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.

2 thoughts on “Q2 Progress Report”

  1. I believe we both have that’ five-dollar largely-unused word’ gift/problem. Although I can sound colloquial if demanded,I enjoy immensely constructing complex edifices with no obvious finger-holds for the nit-pickers.’Emesh’, by coincidence, was one of the first ‘archaic?’ words I was called out on. But I fought back; reminded the ‘streety’ guy that ‘Slicha, ha’melah ha’zeh mofiah b’ melon. (Yup, it’s in the melon, I mean the hotel, no, the dictionary.” Then, just to torment, i jumped back yet another day and used ‘shilshom’.
    Still, I do draw the line on ‘eshtakad’ for ‘last year’. unless I’m talking about my earnings, which is a rare occasion, ha.
    One comment Re: hagim vs hugim: the paucity of vowel choices is an undeniable blemish on an otherwise fairly expressive language. As a test, take any two consonants, say ‘S’ and ‘T’. What does Hebrew make from them? . A: nothing, save the stolen word ‘set’ for those too lazy to use ‘ma’ar’rechet’. English though makes sate, sat, seat, set, site, sit , sot, suit, soot, suite, sought, and probably more.
    This is a fault I obsess on repetitively on my site, and don’t intend to relent until it’s addressed.
    For the sake of some saki/
    I seek just one second/
    My psyche is sick/
    and I can’t soak my socks
    There’s no succor in a sucker/
    so for the flavour I savour/
    Just fill up my sack and I’m gone
    Try *that* in Hebrew…..


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