Earning the Hebrew accent


 

I spent the summer before college holed up in my room in front of my laptop watching strange cartoon letters  take shape and trying to replicate them on my own. I was teaching myself Hebrew.

College required a lanaguage class my first semester, and, traumatized by four years of learning  a dead language I would never use,  I initially signed up for French.  I decided it was too plain, and switched to Japanese, which I’d studied the summer before.  Unfortunately, the class filled up before I could finish registration, and then I realized the reason French and Japanese both were not meant to be: I wanted to learn Hebrew.

I’d just been to Israel twice and had become deeply embarassed that I could not understand a language that was my own, despite the fact that there were thousands of years between us.

From the first class, I fell in love. There was something about Hebrew that was so instinctive to me; it felt like I was coming home.  But it was also hard. Harder than I thought it would be, harder than tracing letters before they flickered off the screen.

streets of haifa

The verb conjugations killed me. I kept forgetting how to add.  I frequently forgot the difference between hatul, cat, and kahol, blue. I walked around in a daze of flashcards.  I also spoke to myself in my head for hours at a time in the simple words I began to know, like a six-year-old.

Ma at osah,” What are you doing? I asked myself

Ani holechet l’miklachat,” I’m going to the shower.

V’akhar-kach?” And afterwards?

Yesh li avodah,” I have work.

The few combined phrases I knew limited me and ensnared me in conversations that had no emotional depth or sophistication, but I was so happy.

And I worked on my accent.  All the time, I worked on my accent.   I’d do my homework, listening for hours to Galgalatz.

“Gal’galatz,” the announcers would say, pronouncing the L with the back of his mouth rather than the front. I swallowed my Ls.  I watched Israeli movies non-stop. I eavesdropped on my Israeli friends talking on the phone with their parents.

I was constantly worried that I wasn’t pronouncing Hebrew correctly, that I’d be identified as an outsider if I got to go back to Israel again. I was so embarrassed and afraid of being labeled Anglo.

Anglos are Israelis who immigrate from English-speaking countries, primarily the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Stereotypes of Anglos in Israel is that they live in English-speaking areas, never make the effort to learn Hebrew, and are rich; they’re entitled. Some Anglos can afford to live as Americans in Israel because of the power of American culture and economics.

Some Anglos immigrate to Israel with money and the option to go back to America, a luxury not available to the Russians who came in the early 1990s, as we did to America, with the clothes on their backs. Some Anglos live in privilege, and they don’t even have to live in Israel while they live in Israel. Israelis make fun of this type of Anglo. I desperately did not want to be That Some Anglo Girl.

So I worked on my accent. I pronounced the Resh wrong.  I hocked up CHets.

After three semesters, I started having dreams in Hebrew where people called me by my Hebrew name.

In my fourth semester, we had to give an entire five-minute presentation sans English.  I don’t remember what I talked about, but I remember one of my classmates giving out a recipe for cookies and I understood her.  It was so surreal to me, the fact that I could process the words coming out of her mouth.  It felt the same as when I rode a bike for the first time.  I still remember the little prickles of joy I felt.

That semester, I also started singing Israeli pop songs to imitate Israeli accents.  I was getting better.

Then I went to Israel to work and everything changed. From the black and white Hebrew on the lines of my textbooks (Yosi goes to study at the library), I was forced into a real living Technicolor society where people got angry if I didn’t understand them, and where I had to speak to Real People, not my patient Hebrew professor, to survive.

supercenter at night

The accent I’d brought with me seemed stupid and childish, and my reading comprehension skills, which had earned me straight As behind the safe desk of a classroom, just made me slow here.

But I was just so, so desperate to be Israeli and not be perceived as a spoiled Ugly American that  I talked to everyone. I talked to my coworkers who were eager to practice their English with me instead. I talked to the man selling ice cream at the kiosk on the corner across from our apartment.  I talked to the guy who made the falafel.  I talked to the lifeguards at the beach.

By the time I got home from work every night, I was mentally exhausted and disgusted with Hebrew.  I was disgusted with myself.  I carried a dictionary in my purse for half the summer. I only caught fleeting halfs of conversations at restaurants. I blanked out at fast food places.  I was so grateful for my roommates, for the ability of English words to roll off my tongue without mentally planning out each next syllable.

“I understand now, how you feel now as an immigrant, and I’m amazed by you,” I told my mom over the phone.

One day, I decided to give blood to Magen David Adom in Tel Aviv.  I had to call and make the appointment in Hebrew, and I’d gotten through a good deal of it, when the nurse asked me something medical-related terminology that I didn’t know.   I panicked.

Efshar od pam b’Anglit,” I asked her. Could you say it in English? I felt a ten-second-long pause.  And in the pause was the feeling of my failure, my fear.  I’d never been more embarrassed. Living in a country and asking the natives to speak MY language.  It never crossed my mind that the nurse should be obligated to know English.

On that internship with me was a mix of native Israelis and American kids. Anglo kids. The American kids didn’t like speaking Hebrew, and they tried to get out of it as much as possible.  During the whole internship, this made me feel irate, especially because almost all of them had had more exposure to Hebrew than me. They’d been brought up in Jewish households. They knew the holidays. They had the homecourt advantage, so to speak.

What I realized only much later is that most of the American kids had been raised with Hebrew by force. It wasn’t theirs, it was their parents’, the way Russian was my parents’, before I made it my own. As a result, they were embarrassed or flat-out refused to speak Hebrew.

Nesher Beer

And they didn’t have to, and they didn’t have to have perfect accents. Because they knew that, as Americans, they had the luxury of not having to.   They could walk into any restaurant, mangle anything in Hebrew, then switch to English and never worry about it.

They could live in Anglo-only areas and never feel like they were in Israel.

The country was wide-open to them, and they didn’t have to change who they were.

These are the kinds of people I imagine are angry about Noga’s post.

Not the Anglos who have worked their asses off and legitimately tried to get the Hebrew accent, but couldn’t.

The Entitled ones.  The ones who were never olim, immigrants, but tourists.

Which disappoints me. Because I think what she wrote is true and well-meaning, even if it was too brusque.  Not enough Anglos in Israel go through the sweat and the pain to make Hebrew theirs and to make their Hebrew Israeli, simply because they don’t have to, and take the easy way out.   Because I think what she didn’t write, is that she went through the same process.  And she’s disappointed that more people don’t make it a point to put themselves through the fire.

What surprises me is this unmitigated reaction of anger toward her.  She didn’t say that everyone can learn an Israeli accent; she specifically emphasized that most older Anglos won’t be able to.  She never discounted the experience of those who had tried and simply hadn’t learned; her post simply spoke to the anger against those who had never attempted, because there is a whole world they’re missing out on.

***

Three weeks ago, I was on a conference call with someone from Israel.  The call was mostly in English, but then she asked if I’d been to Israel and we switched to Hebrew.  We talked for a couple minutes and then, right before she hung up, she said, “You have a beautiful Hebrew accent.” And I felt that feeling again. The feeling of standing on top of a mountain and looking down at the ground below you, sprinkled with your own glistening sweat.

As native something-else-speakers, we’ll never be as good as the sabras. We’ll never be able to toss the words carelessly off our tongues and not watch every noun ending, check every verb tense carefully three times before we release it. We will never say Moran without laughing. But we did work hard for our accents and they, in turn, left their mark on us and gave everything back that we put in.  And what Noga is saying, I think, is that more people should be less afraid of the ascent, because the view from the top is kol-kach yafeh.