I love languages. It’s one of my many passions.
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and attended government schools. Unlike many of my friends who went to Jewish day schools, Hebrew was a subject that was never offered to me.
I remember my mom teaching us some basic words growing up and besides the Friday night services that I attended at our local Shul there really wasn’t that much more I was exposed to.
We practiced traditional Judaism at home. This meant that we lit candles and had a Shabbat meal with challah on a Friday night after attending Shul, made Pesach seder, ate matzah, and went to the high holiday services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
After finishing high school I went on a Rotary exchange program to Hamburg, Germany for a year. Although my late dad was very concerned about sending his Jewish daughter to Germany just short of 50 years after the Holocaust, I was adamant that I wanted to go. History had been one of my favorite subjects that I had excelled at in school and going to a country where this history had played out felt exciting and daunting at the same time.
It was an incredible experience, the topic of a future blog I’m sure.
One of my greatest achievements was learning German. I put this down to the intensive 6-week course I was enrolled in at the start of my year, the similar tone to Afrikaans which I had learned at school, the insistence of my host families to speak Ginglish (say the words I knew in German and others in English until eventually the balance flipped in favor of German) and my days spent in 12th grade at a German school where all I was exposed to, save for English class, was German.
Learning Hebrew was far from my mind after I returned to South Africa. I completed two degrees in 5 years and then started working as a clinical dietician.
Only once my daughter was born did I finally decide that having a foundation in Hebrew would be useful. Both my children were schooled in the Jewish day school system and I thought if I was going to be able to help them with Hebrew homework, that it was probably a good idea to upskill myself.
For 2 years I attended weekly conversational Hebrew classes with a native Israeli. I enjoyed these times and managed to grasp some of the basics. She eventually returned to live in Israel and with that, my lessons ended.
Fast forward about 4 years and after an inspirational trip to Israel with Momentum (run by Lori Palatnik) I decided to start keeping Shabbas and slowly (although my husband would say otherwise) took on more mitzvahs.
My stumbling block to truly embracing my love for my religious observance was my limited ability to read and understand Hebrew. I longed to follow the shul services with greater ease as well as to grasp the texts that I was learning in my weekly Chumash classes.
The best advice I received from my Rabbi, was to purchase an interlinear siddur. (A prayer book with Hebrew and English translations below each word). This improved my vocabulary and deepened my understanding of what I was saying in davening, allowing me to appreciate these moments.
In February 2019 my husband and I started speaking about making aliyah. 6 years after the trip that changed my life and took me on a path of return to my Jewish roots I was deeply committed to finally living in the land of my ancestors. There is a pull to Israel that I had felt on each subsequent trip that I had made since May of 2013, making it harder to leave each time. The idea of actually living in Israel felt right in every fiber of my being!
In preparation, I took up private Hebrew lessons to improve on my basic foundation. I found this daunting as I realiaed how little I understood. After all, speaking a language and praying in it are two very different things!
The day finally arrived and I was excited to land and start Ulpan.
Well, that was the plan, however, there were other priorities in the first 10 months which included, settling my kids, studying for and writing my Ministry of Health Nutrition licensing exam to work as a dietician in Israel, oh and a “little” thing called corona.
Finally!!!! In September 2020 I started ulpan. I loved it but also found it difficult. My Hebrew level was in-between beginner and the level up from there. So I was placed in the higher class. I would come home with my brain hurting each day. As a diligent student and with an amazing teacher I got through my six-month stint (bearing in mind that corona restrictions meant that at least half of this time was over Zoom).
In a perfect world, I would have continued to learn at Ulpan, but work and earning a living was a priority and so I said goodbye to formal Hebrew lessons and hello to Duolingo. Working in English meant that the only time I was able to practice my Hebrew was at the shops or during interactions with the schools. And most of the time I found myself using Google Translate or asking for an English translation.
Having become proficient in German so easily, I felt that when we moved to Israel I would be able to succeed in learning and speaking Hebrew too. I quickly realized that despite my best efforts (limited as they were due to circumstances) this was one language that would take more patience and time.
And then the war broke out.
Words I wish I had never learned are now what fill my mind.
Yet this is the reality and part of living in Israel since October 7th, 2023.
It is heavy. It is difficult. It is uncertain.
We are now living with a duality. “Normal” life must continue against the backdrop of war.
To keep positive and reduce the stress I have spoken with a trauma therapist, hosted free webinars to support my community, learned to be patient with myself and others and wherever I can I now focus on the incredible resilience of our nation.
Here are the words I am proud to have learned.
A few years back I came across an adaptation of how to look at “a glass empty versus full analogy”. It goes like this.
When looking at your “glass” it is not whether it is empty or full but rather that it is refillable and the question is what are you going to fill it with?
We have all learned, heard, seen, and experienced things since that black Saturday when the world as we knew it changed. It’s okay to go to those dark places and to feel the intensity of all the emotions that come up.
But we also need to focus on the things we can be grateful for and use those and other self-care practices to refill our proverbial glasses so that they can eventually overflow and fill the world with goodness, kindness, love, and acceptance.
Praying for peace, the safe return of the hostages, comfort for all those in pain, healing for all the wounded, and the emanation of light from Am Yisrael.