Learning Hebrew, Letting Go

Q2 Progress Report

Now that I am officially in my second quarter of my first calendar year making Aliyah, I imagine it’s time for an assessment; a performance reviews of sorts, particularly as it pertains to my acqusition of Hebrew.

Conversationally, I’m proud to say, there has been a clear improvement.

While I am nowhere near capable of carrying on an age-appropriate two-way conversation with an able-bodied Israeli adult, I can certainly carry on a two-way conversation with an able-bodied Israeli dog.

“Lech!” I say to the unleashed dogs that poop on my front lawn. They understand me, I know they do, but they don’t care. They bark back at me as if to say, “Go ahead. Make me!”

I’d say that’s progress.

And my comprehension? Getting there. Every morning during the drive to my new job, I listen to the news on Galgalatz radio. I am pleased to say that while I don’t understand exactly what they’re saying, I understand enough to know the difference between when the newscaster is talking politics and when he’s reviewing culture or the economy. “Blah Blah Blah…Hezbollah.” Versus “Blah blah blah…William and Kate” or “Blah blah blah…dollar l’shekel.”

In fact, I have an easier time understanding the average Israeli reporter than I do the average Israeli neighbor of mine. This is in large part due to my Hebrew professor at The George Washington University, Yael Moses, who spent a whole semester focusing on “words they use in the news.” Subsequently, I have the strange and irreversible habit of using newsroom words in conversations with friends and colleagues. Words like emesh for “last night” and phrases like “af al pi.” I understand now why people have been taking me so seriously here. I speak like a square. They’re waiting for me to spit out statistics or weather patterns or other important data.

On a social level, I am breaking barriers, or trying to at least. The other day, I took a stab at sarcasm in Hebrew with my friend Talia. However, sarcasm is not as effective, I find, when you have to speak slowly enough to conjugate verbs. It’s also significantly less funny when you screw up your friend’s gender.

The biggest shift in my Hebrew is certainly my willingness to speak it. The first few weeks I lived here, I wouldn’t open up my mouth at all. Not because I didn’t have enough Hebrew to speak, but because I was convinced whatever I would say would be wrong. I’d draft a strategic plan for every in-person meeting where Hebrew might be required and script every dialogue in my head. I haven’t given that up completely. But I have given up the need to be right.

Now, I find myself just spitting Hebrew out. Not thinking so much before I talk; which is a habit that I perfected in English. There are certain words — the ones I knew confidentally before moving here — that come out of my mouth without first being translated in my busy brain.

There are still many others that don’t. Sometimes I find myself asking a question when I should be making a statement: As in, “Ani rotzah lasim bazal b’salat?” (“I want to put onion in the salad?”) And, my husband will look at me and say, “I don’t know, do you?” My question is not about the onions or my desire to put them in the salad. It’s about the verb. Did I use the right one?

What everyone here has said to me from Day One is true. L’at, l’at. Slowly, slowly. Slowly, my Hebrew is getting better. Slowly, I am becoming less fearful and taking more initiative. Whether it’s ordering from a menu, instead of asking my husband to do it for me. Or reading Hebrew emails from my new colleagues (with the help of Google Translate). Slowly, I’m doing what I have to do.

Step out of my comfort zone. Open my mouth. And speak.

Food, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew

Let’s Make a Deal

Today, for the first time in the four months that I have lived in Israel, I went grocery shopping all by myself.

Aren’t I a big girl?

It sounds silly…I’m a grown up after all, but going to the grocery store when you live in the middle of nowhere in a country whose language you’re not even close to mastering is no easy task.

Up until now, I’ve been going with my husband or sending him off on his own. Not just because I’m scared of the cashier (which I am), but also because he is the only one of us truly able to read the ingredients list, which is crucial for a family with food allergies.  The good news (which is really bad news) is that our local supermarket has practically nothing in the way of organic or preservative free foods so the packaged goods we buy here are few. The bad news (which is really bad news) is that in order to buy the foods we need to maintain our nut, sesame, dairy, gluten, chemical free existence, we need to shop at 3-4 locations spread out through Northern Israel.

Today, I needed to go to Karmiel, a mid-size city about 30 minutes from my kibbutz. Karmiel is home to a large Mega Bol, which carries a few gluten free products you can’t get at the nearby Shufersal (which any new olah mistakenly calls Supersal for the first few months).

I decided it was time to break my proverbial cherry (food pun intended).  I had already been to the location numerous times as a tag-a-long with my husband. I knew exactly how to get there, where to park, and which aisles carried the items I needed.

Getting there was no problem. Finding a parking space was a piece of cake. The store was empty so I quickly grabbed what I needed. “Chik chak” as they say here. As I approached the checkout aisles, my heart began to race. Why? Because I knew what was coming.

In the States, you can probably get away without ever talking to the cashier at the grocery store. In particular at grittier stores like ShopRite or Pathmark, you don’t even have to smile or say hello. If the cashier asks, “paper or plastic,” you can get away with a grunt and point towards the bag of your choice. 

Not so in Israel.

I placed my contents on the checkout counter. I smiled at the cashier who did not smile back, but asked me in Hebrew, “Do you have a Mega Bol card?”

I was prepared. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. The big mistake I made, however, was in my answer.

“No,” I told her. “No, I don’t have one.” If I had added, “And no, I don’t want one,”  I would have been out of there. Chik Chak.

But, she asked me. “Why not?” Again, my mistake was in answering honestly. I should have just told her, “Because I don’t.” Zeh hu zeh. (And that’s that!)

Instead, I said, “My husband has a Mega Bol card and I don’t have his here today. I am fine. We’ll use it another time.”

Well, no Israeli is going to let you get away with that.

What? You don’t want a deal? You don’t want to save .o3% on your purchase today? You don’t want the free coupons you get in the mail when you sign up for your own Mega Bol card? But you get a discount on the card if your husband already has one! How can you call yourself Israeli if you’re not going to accept the deal?!? Accept the deal!! And while you’re at it, don’t you want this lipstick that’s on sale? Or the choclate-flavored dog bisquits? What about this imported liver pate? It’s only 50 shekels! 50 shekels! This liver pate normally costs 85 shekels. Why not buy this liver pate when it’s on sale? Who cares that you hate liver pate? It’s a deal! What about the ladies razors? They’re “1 + 1!” Such a deal!

The cashier (and subsequently her manager) came over to the cash register, both insisting that I sign up for the card. Insisting that I should reconsider. But I could not understand the particulars…no matter how slowly she repeated them to me. Not even when she repeated it for a third and fourth time.

Finally, I said to them in my baby Hebrew, “Please. I am a new immigrant. It’s hard enough for me to even gather up the courage to go shopping, let alone have a conversation or argument with you about why or why not I will accept your super bargain that is a Mega Bol card. I just want to pay for my things and leave with a scrap of dignity.”

I didn’t say it exactly like that. In fact, without the vocabulary to say it like that, I instead shrugged my shoulders and smiled; which led me to leave the very last shred of dignity I had at the checkout counter.

But at least I had my gluten free chocolate chip muffin mix.  And my two packs of razors.


Chag Burnout

The day before the official start of Passover, I jokingly posted on my Facebook status update, “For the first time in my life, I actually feel semi-comfortable saying the phrase ‘Chag Sameach.” Ha. Ha.

Those were the days. Back when I had the long holiday (extended even longer for families with school children) to look forward to. Short day trips, or tiyulim as we call them here, were on the agenda. I was energized and simply grateful that all of us were healthy enough (finally!) to get in the car and drive to the beach or the Dead Sea or the Upper Galilee.

But similar to how any American parent feels on the first weekday of the New Year, I was practically pushing my kids out the door this morning, their first day back at school after almost three weeks at home; focused mostly on my middle guy, who is the most school resistant right now. I did everything I could to make sure he would go without desperately clinging to my leg and screaming, “No!!!!” at the top of his lungs.  

“You want to wear your fancy Purim crown to school? Sure! Why not. Go ahead.”

“You want your toast cut up in one inch squares this morning. No problem.”

“You want to brush your teeth with chocolate spread? Can’t hurt too much.”

My face looked chipper and bright, but inside I was holding my breath, squeezing my innards, and praying.

“Please just go to school. Please. Just. Go. To. School.”

In the weeks before Passover break, I talked to people about their vacation plans. One friend sent her oldest daughter back to the States for two weeks. Another family went back to England for the entire time. A few others rented out their homes on Hannaton or swapped with families for apartments in the city. Considering this was our first long break since making Aliyah, and also considering the new job I’ve recently started, I thought we’d have plenty to do, see, and enjoy without scheduling an actual vacation. Particularly since we live in the North, and people actually pay good money to vacation here.

And, boy, did we have plenty to do and see…but I can’t say we enjoyed it as much as I had hoped.

My husband and I sure did try. We put on our Griswald family smiles and pumped the kids up each time we got in our tiny Ford Focus. But inevitably, each car ride was a precursor to poked eyes, pulled hair, or crying. No one cared about the farm animals I pointed to out the windows; or the beautiful lush scenery on the drive up towards Kiryat Shemona; or the ruins; or the dramatic cliffs above the Kinneret.  Our road trip saving grace is the DVD player, which makes me sad, frustrated, and enormously relieved all at the same time.

It wasn’t all bad, not at all. We lucked out with a gorgeous beach day with friends in Netanya. We made our own matzah over a bonfire like good wandering Jews. We happened upon the craziest playground ever which kept all three of my kids active and engaged in something other than pinching each other. While the kids napped in the back seat, my husband and I managed to have a few conversations with no interruptions. And, best of all, we saw a lot of the Northern part of the country during the time of year when it’s at its peak of magnificence.

Not bad.

And while today I am praying for my kids’ healthy and easy return to school, I know that once I get caught up in the routine of work, I’ll soon be longing for vacation again.

Lucky for us, I won’t have long to wait.

As my friend said to me yesterday on the playground when I asked “Do things return to normal now that we are ‘achrei hachagim?'”

“What are you talking about?” he responded. “We’re nowhere near finished. Next, we have Yom Hazikaron, Yom Hatzmaut, Lag BaOmer. The elementary-aged kids have stopped learning anything in school by now. It’s practically summer here.”


Multiply our Passover break times five and add about 25 degrees Farenheit and you’ve got Israeli summer.

Perhaps, Passover is a gentle ease-in for new olim…and initiation and a wake up call.

Wake up. Figure out the summer camp situation here. Maher. Maher. (Quickly!)


A little sick

Can someone who is a lot more informed than I am explain to me what’s the problem with socialized medicine? Because so far, it’s working out for us.

Please don’t forward me links to good articles in The Washington Post or transcripts of speeches from well-spoken congressmen. I just want the straight dope. Why should I be worried? Why should I be fretting that I moved to a country that gave me free healthcare from the moment I stepped down off the plane onto its soil? And then let me choose between four competing healthcare plans? And then handed me a card and said, “Now, go get sick!”

I should clarify something. Our current healthcare plan is not free. It’s almost free. Upon signing up with a national healthcare provider, we got a call from a representative who offered us an upgraded version of the plan we chose (to the tune of about $20/month per person; less for kids). I had heard from friends that the upgraded version gets you the better pharmaceuticals (for the one who takes antibiotics, read “my husband”) and access to alternative practitioners (for the one who doesn’t, “read me”). So we said, “We’ll take it.” After all, we were used to contributing out-of-pocket fee for our private plan  in the States.

However, so far, I feel like we’re getting a lot more for our money here than we did in the States.

No office co-pay for sick visits.  And while we do still have to pay out of pocket for most prescription medication, the cost for a 10-day dose of the high end antibiotic here, for instance, was 14 NIS (which is the equivalent of about $4).

Plus, I just heard yesterday that because I have the upgraded version of my plan, I can go to a nearby wellness center and have a full work up done by an osteopathic physician for only 30 NIS and then choose from a variety of body workers and alternative practitioners to see for about 60 NIS per 50-minute visit! (You do the math now; the dollar is about 3.4 shekels.)

I haven’t had a chance to fully delve into all the benefits that come with my Kupat Holim membership. Mostly because when I asked the customer representative for a booklet in English, she apologized and told me one doesn’t exist. Someone should let the Jewish Agency know this, as it’s a bit of a hiccup for new immigrants who have not yet learned Hebrew, but desperately need health care. 

Why do we desperately need health care? Well, for one, a lot of new olim are babymaking machines. Not me, mind you. But lots of other women.

But, second of all, because new olim are weak. We’re mostly migrating from ultra-clean communities and then plopping our kids in Gans that not only refrain from using antibacterial hand lotion eighteen times a day like they do in American preschools, but hardly ever instruct the kids even to wash their hands. Take that immune system!

I normally never need the doctor. In fact, in the last four years, I saw my primary care physician only twice for well-visits and zero times for sick visits. Ever since I started paying attention to my health and making lifestyle changes that strengthened my immune system (insert plug for Mindful Living NJ and The Wellness Bitch here), I never get colds and only rarely pick up those winter viruses that put you in bed for a day or two. But apparently, it’s a known fact that newbies get pummeled by Israeli germs and bacteria. For those of you who’ve had kids in daycare, it’s like that first year you put your kid in; it seems as if he has a never-ending runny nose.

Since moving to Israel, I’ve been sick at least three times, despite my arsenal of American-bought herbal and homeopathic rememdies. I purposefully schlepped over here oil of oregano, zicam, Boiron’s cold calm, Young Living essential oils, and a whole slew of non-medicinal products that usually help me stave off colds when I feel the first tingle of a sore throat. Not working.

My middle guy has been sick for almost two weeks now — on and off with a mix of symptoms. When we finally took him to the doctor the other day, she told us it was possible he has mononucleosis. I don’t know about you, but I associate Mono with college co-eds and too much making out. Not something I think my four year old is going to pick up. But apparently it’s quite common for kids under the age of 5 here in Israel. (But usually goes unnoticed or undetected.)

Being sick in a foreign country stinks. Parenting sick kids in a foreign country stinks a lot worse. But as worried as I was about what we’d find here in terms of level and quality of service, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Certain politicians would have you believe that citizens of countries with socialized medicine have to walk five miles in the snow just to see a doctor who is going to treat your influenza with leeches and vodka.

Not so here. (So far.) No long lines. No long wait periods to get in to see a particular doctor. Friendly staff. Doctors who listen.

Perhaps I should give it time.  After all, we’ve only had to deal with a cold or a little “shil shul.” Maybe there will be plenty to piss me off about socialized medicine in due time.

My Passover wish: Let us continue to be so lucky that moving forward our experiences  with Kupat Holim are as few and as pleasant. I have enough to deal with, dear Lord, without having to Google Translate lab results and medicine contraindications.

Please hear my prayer.


Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Making Friends, Parenting, Work


Spring is often used as a metaphor for rebirth. Combine this with the Jewish tradition of cleaning house before Passover and you’ve got yourself a good season for change here in Israel.

And so it is for our family.  Changes abound that are already impacting our immigrant experience…and more so mine than anyone else’s.

I blogged recently (in my regular Patch.com column, “That Mindful Mama”) about our family’s “team trade.” More specifically, how I recently accepted a full-time position as a marcom specialist for a hi-tech incubator here in Israel, and will be leaving my position of the last five years: part-time primary caretaker and work-at-home freelancer. In addition, my husband will consult part-time (he’s a grant-writer and fundraiser, work that may be done from home), but will take over responsibility of caring for our kids and maintaining our home needs. 

This is a huge shift for us as a family, and for me as a new olah.

First of all, it means I need to leave my bubble. My safe little kibbutz cocoon. It means I need to get in my new car, figure out the different mechanisms (like how to work the windshield wipers), and brave Israel’s roads. Worse than navigating the hilly, foggy roads in the morning is navigating psychotic Israeli drivers who are either constantly riding up my rear or trying to run me off the road as they pass me.

Most of all, getting a job means I need to interact with a lot more people who might want to speak Hebrew with me. However, I have a feeling, that just like an enema, this decision might make me momentarily uncomfortable, but is likely exactly what I need to get things moving in the right direction.

My new job is at a mainly English-speaking company with many Anglos on staff. It’s also primarily an English-speaking position.  While a high level of Hebrew is not required for the position, the office is not a Hebrew-free zone. Mostly everyone except for me speaks a fluent Hebrew and when an Israeli is in the conversation, the language quickly converts over to Hebrew. Therefore, I’m required to listen and understand or, at the very least, nod as if I do.

Most of my new colleagues have been told that my Hebrew is still “a work in progress,” but that hasn’t kept all of them from trying. Which they should and which I reluctantly encourage. Reluctantly because it usually leads to some level of humiliation and discomfort for me.

At least twice during my first week here, I thought someone was speaking to me — they were looking straight at me, after all– but it turned out they weren’t.  I’ve also been spoken to without realizing it was me who was being spoken to. In those cases, I learned, a smile and nod only get you so far. If the statement ends in a period, there’s a 50-50 chance I can get away with a simple smile. If the statement ends with a question mark, however, I might be in trouble. “Ken” or “lo” only get you so far in the workplace.

Thankfully, I haven’t yet been made fun of or chided for my lack of Hebrew. So far, most people here seem to think my broken Hebrew is cute and endearing. However, I am fully aware the “olah hadasha” tag will only work its magic for so long.

The big question is: How long?

When are you no longer considered an new immigrant? When do you make the transition over to just plain old immigrant? Or “olah vatika?” (“Seasoned oleh”) How is my status measured? In “daylight, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee?” Is it when the sal klita ends? When my kids are fluent in Hebrew? When I make five Israeli friends?

I certainly hope getting a full-time job doesn’t prevent me from milking this status for as long as I can.

I need all the help…and breaks…I can get.

(This was previously published as part of my blog, “Israeli in Progress,” on The Jerusalem Post.)

Kibbutz, Living in Community, Making Friends

Were my kids always like this?

I have to admit to a secret notion I have been silently harboring since we moved here.

Israeli kids are a bad influence on mine.

I mean, how else do you explain the fact that my kids have become complete nut jobs since we moved here? How else can you explain the fact that my house has become a militarized zone; the weapons being my two-year-old’s stubby fingers and my four-year-old’s shrill voice?

I suppose you could blame it on the timing.

Perhaps each one of my kids were ripe for a “phase” and it’s just my rotten luck that all of their phases were timed perfectly together to take place three months into our move overseas.

Perhaps if we had stayed in the States, my sweet, non-violent four year old — who was loved and adored so much by both his preschool teachers and the kids in his class that they cried real tears when he left– would have still turned into a psychotic, schizophrenic drama queen.

Or maybe, my eight year old — who was voted “Student of the Month” at his elementary school right before we left and was considered one of the most mature kids in his class — would have tricked his American assistant principal instead of his new Israeli one into giving him a roll with chocolate spread for breakfast because he didn’t like the healthy sandwich his dad packed him.

And, maybe, just maybe, my sweet, gentle two-and-a-half year old little girl — who never hurt a fly — would have transformed into a pinching, pushing, screaming brute even if we hadn’t moved.

Maybe. But, I don’t know. It’s my inclination to blame Israel. (After all, she’s used to taking the blame.)

If you’re a Hannaton-nik and reading this, don’t ask me if it’s your kid in particular who I think is the bad influence. I’ll never tell you. Even if I think he is, I still want you to be my friend. And, let’s be honest here, you don’t really want to know.

Likewise, I don’t want to know if you think my kid is a bad influence on yours. So all around, it’s better if we all pretend nothing’s happening until someone loses an eye. (Or until my daughter hits your son with a garden mallet. Which she might. ‘Cause she already did. Today.)

Fortunately, no one seems to be too concerned about the dramatic behavioral changes in my children save for me and my husband. Everyone else thinks their “shtuyot” (nonsense) are normal — part of the “klita” (absorption.)  

Folks here on our kibbutz seem to really love and adore our kids. (At least, that’s what they say to our faces.) In fact, our oldest son is the local hero this week for his superb soccer performance against a neighbhoring community team.

Even still, I’m starting to get a little worried.

All the things I prided myself on as a mother are slowly slipping away: Fairly well-behaved, fairly polite children. Children who may occasionally hit or bite yours, but only on the level considered developmentally appropriate  by Brazelton, Spock, or Sears. Never enough to require major intervention or long-term action plans. Children who occasionally shout at me or each other, but never scream so loud their heads spin.

Now, my kids are so emotionally and physically unpredictable I have to wear protective gear. I’m refereeing living room throw-downs.

The two year old not only pinches her brothers, but puts them into choke holds. I kid you not, I’m starting to think they’re training her for the Golani Brigade in the Gan.

The four year old got so angry with me today (because I refused him a cookie) that he pulled down a picture he drew for me that was hanging on the fridge, took out the scissors, and cut the picture into a million pieces,  screaming maniacally, “A ha ha ha ha! A ha ha ha ha! Take THAT eema! I will never be sorry! NEVER!!! NEVER!!!”

I know the teachers are probably right. That the shift in my kids’ behavior patterns and personalities is normal; or at least directly related to the transition, the new language, the new rules (or lack therof) and expectations.  That like me, my kids are trying on new ways of being in this new way of living.

I hope so. Because I like it here too much to move away simply because my kids are picking up bad habits.

I’m crossing my fingers it’s a phase.