Education, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Living in Community, Making Friends

The Blooper Reel

In the movie that is my life, this period in time will be filled with perfect material for the end of film outtakes. The bloopers and practical jokes that roll after the credits; that end up on disc 2 of the DVD set.

Hopefully, by the time such a movie is made I, too, will be able to laugh at the time when I was a  consistent perpatrator of the Hebrew version of “Who’s on First?”

Let me explain by example.

Here is a loose transcript of the cellphone conversation I just had with an Israeli parent of a friend of my son’s:

Me (“my” Hebrew translated into English for your convenience): Hello [parent’s name]. Speaking is Jen. The mom of Oliver.

Other Mom ( in 100 mph garbled cellphone Hebrew): Yes?

Me: You call me?

Other Mom: Yes.

Me: Yes?

Other Mom: No, I was talking to Tal blah blah blah my laundry.

Me: Um. Ok. Did you call me?

Other Mom: blah blah sent a message blah blah blah

Me: You sent me what?

Other Mom: No. I didn’t send.

Me: What you no send?

Other Mom: No, you sent me a message.

Me: Yes, yes, I send SMS with new cellphone number.

Other Mom: Oh, ok. I wanted to talk to you.

Me: Ok. About what?

Other Mom: No, no. I don’t want to speak to you. I was speaking to my son.

Me: Oh, excuse me. I am so sorry.

Other Mom: (laughs and says in English). No, we will speak soon. Goodbye.


Every single day of my life in Israel is an exercise in embarassment and humility.

It sounds a lot worse than it is. Daily humiliation by no means leads to unhappiness.  I think, in fact, my willingness to speak Hebrew at all to these people is indicative of the fact that I am starting to let down my guard. However, as I continue to become more confident in speaking Hebrew to my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, I also continue to make lots and lots of mistakes. Something, generally speaking, I work hard at not doing.

Veteran immigrants to Israel, the folks who learned Hebrew 20 years ago in an ulpan, as opposed to “Jen Style” (ie. figuratively flat on her face with a dictionary in her hand) all recommend “making mistakes.”

“Don’t be afraid to speak Hebrew,” they tell me. “This is the way you will learn.”

The only problem with this advice is that most Israelis don’t have the patience for my learning curve.

When they speak to me in Hebrew (usually very fast), and I respond by saying, “What did you say?” they usually will do one of two things:

1. Tell me again, but this time in English

2. Repeat what they said the first time, just as quickly, if not more quickly, but louder

What I really need them to do is repeat it in Hebrew, but at the pace of a person who has just regained her use of speech after being in a coma for nine months.




On the other hand, when I try to speak Hebrew (and I deserve an A for effort these days), I find myself five words into my attempt and either:

a. I don’t know the word for…let’s say…”repulsive” in Hebrew and then I have to go about trying to describe what “repulsive” means using the limited Hebrew I do have. By the time I am finished with that task, I forget what was so repulsive to begin with. Or,

b. The person I am talking to looks absolutely and completely bewildered, though still hanging on to my every word hoping that by the end of my discombobulated, grammatically incorrect sentence she will be able to piece together something comprehensible from what just exited my mouth.

At the very least, thanks to a good job at a company in the hi-tech industry, I think I’ve managed to establish myself as a reasonably intelligent person…despite the fact that I walk around in fool’s clothing most days.

And considering that it must require a lot of patience for non-English speakers to interact with me, I suppose I should take it as a good sign, then, that some people continue to do so.

Hopefully, within time, we’ll understand each other, too.

Learning Hebrew

Hebrew by osmosis

I’m thinking about taking the Dora the Explorer approach to learning Hebrew.

Somehow, by doing nothing else but placing my children in front of a TV for a half hour each day at 4:30 pm while I was making dinner, they somehow learned a little bit of Spanish.  Vamanos! Buenos Dias! De nada! (Who came up with the theory that television kills brain cells? I humbly disagree. I’m pretty sure my third child learned her colors from Moose E. Moose.)

All the Vatikim* I’ve met suggest the best way to learn Hebrew is to read the easy newspaper, watch the news on TV, or challenge yourself by placing yourself in situations in which you need to speak Hebrew.  I certainly appreciate this advice, and in fact, believe it to be true. But I’d also like to conduct my own little experiment.

Each Saturday evening before Havdallah, there is a study group that meets on Hannaton. Last week, my friend Shira invited me to the study group and I jumped at the opportunity. (This will probably surprise my beloved Rabbi Roston back in New Jersey since my greatest Shabbat achievement up until this point was learning the hand motions to “Shabbat Shalom” in sign language at the Tot Shabbat service.)

I figured that an intimate study session with the members of the kibbutz would allow me the opportunity to get to know everyone a little better; and I’d be able to partake in an interesting adult conversation. It only occured to me as the rabbi opened his mouth to welcome everyone into his home that the study group would be in Hebrew. Gulp.

(Idiot, by the way, is the same in Hebrew as it is in English. I’m not sure about, “No, duh.”)

But instead of being discouraged, I decided to stay for the remainder of the hour and do my best to understand what was being discussed. This effort lasted about ten minutes, until I realized that I wasn’t going to pick up much more than “Blah, Blah, Blah, Mitzrayim. Blah, Blah, Moshe, Blah, Blah, Yehudim.” Certainly not enough to contribute to the discussion or appreciate the contemplative points other participants were making.

So, I came up with a better idea. Hebrew by osmosis.

Of course, learning language through immersion is not an original idea. This is the theory behind Ulpan or semester abroad or Baby Einstein DVDs.  Would the same principles apply if I simply return to the Torah study group each Saturday night? Will I absorb the language simply by actively listening to my friends ponder Mishnah and debate the commentary of talmudic scholars? Especially if I look into their eyes, focus on their lips, and try really, really hard to understand?

Is it possible that one Saturday night, months from now, I will stand up, tug thoughtfully at my beard, and say in Hebrew: 

“And as Rashi said on the Tanakh — but particularly his commentary on the Chumash…”

I have a hunch this would be possible for someone else. But, not for me.

I’m not one of those unique individuals who has an ear for language. My ears are, in fact, a teeny tiny bit deformed. (It’s genetic and usually well-hidden by my hair; so stop looking.) While medical science has yet to prove this, I think my unusual ears are the reason I’m not such a good listener, and not too good with languages. I took four years of Spanish in high school — four years! — and the only thing I can say is “Yo Quiero…”

“Yo quiero” I could speak Hebrew without having to work really hard at it, but I don’t think that’s happening so I better get myself into an Ulpan before my husband finds a full-time job and I’m the one who’ll have to do drop off and pick up every day by myself at which point the hope of getting myself to an Ulpan four days a week will have been a thing of the past.

So, just to be safe,  I will keep my appointment with the Ulpan coordinator tomorrow. But I still plan on conducting my experiment. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Vatikim = Veteran immigrants
Yo queiro = I want (in SPANISH)