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.

Leap Years in Iran

 

The Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah of Iran was still sleeping when Hassan tiptoed into his room with his morning tea, taking extra care not to knock the sugar cubes off their perfectly balanced lattice arrangement on the lacquered tray.  He set it down gently on the thick walnut dresser and, hesitating, shook the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah gently.

“Sir? Sir,” Hassan asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Mhmhph,” the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah answered, coming out of his dreams.  He scratched the night cap off his head and rubbed his eyes and then his chin.  He hadn’t shaved in several days, since his meeting with the Russians, and his beard was starting to come in again.   “Hassan, is that you?”

“Yes, sir. ” Hassan hesitated and wondered if he should have let the Grand Prime Minister Ayatollah sleep in.

“Good of you to wake me, Hassan.  Today’s an important one.  Have you got the Vizier Senior Councillor on the phone yet?  We need the Majils to meet. We’re attacking Israel today.  It’s a Leap Year, you know.”

… 

Freedom is not free

Five years of replaying this moment in your head like a dream, like a fantasy.  Both the father and the son. So much so that when it actually happens, you’re numb.  You don’t realize it’s happening.  Five years of psychological hell.    Both the soldier and the nation.

Five years of a national nightmare are over.  But maybe the nightmares are just beginning. We don’t know. Was it worth it in the long run?  Hard to tell, unless you’re the Prime Minister and you’re finally recovering from the slump of negative press.

I have to admit, at some point last year, I stopped following the news story because I just got tired.  Tired of the stalling efforts, tired of the political in-fighting, just tired in general.  But then every time I saw his dad, exhausted and numb on TV, I would think, what would my parents feel like if I were captured? Or you?

Twenty years of hard effort of raising a decent human being, all swept away so quickly.   And all of that effort is what makes you who you are.  And all of it would be gone, scooped out of you with a melon scooper, until all that’s left is a walking hollow shell of a person. Philip Pullman wrote in The Golden Compass about a fantasy world where people’s souls live outside their bodies in animal form and they can’t be more than a certain distance away or else they experience a tremendous pain.  When people are separated from their daemons they become weaker and possibly die, but eventually they are hardened against the pain and don’t feel feelings the same way.  Maybe he was talking not only about our souls, but about parents and children.

I don’t know enough to say whether it was right politically.

All I can say is that for me as a human, I’m happy that the above picture exists, because no one should have a right to break that bond, not Hamas, not the Israeli government, not anyone in this world.

 

Life after “Life After Zionist Summer Camp”

Thinking about the occupation, human rights, democracy, the demographic problem, and more at Zionist Massada. Or maybe just thinking that I'm getting sunburnt.

It starts the minute I read the first paragraph. That feeling of vague anger and helplessness. Because I’ve been reading and thinking about this issue ever since I decided that Israel was something I needed to be reading and thinking about. And I’ve been experiencing all of the things that Benedikt did for the past ten years, maybe more.  In different stages.  In different places.

The olives, the AIPAC meetings, the beach, the sunflower seeds, the 1967 maps, the rallies, the checkpoints, the walls, the 2006 war, meeting Sharansky, homeless people in Tel Aviv, the Wall, Yad Vashem, J Street, the Golan Heights. I’ve done it all. I’ve thought about every angle. I’ve thought, thought, thought. When I was on the plane. When I was on group buses. When I was in Hebrew classes.   When I was in hotel rooms, when I was drenched in sweat in apartments. When I was at my computer at work. When I am reading before bed. I’ve thought it this way and that way until my brain came loose from the see-sawing and took flight into a dream where I was speaking Hebrew on the moon and still thinking.

But at some point, I’ve stopped thinking. Because American Jews like me and Allison think too much. We are a nation, a tribe of over-thinkers, over-complicator, justifiers, neuron-processors. We like to hem and haw and on the one hand and on the other Israel until we are worn out.  We love to write angsty pieces and to have thinktanks and psychosessions.

Because no matter how hard we think,  all those problems will still be there.  And we don’t need to address them. Unless we live in Israel. And pay taxes to the State. Then we can sit in coffeehouses and debate thewallsettlementspeaceprocesstwostatesolutiongaza until our Turkish coffee embers run dry and the tide comes in so that we can walk from Tel Aviv to Yaffo in the shoreline.

But in the meantime, I promise,  Israel is just Israel. No matter how hard we think. Or are angry. Or sad. Or happy. Or no matter how many angsty essays we write, no matter how many rallies we go to, no matter how much we twist and turn our brains.  Just like America is just America. Or Pakistan is just Pakistan.  They each have their flaws.  They each do hideous, horrendous things. They each do wonderful things.  Because both sides of the coin are simply part of existence.

So, sometimes, actually, most times, Israel is just Israel. It’s not a grand conspiracy designed to give you angst forever.  It’s just part of who you are as a Jew. And it just is.

American Jews, I am giving uspermission to stop trying to understand our relationship to Israel.  Stop thinking of army helmets and prisons and double-meanings.  Israel just is.

Israel is just a fruit shake, made out of milk and strawberries that you’re drinking on the beach.  Israel is the soldier in the supermarket that tells you you have sunburn and you should put on lotion.  Israel is the bread at Abulafia. Israel is a little girl in a dress running to her mom, who’s not thinking about the conversion bill, but what she’s going to make for that little girl at dinner and then she needs to go to the store for some milk. Israel is the Banias waterfall, and the falafel place in that suburb outside of Jerusalem that you always go to.  Israel is people trying to make money the same way people try to make money everywhere, and Israel is a girl in a bikini just trying to get a decent tan.

What makes me frustrated about these types of posts is that some Protestant but not really Protestant anymore agnostic atheist post-modern hipster in Brooklyn will read this on his Macbook, sipping his latte, and make clucking sounds at all the appropriate and right moments.  And he’ll process it, and then read all of the comments by the Jews who were like, “Me too! Me too!”

And then later that night, he’ll go to a party, and someone will bring up Woody Allen and inevitably the Occupation and the hipster will say, “Oh, I just read an Awl piece about Zionism, and apparently they drill it into all the little Jews. Can you imagine?  That’s so crazy! But then they grow up to be normal, well-adjusted thinking adults.  And it turns out that Israel is something you have to think very hard about. Because they do. If Peter Beinart and Allison say it, it must be true.  Jews are conflicted and tormented. ” And then the hipster-chain will activate and continue to share.

I used to be.  But now I’m not.  Thinking hard about Israel is an American Jew’s martyrdom, a form of self-flagellation. And we want people to know that we self-flagellate. Because it makes us look good and moral and fair and balanced.

The last time I was in Israel, with Mr. B, sometimes I thought hard about all of this stuff.

But then, I gave myself permission to stop being such a self-righteous asshole and taking myself so seriously.  That was when we sat on the beach in Tel Aviv at night and ate watermelon and ice cream and I didn’t think about politics at all.  We just were. I thought about how good the ice cream was and maybe I wanted some more and I thought about how happy I was to be on vacation with my husband and I thought about the Mediterranean, coming in and going out quietly, and I thought about how I wished I had a hookah and about how loud the people at the next table over were being.

Not Israelis.  Not Jews. Just people.

In which I find out the source of 99% of my spam. Also, I eat a dosa.

What’s your idea of a good time?  Mine is bitching  about how much Philly sucks.

But unfortunately, it’s started to unsuck for me lately, which is disappointing, because complaining is as much as sport for me as running (which I haven’t been doing too much of lately so I’m definitely going to fail my first 5k next week.) Maybe it’s the spring, maybe it’s the fact that Mr. B is here to add aesthetic to my life, or maybe it’s the fact that I finally don’t feel like I need to hide from Society because I have The Winter/Mr. B-less Sads.

Yesterday, I told Mr. B that I need to be involved in a Jewish community, a foreign policy community, and a nerd community, or my spirit will wither and die like a fragile flower.  Or, I sent him a link to this event and told him, “You’re coming with me.”

Since Mr. B doesn’t work in the city, I had a little bit of me-time beforehand.

A little bit of ING Cafe.

A little bit of dosa.

And then a little bit of discussion about the Middle East situation in a very cool bar with a group of people our age, interested in the same things we’re interested in.  The speaker was from the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia and it was really interesting to hear perceptions from an officially Israeli point of view. Sharon was extremely articulate and while I  disagreed on several points with her, it was interesting to understand how the Israeli diplomatic force perceived social media, and not only because I spend my whole life on Twitter.  I loved meeting more Jews our age and I’m hoping that this is the first of many times that we go to a Collaborative event.

Mr. B and I also learned a really important thing last night: Sharon is responsible for 99% of our spam.  While she is extremely nice, we learned that the Israeli diplomatic community, in addition to others,  originate hundreds alarming emails that we get about threats to Israel.  These emails are so common and plague the Jewish community so much that a whole column has been devoted to them:

The Emails of Zion is a collection of messages from Jewish parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and others who are eager—often way too eager—to inform their children about issues of pressing concern to the Jewish community. Some of these emails may sound crazy, paranoid, ethnocentric, and/or racist, while others are disturbingly sane.

For example, here’s an email I’ve received from at least five different people recently.  This is in no way a comment about any of those people, who are all good wholesome people that would buy me Nutella at a moment’s notice, but just about the type of mail that’s circulated:

These emails evoke an urgent cause to action without presenting any facts.  They usually start with FWD:FWD:RE: URGENT ISRAEL HELP subject lines and end by panicking the reader. For example, this made me panic that 200,000 Intifada-supporters on Facebook would kill me before the radon in our house got a chance.

However, if you go to the actual group on Facebook, it’s written completely in Arabic.  How does the email writer know what it stays, beyond the fact that “Intifada” is in the title?  You can’t analyze the Facebook page, because most of the posters are in Arabic. Unless you understand, you can’t possibly know what the group is being organized for.  Why would you report a group you know nothing about solely based on its name? If the group is really threatening, why wouldn’t you put together an email closer to this CNN story, which has indeed reported that the group has turned violent? Maybe you should include the Arabic translation? And some other options? Nope.  You need to rile up as many Jews as possible.

I’m sure it’s not only Jews that do this…in fact, if you receive any similar emails from ethnic or political groups you are a part of, post them in the comments.  But as a Jew, I am on the receiving end of the majority of these alarmist emails, and it kind of feels like a a little guy is standing on my shoulder and yelling threats at me all day, without giving any context.  Anyway, Israeli diplomatim, please do a better job of putting these emails together.  Please.

I’ll be hiding in the corner, eating my dosa and trying to make new friends to invite over to our Cancer House until you do.