Accent Marks


All I wanted was a blessing from the rabbi so that I would finally find my husband.

But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing in Israel ever is.

Because to get to the rabbi, you had to go through his assistant, and by “going through” his assistant I mean, you had to repeatedly call some man who kept telling you to call back in an hour.

And by you, I mean me.

But this is a story about the Hebrew language. Or more specifically, about being a 30-something American who relocates later in life to the land of the Hebrew speakers.

Which brings me back to the rabbi, and his assistant, who caught me off guard by suddenly telling me to come in that very day at 3 p.m.

“But I’m not wearing a shirt!” I blurted out. “I’m only wearing pants!”

After I hung up the phone I realized with a panic what I had done.

“A skirt! A skirt!” I yelled at the hung-up phone. “I meant, I’m wearing pants and not a skirt!”

So, yes, ladies and gentleman, I told a haredi man that I was about to go topless to get my blessing from a famous rabbi. Which is another way of saying that since this whole conversation was in Hebrew, I ended up making a major fadicha (an Arabic word Israelis use for the worst kind of faux pas) by mistakenly using the word for shirt (chulsa) instead of skirt (chasait).

Which is yet another way of saying that since landing here, I sometimes wonder if my Hebrew is getting worse.

To begin with, I don’t necessarily speak a lot of it. My closest friends are what they call “Anglos.” And I work primarily in English.

Even when I date an Israeli man — and for better or for worse there have been a string of them — we end up speaking in English. Often it’s because the guy’s English is really perfect so why suffer through my cumbersome Hebrew?

But even if their English is “just fair,” as my mother would say, we end up breaking into English. Why? I think because it’s just easier for me. And as a perfectionist, if the words don’t come easily then I return to my comfort zone.

I don’t really have an excuse. I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten at a Schechter Day School. And I continued over the years at Camp Ramah, the Jewish Theological Seminary and during stints in Israel. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to the language of the Jews.

But you know what they say. A language is like a muscle. You have to keep working so it doesn’t atrophy.

And it doesn’t help that the minute someone with an American accent tries to speak Hebrew in this country, Israelis respond in English, even if their English is atrocious.

In the beginning when this happened I took offense.

“I can speak Hebrew,” I would say, indigently.

“They’re just trying to help you,” Israelis often speculated, but I’ve come the conclusion that it is not so much altruism but opportunism that sparks the English. It’s a status thing to speak English and so those who can jump at the chance to practice.

Now, though, I’ve checked my ego at the door. I always begin conversations in public in Hebrew but if someone responds in English, bevakasha. I will respond in kind. Maybe even throw in the word “scintilla” just to make them work for it.

But the real challenge for me is my accent. It’s lousy. Or as an Israeli once said to me, “Americans speak Hebrew like they have marbles in their mouth.” It doesn’t help that growing up, even though we learned Hebrew from native Israelis, for some inexplicable reason, not only did we never even attempt the accent; we made fun of those who did, calling them “fake-o Israeli accents.”

And now I’m suffering for it.

But acquiring a “fake-o” accent is on my to-do list. Even though I realize that I might very well be one of those Americans who, after living here for decades, will still sound like I just stepped off the boat.

The good news is that because this is Israel, at the end of the day, Hebrew still is everywhere. And in that sense, it’s amazing how much progress I’ve made without that much effort.

Which is good. Because language is the key to a country and its culture.

But let us now return to the rabbi.

“He hasn’t called you yet?” the rabbi asked, his eyes widened in surprise, about this elusive husband of mine.

When I pointed out that he hadn’t, he reassured me that he would.

Before I said goodbye — and after I acquired my blessing — the rabbi started laughing.

“You have a terrible accent!” he said about my Hebrew. “What are you? American?”

Abigail Pickus’ column appears the first week of the month.