Sometimes You Need to Give Your Head a Shake

Undertaking four months of intensive Hebrew language classes was agonizing.  I convinced myself that I could grasp the basics of the ancient tongue in less time than it takes a preganancy to come to term, but boy, was I wrong.  Mastery wasn’t as easy as I thought, so now I’m committed to becoming fluent by the time my first grandchild walks down the aisle.  FYI, I still have one child who is not old enough to be dating and two others not even close to the alter, so the pressure is off.  Well, at least, off of me, that is.

After studying from autumn when the leaves turn yellow to spring when the almond trees start to bloom, I’m embarassed to say that I still get tongue-tied every time I approach the meat counter remembering that I once asked for efes, zero, pieces of schnitzel rather than, eser, ten, pieces.  By the size of the grin on the butcher’s usually expressionless face, I don’t think he’s forgotten my faux pas.  By constantly confusing the words for right and left, I’ve managed to send many people in the wrong direction.  The fact that I directed an elderly couple to the shuk in Netanya, about a 30 minute drive, when they were simply inquiring after a street that was but a block away, haunts me to this day.

Without underestimating my abilities, language acquisition is definitely not my long suit and the experience of learning Hebrew full-time had me teetering on an emotional tight rope.  I lost weight, my skin broke out and my self-confidence plummeted all because of the anxiety I brought upon myself.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat trying to remember the words on the flash cards placed in a pile beside my bed and not even an overdose of Rescue Remedy could lull me back to sleep.  My house was a mess, my friends perturbed, my dogs neglected and my kids affected, all because of my struggle with the alph bet.

Hebrew consumed me.  I couldn’t brush my teeth in the morning without looking in the mirror and reciting past, present and future tenses for the verbs, to brush, to wash and to shower.  Instead of listening to the car radio on the way to ulpan, I’d engage myself in a make believe conversation and tell my imaginary friend in the front seat how I was feeling, what I ate for dinner last night and what I think about the political situation all in an effort to ready myself for any question that my teacher could send my way.

My seat at the very front of the class and my color-coded notebook made me the consummate student until, of course, it came time for me to open my mouth.  As my turn to speak approached, a wave of nausea overtook me and I began to tremble.  On one occasion I got so kafafuled I confused the word for three with the word for thirty, telling the class that I had thirty children.  Learning to laugh at myself became as much a part of my stuggle as grasping the new language.

With limited tolerance for wallow and negativity, my husband, Michel, quickly sorted through my clutter of self-pity and cut straight to the rational and wise.  First on the agenda was his, give your head a shake, pep talk followed by the actual shaking of my head cupped between his hands.  I’m not sure whether the shake sent words flying from crevasses of my brain or it truly knocked some sense into me, but I do know that it succeeded in getting me unstuck.

Prior to the shaking episode,I had taken the decision to become and ulpan drop out.  My “tete a tete” with Michel, however, got me thinking otherwise.  Lowering my expectations to make them more realistic, abandoning the bedtime flashcard ritual and taking myself a lot less seriously did wonders for helping to tackle the huge beast that I had placed in front of me.  My new attitude provided the motivation to write the final course exam, but stopped just short of giving me the confidence to retrieve the score.  Thus, my grade will forever remain a mystery I’m afraid.

I’ve found comfort now in learning Hebrew with a group of more mature olim.  Even Monday for an hour and a half I join the golden agers in conversation.  The group of mostly women, defintely 10-20 years senior to myself creates the perfect environment to allow my Hebrew to flow.  Whatever I babble they shake their heads and smile not necessarily because they’ve understood a word I’ve said, but more likely, because they haven’t.  I love hearing stories of grandchildren and the latest outing to the opera, the ballet, the medical specialist and gratitude abounds when I can help find that specific word that has been on the tip of their tongue for a little longer than it should.

My odyssey with Ivrit has not just been about attempting to tell someone confidently where to go, but also about trying to feel more at home in the process. When I fall short of making myself understood, I resort to English and deal with the frustration by thinking of everything that is good about living here.  If that doesn’t make me feel better, I simply use Michel’s tactic and give my head a shake and, kadima, forward I go.




About the Author
I'm a third generation Canadian who has gone way out of my comfort zone to make Israel home. I'm presently writing a book, a collection of experiences that will dare others to trade the cozy and familiar for a place filled with opportunities and life lessons to be learned.