I’ll be honest, I’m struggling with Hebrew. More than struggling I think I may even be a bit dyslexic in this right to left language. And I’m luckier than most in that my parents are Israeli, although they spoke to us in English. I also have had twelve years in the Jewish school system where they supposedly taught Modern Hebrew, and yet I struggle to understand the radio, read a Hebrew newspaper or speak basic Hebrew on the streets.
The language barrier is, I think, the hardest part of integrating into Israel. ‘You don’t have to know Hebrew in Jerusalem’, I’m told. And that’s part of the problem. Everyone knows English and are more than happy to speak to me in English, rather than have to endure my broken Hebrew which more often than not insults their gender and takes them back and forth in time like a epileptic time machine.
The French and Russians have it easier. They have to learn Hebrew, otherwise they won’t get anywhere. So they learn far quicker on a steeper learning curve. We’ve explained this to our children, who can’t understand why the French Olim are learning Hebrew so much faster than them. It also helps that French has female and male constructs, which English doesn’t have.
It’s a humbling experience learning a new language. Every word learnt and moreover remembered is like a diamond. I collect little diamonds, with such tricks as trying to learn five new words a day, looking like a lost soul as I walk down the streets of Jerusalem with my scrap of paper and new words, repeating them over and over again until they sink in.
I have a renewed respect for immigrants. Broken English is now brave, not stupid. I think back to all the Russians who came into my class in Sydney, not knowing English and how they endured social isolation and confusion, until they mastered it. I think to my children now and how they’re having a similar experience. I hope they learn kindness and compassion as they learn first hand what it is to be an immigrant.
Of course there’s Ulpan. My husband and I chose the Ulpan at Hebrew University. For us it’s been a great decision, as it’s an academic environment that’s refined the art of teaching Hebrew with excellent teachers. (I think all Hebrew lessons should be modelled on their methods. Take note Jewish Day Schools!) As we learn the basics of Hebrew grammar, I wonder at the fact I know English let alone Hebrew. Grammar is tediously logical. A Hebrew word is like a Chinese acrobat that can twist and turn into a thousand different words and meanings.
As I write my essays, read articles and practice speaking, finally learning to take care of the gender and tense, I see bit by bit that the language is coming. Slowly, painfully slowly and with many mistakes and funny incidents, such as ordering a ‘parcel’ instead of an omelette for breakfast. And being told that I can’t have a ‘Chatich’ of pizza, which I though was the correct word for ‘slice’; And the guys behind the counter said that they’re ‘the chatichim’, slang for cuties.
Red faced encounters is my style of learning. Deep crimson blushes ensure that I don’t repeat the same mistake twice. I find the more I try, the more I learn. Israelis are more than forgiving as I blunder along. One of the best pieces of advice was given to me by my Brazilian friend in class. He chastised me for translating everything in my head into the Queen’s English. ‘You’ll only learn if you think in Hebrew,’ he said. And so I’m thinking a lot, in my broken, pigeon Hebrew.