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Sheputzim and Shibbolet: Yaffa learns Hebrew

I developed a plan to learn modern Hebrew. Each day when I encounter words that I do not know, I enter them into a word diary. I use Google Translate to translate the words and then I take a picture of the diary page. I send the picture to a bilingual friend, and she corrects my work. From then on, I use these words over and over until they are part of my vocabulary.

For example, we had rain (geshim), and I found puddles (sh’luleeot) on my floor (riz-pah). I looked up at my ceiling (teakra) and saw drops (tea-pote) coming from my roof (gog). I called my “kablan” (contractor), he gave me a “doch dahoof” (an immediate report) which included a lot of “mas” (tax). I bragged to my friend about my “sheputz” (renovation), but she corrected me. “We only use the plural, “sheputzeem,” because we never do just one.”

While waiting for the kablan, I sat down to breakfast (aruhat boker). I had a bowl (keh-ah-rah) of granola (granola). I looked at the package (ha-vee-lah) and read the ingredients (reh-kee-veam) which included sugar (su-car) and gluten (gluu-tone). The head scratcher was “shibbolet.” My mistake (ta-oot) was to ask Dr. Google. Google corrected shibbolet to “shibboleth… originating from the Hebrew word, “šibbōleṯ,” meaning ‘an ear of corn’.” The article cited Judges 12:6 where a fellow from Ephraim could not ask for an ear of corn and the Gibeonites killed him. I reached for my Tanakh (Tanakh):

“And they said to him, “Say ‘shibboleth’, and he said ‘sibboleth,’ and he could not pronounce it properly, and they grabbed him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan; and there fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephriamites.” (Note to self, avoid Gibeonite groceries.)

I was relieved to know that no one was harmed in the making of my granola when I reread the reh-kee-veam. I had made a ta-oot. My cereal did not have plain shibboleth, it had “shibboleth shu-al.” I already knew that “shu-al” is Hebrew for “fox,” but I did understand how a fox got into my cereal. I asked my friend about shu-al, and she told me that Israelis do not eat foxes. I used Google Lens and got a formula: an ear of corn plus a fox equals oatmeal. I sent “oatmeal’ to my friend, and she said that real Israelis do not eat oatmeal, they eat “qvahker.” I asked her what she eats for breakfast, and she sent me a picture of her cereal box. When I sounded out the Hebrew, it said “cornflakes.”

About the Author
BA in anthropology, Barnard College, New York City; MS in physical therapy, Boston University, Boston, MA, MA and PhD in bioanthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Yaffa has worked with Bajans in Barbados, the Tohono O'odtham in southern Arizona, the Oji-Cree in northern Ontario, Canada, and warlords in the ghettos of Philadelphia. When she negotiated a ceasefire between two rival inner city gangs, she thought that she might be developing skills that could be useful on the streets of Jerusalem.
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