Learning Hebrew: Part II

Sadly, today was our last in-person Hebrew lesson with our teacher, Lior.  We have grown very fond of her and will really miss our time together, sitting on our roof deck learning Hebrew by speaking Hebrew.  Usually we met in the early morning, but while Denise and Jim were here, we met one evening and Jim snapped a picture of us, with Lior ready to write in our vocab notebook and me with the dictionary at hand.

As I wrote in an earlier post, improving our Hebrew was one of our goals for this trip to Israel. Before I reflect a bit on how and how much we’ve progressed, I must make a confession.  When we got here, I was pretty sure (and others confirmed) that my spoken Hebrew was better than Chuck’s, although not by much.  After a month here, Chuck’s Hebrew has clearly surpassed mine.  He has a knack for languages that somehow enables him to get along in French, German, and Russian as well as in Hebrew. I have been impressed with his new-found ability to express himself and talk about complex matters in Hebrew and he has left me in the proverbial dust.  Nonetheless, my Hebrew ain’t bad either at this point!

In English, I pride myself on my vocabulary, correct grammar and syntax, and on my ability to speak my mind on almost any subject in a reasonably articulate fashion. Since most Israelis, especially well-educated ones, speak excellent English and enjoy using their English, whenever I’ve wanted to have serious discussion with Israelis over the years, I’ve reverted to English. Lior never allowed us to do that, reminding us whenever we got frustrated to have patience, take it slow, and explain what we wanted to say with as many words as we needed to use. Her ever-present confidence that we could express everything we wanted to in Hebrew was inspiring and supportive. Furthermore, it was clear to us that she was always thinking about what words we needed to add to our vocabulary and she introduced them in our conversations in a natural way.

When we first arrived, we could not follow Hebrew well on TV or in conversations around us.  Our ability to read Hebrew newspapers and signage was pretty limited as well.  Now, we catch almost everything on TV and can understand what we read most of the time.  When we don’t, we use Google translator or our handy paperback dictionary at home.  We’ve learned and really internalized so many new words- more than I ever expected to acquire- and words I knew long ago but forgot bubble up and come out of my mouth in an astonishing fashion.  Chuck and I talk about how our life in Israel this month has not been “real life” with responsibilities, obligations, bills to pay, etc.  One advantage of this fantasy life we’ve led has been our ability to immerse ourselves in the language, at a leisurely but dedicated pace.

Two nights ago,  that immersion included a performance at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa.  Nalaga’at means please touch and  the website for the Center says:

The Nalaga’at Center is a meeting place for deaf, blind and deaf-blind and the wide public that through an artistic and cultural experience engage in a dialogue between equals by means of the Nalaga’at Theater, “Kapish” café, “Blackout” restaurant, workshops and training programs. The Nalaga’at Center develops and offers unique employment opportunities that assist deaf, blind and deaf-blind individuals in providing for themselves while developing their own unique talents, skills and abilities. We believe all humans were created equal but different and that every person has the right to make his or her contribution to society. The Nalaga’at Center employs people of all races, religions, sex and gender.

We had heard that we should not miss seeing a performance at Nalaga’at and we are very glad we went.  It was a moving, educational, and entertaining evening.  Before the play, the Artistic Director got up and spoke for about 15 minutes on the history of the acting troupe and about this production in particular which has Jewish, Muslim and Samaritan actors.  Chuck and I were thrilled that we understood it all- even the little jokes- and we understood the  Hebrew in the play.  The actors use sign language, but behind each actor there is someone speaking their parts.

Tonight we went to a live music performance of a female pop vocalist and that too was both entertaining and an immersion experience.  For the most part, we understood the song lyrics and the banter between the singer and her husband who played the keyboard- at least as much as I usually get all the lyrics to songs in English!  A couple of weeks ago, we saw an Israeli movie we highly recommend- Fill the Void- about the Haredi (fundamentalist) Jewish society.  It had subtitles in English, which was helpful at times, but we loved watching the movie in Hebrew.

I am happy to tell you that the “language dance” I described when we first got here (when we speak Hebrew and the Israeli we’re talking to speaks back to us in English) is happening less and less.  We still have American accents, but our fluency sounds real and seems to elicit Hebrew in return more often than English.  But, lest you think we haven’t occasionally made fools of ourselves, here’s two funny anecdotes.  Chuck is loving the incredible bakeries here in Tel Aviv and he went into one and asked for the bread with bracelets, instead of the bread with raisins.  Bracelets is szmedim and raisins is szemukim- awfully close.  My embarrassment was when I told my cousin Zilla I loved seeing the pea instead of the egret at the nature preserve.  Pea is afunah and egret is anafah.  Zilla with her wry sense of humor warned me not to go into a restaurant and ask for egret soup!

We did another Streetwise Hebrew lesson with Guy Sharett (www.streetwisehebrew.com) at Trumpledor Cemetery, which is very close to our apartment.  In the early 20th century, this cemetery was outside the city limits but now it is smack dab in the center of Tel Aviv, totally surrounded by apartment buildings.  (It must be weird to look out your apartment window into a packed cemetery filled with the graves of so  many famous and historical figures, including Guy’s great uncle, Moshe Sharett, who was the second prime minister of Israel.)  Guy taught us Hebrew and history by asking us to read and translate the tombstones, by telling us stories about the deceased, and by using his ubiquitous white board to conjugate verbs and teach us grammar.  Fun, informative and interesting!

I realized how far we had come with our Hebrew when we went to dinner at the apartment of an esteemed colleague at Kibbutzim College, Nimrod Aloni and his wife Sima.  Last year, Nimrod was a visiting professor at Montclair State and they came to our house in South Orange for a Shabbat dinner.  When we came to their apartment here and spoke Hebrew, Sima was astounded.  “When did you learn Hebrew like this?” she asked.  We realized we had not spoken any Hebrew with them in the US, and Sima didn’t realize we could.  It felt so good to surprise her like that.  To be honest, a lot of our conversation that lovely evening was still in English, but we switched back and forth with ease.

Perhaps the strongest sign of how comfortable I now feel in Hebrew is the fact that I find myself thinking in Hebrew! I love it.  I remember vividly during my university year here when I woke up and realized I had had a dream in Hebrew- a real milestone in fluency and comfort in a second language.  That hasn’t happened yet this time, but I am so happy with how far we’ve come nonetheless.

Now, as we get ready to go home at the end of the week, we think about how we can keep up and even advance our Hebrew fluency after we leave Israel.  Lior suggested we buy some DVD’s of movies and TV shows in Hebrew with English subtitles, that we read Hebrew online regularly, speak Hebrew to each other, and best of all, that we Skype with her to continue our lessons.  Won’t that be lovely?

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