Learning Hebrew wasn’t easy and it’s still not

Learning languages has never been my strong suit, and butchering accents in any foreign tongue is my forte. But when I moved to Israel three years ago at 29, I knew I would have to tackle Hebrew head on.

There was no getting around it — speaking the language is one of the most important parts of acclimating to a culture. As a writer, language is central to my work, and I understand how much would be lost in translation if I didn’t have a good command of Hebrew. Besides, there was a practical need to communicate about everyday tasks, like getting help inflating a bike tire or explaining that I was in line before those bubbes cut in front of me at the market.

I could have easily embraced the sizable Anglo community in Israel or relied on the excellent English that many Israelis speak, but that seemed counterintuitive to embracing the culture.

So as the summer began, I buckled down to conquer a language that as most know is read right to left. “Dag” means fish, “mi” means from, “awho” is he and “he” is she. To make things even more challenging, most of the Hebrew in daily use doesn’t include vowels.

Michal was my ulpan teacher — a tall, slender sabra in her 60s with long blond hair and patience to spare. She loved the sun and cigarettes equally, which was evident from her leathery skin and the smell of smoke that accompanied her whenever she walked into a room. If we stuck around on breaks, she would talk about her lifelong love for rock singer Arik Einstein and impart Hebrew slang that would be “good for dating.”

I spent five hours a day that summer memorizing verbs and practicing sentences along with my classmates, all of whom scribbled notes in different languages. When not in class, I’d practice my Hebrew with whomever I could — from the coffee shop barista to the bus driver. I had the chutzpah, but not necessarily the vocabulary to respond to Israelis, who are far from shy. One day a bank teller was multitasking with my deposit in one hand, her cellphone in the other, when she snapped, “You have a boyfriend?” Before I could answer, she said, “I know a great guy,” and proceeded to list his menschy credentials. “Maybe you can you come over for Shabbat this weekend and meet him?”

It’s hard to believe that Hebrew was revived just over a century ago. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, was a Lithuanian scholar and journalist who immigrated to Palestine in 1881 and introduced the language during the rise of Zionism and the first aliyah in the late 19th century. He even printed a Hebrew-language newspaper that included a dictionary for European émigrés.

At a time when the majority of European Jews spoke Yiddish, Ben-Yehuda was successful at reviving the biblical language. In fact, his son Ben-Zion was said to be the first child brought up speaking Hebrew as his mother tongue. Today, Hebrew is spoken by over 8 million people.

Modern Hebrew is relatively new, however, not as rich as older languages like French, English or Arabic. Some words and phrases have multiple meanings, but it’s the intonation and context that you must understand to really know the language.

My command of Hebrew is still far from perfect (a kindergartener could put me to shame), but language acquisition is a work in progress. It was the small steps that felt like monumental accomplishments. When I successfully talked to the Israeli phone provider Cellcom about my plan and paid my bill, all in Hebrew, I wanted to high-five the nearest Israeli.

Israelis are fast talkers and don’t always have a lot of savlanoot (patience). Almost always, their English was better than my Hebrew, which made practicing a challenge. I explained this to an Israeli friend, using future-tense verbs. He had a uniquely Israeli way of looking at the issue.

“There’s no reason to use those,” he said. “At the end of the day, there may be no tomorrow. We talk yesterday and right now. That’s the important stuff.”

Abra Cohen is a J. staff writer. Reach her at [email protected]