let’s switch to Hebrew. It is, after all, the Holy Tongue. And if you want directions from me, definitely ask me in Hebrew.

(But if you’re in a car, maybe check the traffic signs before actually following my instructions.)

About the Author
Tzippy grew up in the vicinity of Teaneck, "Ir HaKodesh." She made aliyah because there just wasn't enough kosher pizza.