Hebrew and the Stuggle to Learn the Language

            October/November 2012    
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Hebrew – Moi?

By Reesa Stone

Long-time residents of Israel are often asked by new immigrants what is the hardest part of integration. People have reported various difficulties they have encountered in there move to Israel. One woman recounted that the hardest aspect of her move from the West was figuring out what to serve her kids for supper. “Food here”, she said, “was just not the same as food there. And the shopping isn’t the same either. Come to think of it, neither are the prices.”

Many people lament the distance from their family (though email, Facebook, Skype etc. has alleviated part of the problem). Others admit that the weather gets them down (too hot or too cold). My British friends have trouble driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Finding a job scores quite high on the ‘problem’ list too. But none of those obstacles were ever on my list. Whenever I’m asked what my biggest problem was (and I am frequently asked) I unhesitatingly answer: language. Despite twelve expensive years of private Jewish school, when I came to Israel, I became – in one moment – illiterate and silenced.

Speaking Hebrew has always been a problem for me. Even back in the very expensive Jewish High School I never seemed to get the hang of the language. I couldn’t remember vocabulary and my grammar was terrible. Disregarding my handicap, however, I came to Israel at age 18 figuring I would soak up the language in weeks. Alas, that was not to be. For the first few years I was here, anytime I was required to speak Hebrew – whether to ask directions or to request something in a store or answer somebody else’s question – I would first practice what I wanted to say. I would decide which words were necessary (should I say ‘go’ or ‘travel’?), figure out tense, person, gender, and then after several minutes of muttering under my breath, I would come out with some garbled gibberish. Instead of saying ‘Which bus goes to Petach Tikvah,’ it would come out ‘Do the bus going until Ra’anana.’ It never failed. The more I practiced the more lost I got.

Growing up in Canada, I learned a great deal of French from reading food labels. Gratis was free, and maize was corn. Of course I couldn’t actually pronounce any of those words properly, but to this day when I see the words beurre d’arachide, I immediately think of Skippy. So I decided to apply the same principle to Hebrew. I began to read labels. I soon learned how to say important words, like ‘ingredients’ and ‘food coloring’. Then I moved on to recipes. I began to buy Hebrew cook books. I learned new verbs; mix, knead, bake. However none of that helped me get to Petach Tikvah, so I continued practicing under my breath whenever I got near the Central Bus Station.

Marrying a guy who was almost completely fluent in the lingo was a help, but also a huge hindrance. Yes, he could always tell me what a word meant, or how to say something I needed, but I was often too embarrassed to ask him. I was deathly afraid that he would might detect that his otherwise intelligent, educated, well-read, and amusing wife was completely brainless when it came to Hebrew. From the very beginning, he insisted we buy only a Hebrew paper. “If you want to be Israeli, we have to read the paper in Hebrew!” Egad. I bravely made my way through the headlines, but only when he wasn’t looking. Once I had the front page headlines down, I tackled the inside page headlines. Eventually – and by eventually I mean not weeks or months, but years – I could not only get through the headlines, but I could read whole articles, understanding more than one out of every five words.

Over the years, I did manage to learn Hebrew, to the point where I could understand the news on TV, have conversations with non-English speaking people, and even get to Petach Tikvah without mishap. But it was never easy, and I still come out with nonsense especially when I was nervous or my husband was listening to me.

It was only after I had kids that my Hebrew really picked up. First, I had to learn all the necessary nursery/kindergarten words; pastel crayons, regular crayons, felt pens. And the verbs – cut, fold, copy. There were always opportunities to learn new words. One time, the teacher told me my child had been coughing (mishto’elet) a lot, and I thought she had said that she had been acting up (mishtolelet). I lectured my daughter all the way home about her behavior before a coughing fit (hers, not mine) stopped me in my tracks. I learned to pay more attention to the teachers.

When my oldest started Grade One, we were given a type-written list of supplies that were needed. Heading the list was the word ‘kalmar’. What was a kalmar? I asked my husband in a panic (by this time he suspected that I wasn’t exactly highly-skilled in languages), but even he didn’t know. My kid hasn’t even started school I thought, and already her parents have flunked out. Hurrying to my best friend, the dictionary, I found out that kalmar is a pencil box. Oh.

A friend of mine told me a similar story. One day, her six year old came rushing in from school, mid-morning. As she lived the closest to the school and knowing her mother was home, her teacher had sent her to get a ‘poompiya’. My friend looked at her little daughter in horror. She couldn’t even begin to guess what a poompiya was. The kid was becoming unstrung as she had promised her teacher she would come back right away, with, of course, a poompiya. After several minutes of looking through more and more advanced dictionaries (this was in the days before my new best friend – Google Translate,) my friend discovered that a poompiya was a food grater. That little incident, my friend declared, took years off her life.

As she was telling me this story, I was feeling very smug. I knew what a poompiya was from watching “Parpar Nechmad” – A Lovely Butterfly – a children’s TV program which I never missed. After reading food labels, children’s television was the best way of learning important words.

Of course, once my kids hit their teens, Hebrew became less important. I had to learn a whole new dialect. Slang. After almost twenty years in Israel, all my hard-won Hebrew was for naught. My kids came home from school speaking a foreign language. Once again I persevered. I made them speak slowly and repeat themselves until I translated their babbling into workable sounds. I learned the difference between a chadjkoon and a falloola. The first is what teenagers suffer from on their faces; the second is what Ehud Barak had removed from his. I learned who was a ‘patish’ (a macho kind of guy), and who was a laff-laff (a nerd). By far the most important word I ever learned, however, is ‘fadicha.’

A fadicha is what mothers do when they kiss their kids in front of friends (MOOOOOOM, don’t do that, it’s a fadicha); when they wear too much makeup and color their hair some ridiculous shade of orange; or when they don’t wear makeup and don’t color their hair, (“Don’t come pick me up. Your hair looks funny, it’s a fadicha”). Or when they offer their kids’ friends some light refreshments (‘but he doesn’t want anything – I already asked – please don’t do any fadichot). Of course a fadicha can extend to other peoples’ behavior, (“Shlomit forgot all her lines at the ceremony today, and ran off the stage. What a fadicha!”). But parents in general and mothers in particular, are responsible for most of the world’s fadichot.

Accompanying my son to an interview for junior high school, I was told that he didn’t want me to come in with him, though parents were encouraged to participate. I was hurt by his attitude, until I caught sight of myself in a window. My shirt, slightly stained with chocolate from the cake I had shoved into the oven just before we came, did not quite match the skirt I was wearing. I was sockless too. I was a walking fadicha.

Another time, coming back from a meal in a restaurant my in-laws had treated us to, my daughter, wanting to go to her youth group club house, asked us to drop her off. “But please stop about a block away. I don’t want anyone to see us.” Looking at the nine people jammed into the car with arms and legs hanging out every which way, I understood her request. We were a fadicha on wheels.

My own battle with a foreign language has made me appreciate my parents’ generation far more than I did as a child. While my parents both spoke accentless English, many of their immigrant friends did not. I would cringe when I listened to their grammatical mistakes, their funny accents, and their awkward syntax. Now I’m being paid back in spades.

What a fadicha.


from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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