It’s hard feeling like an outsider in your new home country.
For the last month, every new person I call on the phone, every clerk I meet at an office, gets the same greeting from me: “Medaber Anglit?”
That’s Hebrew for, “Do you speak English?”
At least I know how to say that in Hebrew and how to conjugate the question properly for a man or a woman. But it’s embarrassing to feel like an outsider in a place that spiritually feels so much like home.
Whether I’m at the bank trying to open a credit card account, or at the motor vehicle bureau trying to take a picture for my new driver’s license, everything has to be in English.
I shouldn’t feel so embarrassed, considering that two years ago I didn’t even know how to put an aleph next to a bet, much less speak or understand Hebrew. And I’m planning to enroll in a state-sponsored ulpan, or intensive Hebrew- language lab, in January.
But I realized quickly after arriving here the importance of brushing up on my Hebrew right away.
Only a week after making aliyah, my first piece of Hebrew mail arrived.
What an amazing feeling to see “Yonatan Chaim Udren” spelled out in Hebrew letters on that envelope. I ripped it open and glanced it over, only to realize that I had no idea what the document meant. There were numbers at the bottom, and a box next to it that I translated as, “You receive 400 shekel.”
I thought: “I’ve only been here a week and already I’m being awarded some kind of extra aliyah bonus.”
Then I looked at the letter again and realized there was another column with a date 90 days hence and a 625-shekel figure in the adjacent box.
Was this some kind of savings bond? Why would waiting 90 more days allow me to receive more money?
When I saw the Hebrew word “knas” it dawned on me: It was a bill.
Or, more accurately, a fine.
The nicely detailed caricature of a smiling policeman writing out a parking ticket on the back of the letter made the situation a little clearer.
The funny thing is that I don’t even have a car.
The fine was dated all the way back to last December, and after a moment I realized its source.
A few friends and I had rented a car during Chanukah for some hiking in the Negev Desert. While I was finishing the paperwork, the attendant parked the rental vehicle in an illegal space. When I walked out to the car, a policeman was huddled over the license plate. A moment later, he slapped a ticket on the windshield.
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll take care of that,” said the attendant as she snatched the ticket from my hand, tossing in into what I thought was the trash can.
I shrugged it off and headed for the desert. Even if the rental company didn’t take care of the ticket, I thought, how would the parking police ever find me?
Less than a week after I made aliyah, that ticket landed in my mailbox. I’m still trying to figure out the whole thing, but I’m hoping — perhaps a little naively — that all Israeli bureaucracy works as efficiently as the parking-ticket authorities.
After the incident with the parking ticket, I decided to use the summer to brush up on my Hebrew. So I enrolled in a special two-week course at a Jerusalem yeshiva.
Sitting in class waiting for the teacher to walk in, I realized that our class of 12 students represented all four corners of the globe.
Michael, a man in his 50s, was a math professor from Russia. Gideon, a former commodities trader from South Africa, recently had joined the rest of his family in Israel.
David was a medical student from Ireland taking a year off to study in yeshiva. Chaim from Chile had just gotten married, and he and his new wife were spending their first year together in Jerusalem.
I snapped back to attention when our teacher, Rav Eitan, walked into the room. Dressed in the black and white garb that is standard attire for the fervently Orthodox, Eitan surprised us with his sharp sense of humor and gentle smile, all the while using militant commands and a sergeant-like voice to keep us focused.
He began each day by talking in simple Hebrew about that morning’s news.
“I heard on the radio this morning that Hezbollah on the northern border has 11,000 missiles aimed at Israel — 11,000,” he said. “It’s impossible with that many missiles that no one would get injured.”
The words for “missiles” and “injured” were new to me, but I quickly realized that these words were, as Eitan explained, part of “Survival Hebrew 101.”
“They anticipated the terrorist attack. Say it, Yonatan,” Eitan commanded me. I fumbled with the word for anticipate and couldn’t get the sentence out straight.
“Gong,” Eitan sang out, using his signature intimidation tactic. It worked the first few times: I felt intimated. But after a few gongs I realized he was only pushing me to burn the words into my memory.
His methodology worked. Fearing further gonging, my classmate Josh and I sat with our word lists that night, conjugating and quizzing each other.
“OK. Say, ‘The settlers manage local radio stations,’ ” I said, trying to combine a few new words from our list.
Josh answered me, then gave me a sentence of his own to formulate. “The truck crashed, and many were injured.”
The peace and quiet that evening suddenly was shattered by the sounds of ambulances tearing through the streets. We didn’t pay them much attention until we hard the news.
A bomb had gone off on the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem, on its way from the Western Wall. Twenty-one people had been killed and more than 100 injured, including many children.
After a tormented night’s sleep, Eitan greeted us in the morning with the bitter news. His slow, thoughtful Hebrew seared my heart with each new word. Acknowledging the tragedy in a foreign language let the pain sink in from a new emotional angle.
“I heard that there are at least 20 in serious condition, and 20 more in extremely serious condition,” Eitan said. “I don’t know what that means. Maybe that they lost an arm or a leg.”
The morning lesson continued with a plethora of new words: explosion, bomb, terrorist, critical condition.
I swallowed the pain in my heart and kept writing words and asking questions. I didn’t know what else to do but follow Eitan’s lead and keep going.
I am realizing that learning Hebrew is not just about language, but also about learning to integrate and manage the intense reality here.
Reading the gory headlines and listening to radio reports of sobbing, bereaved family members seems just as much a part of living here as Thursday-evening strolls around the Western Wall Plaza.
Life in Israel always seems to be torn between hope and pain. Perhaps learning to feel the pain and smile with hope is a part of learning the language.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.