Irene Rabinowitz
New Englander by birth, Israeli by choice.

Sucking at Hebrew

During this week’s online Hebrew class, in an effort to get her students to learn numbers, our teacher asked us each our age and told us we did not have to actually give our real age.  I did give my real age correctly in Hebrew and realized that might have been the only answer I had ever given in the class that was correct. Eight or nine weeks in and I am close to being an Ivrit failure.

The reality is that I just plain suck at languages.  I learned French starting in high school and got through three years without ever actually being able to speak it, although I was able to read it pretty easily. When a school councilor recommended, in my second year of high school, that I take a second language, I was stunned.  There were lots of first and second generation Portuguese and Italian kids in my school and both those languages were options. Guess what they chose?  Of course they did.  So, in a moment of adolescent stupidity, I thought “take German, mom speaks Yiddish, it kind of sounds alike, she can help!”  And so I did and it is all a hazy memory of bad conjugations and halting translations and really bad grades. My mother was no help and actually was pissed that I was studying the language of Nazis. This was 1963.

The only other language experience I had was in classic American style Hebrew school at our local synagogue in Rhode Island. We went Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and on Sunday mornings we learned Jewish history, sang songs, and plunked quarters into a blue box. I always resented that we had to go after school; Rhode Island was so Catholic that the public schools had something called “release time” for Catholic kids so they could go to catechism classes. Clearly that went the way of the dinosaurs in the sixties. But for Jews, we had to go to our religion classes when we were already sick of school, but we learned enough to read the siddur on Shabbat and holidays. I did not go as far as others and did not have a Bat Mitzvah, but remembered enough to read along in synagogue even now.

Fifty something years later, I decide to take an online Hebrew class for English speakers. With my retirement pending, I now want to spend part of every year in Israel or make aliyah. My hope was that I could learn enough so I could manage on my next trip to Israel in early 2014. What I learned right away is that vowels are your friends; I feel abandoned, tossed to the curb. I am absolutely certain that our instructor thinks I am a moron who has never seen the Hebrew alphabet before. Our class consists of a bunch of people from Brazil, three and sometimes four Americans, and one Australian. Our instructor is in Rosh Pina and I know that it is 2 am for her when our class meets.  That alone would make me hate us. But she doesn’t hate us although she does sometimes sound frustrated like when she asked me a couple of weeks ago if I knew what a shekel is. I thought, am I really that bad at this? Not that bad, right? Wrong, I am that bad. I am so bad that the Brazilians, for whom English is a second language, are doing better than I am, although there have been some humorous interchanges going from Portuguese to English to Hebrew.  Our teacher maintains a straight face through it all, but it is the middle of the night for her after all, so that is probably not that hard. Since we can all see and hear each other, the Web X class gives us some sense of community, although only the Brazilians chat among themselves in Portuguese while we are waiting for the class to start.

As bad as I am at languages, what is really odd is that somewhere in the recesses of my brain the French lessons surfaced so now when I see French, I kind of know what it means. Hebrew not so much. My nightmare is that when in Israel I will be like a woman I recently met here in Massachusetts who is from Nepal and knows no English. Then I remember, that only in Tsfat a couple of years ago, there was a day that I did fail at finding an English speaker, but someone who spoke French, as did my traveling companion, came to the rescue.  If I am not proficient in Hebrew (as if) when my next visit rolls around, at least I know I will not be like the Nepalese woman who is totally lost since no one here speaks her language. And I’ll keep trying.

I will plug along for the next few of months hoping the Ivrit lightbulb will go on in my head. More than likely, it will be low wattage. I can only hope that even a little light will help my attempts at learning a language I love and will help me shed the label of someone who just plain sucks at languages, maybe into someone who just kind of sucks at Hebrew.

About the Author
Irene Rabinowitz made aliyah in November 2014 and lives in Jerusalem. Prior to making aliyah, she lived in a small odd town at the tip of Cape Cod for 28 years. She lived in New York City for 16 years as a young adult (or old child), but is a Rhode Islander by birth. Irene has served as a local elected official and retired from a long career in non-profit management at the end of 2013, after serving as the Executive Director of Helping Our Women for 18 years. She works as the Development Resource Manager at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center and the USA Charity Specialist at Fogel CFO and Management Services.
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