Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fumbling along in Hebrew

Something unremarkable and awesome happened today. Arriving early to gather the girls from gymnastics class, I found another mother waiting, and I sat down and chatted with her for twenty minutes or so. That’s not the remarkable part—although I am shy and wary of people I don’t know well. What made it unusual for me was that we conversed in Hebrew. We talked about our kids and their schools, and about how difficult it is for a parent to have enough alone time and still do important things like sleep. I asked her twice to explain words I didn't know. She gently corrected my grammar a couple of times. She didn't once offer to switch to English, although I think she speaks it as well as most Jerusalemites.

This kind of exchange almost never happens to me. I have lived in Israel for two years. I spent ten months in ulpan, studying Hebrew intensively three mornings a week. I finished at the highest level. I can read the newspaper with ease, seek help in a medical crisis from the on-call nurses’ line, understand most of what people say to me. I refuse to speak English with shopkeepers or anyone else I encounter in commercial dealings. But all of the conversations that really matter to me, conversations about ideas and feelings, those are always in English.

I didn’t want it to be this way. Some new immigrants to Israel seek out English-speaking communities where they can get along without much Hebrew. I didn’t want that. I hoped for more of an immersion in Israeli life. But I fell in love with Jerusalem and especially with Nachlaot.

The large English-speaking community is not the reason I like living here. But being a part of that community means that most of the meaningful conversations I have during the day are in English.

What about the Israelis in my neighborhood? One of two things happens. Either we speak in English—maybe because we met through English-speaking friends, or we knew each other before I moved here. More often, however, I try to stumble along in my Hebrew and refuse to revert to English even when they offer (or just start speaking to me in English). But I won’t give in, and so the relationship feels frozen at a certain level of formality and superficiality.

After ulpan finished, my Hebrew acquisition hit a plateau. And then I began to suspect that my spoken Hebrew was actually getting worse. A few months ago, I was speaking to our handyman, Mashiach (yes, that is his name), struggling to express myself, and he asked me, “So when are you going to get a chance to study in ulpan?” Ouch.

I would like to practice speaking Hebrew with my daughters, but they refuse. They are new immigrants too, and they are tired after cutting their teeth on Hebrew all day in gan. At home, they just want to relax and understand everything their mother is saying. I imagine this will change, eventually, but for now they, give me grief when I try to bust out the Hebrew.

My husband always says I have to be brave and talk to my friends in Hebrew. He points out that most of the women I know speak fluent Hebrew, even the Americans. There’s no reason I can’t practice my Hebrew with them.

But today, chatting with this patient woman outside the gymnastics class, I realized why that courage feels so impossible to muster. It’s not that I’m afraid of making mistakes or looking stupid—after only two years in the country, that’s pretty inevitable.

Rather, I feel like my essential self is wrapped up in my ability to express myself. I love to talk and exchange ideas. My facility with words and my pleasure in expressing myself precisely have been with me since I was a tiny girl. To speak Hebrew and therefore to speak generally, inarticulately, feels excusable, but not authentic. I don’t feel like myself when I am speaking Hebrew.

The pleasant discussion today, though, gave me hope. This acquaintance did me such a kindness by just sticking with me and letting me get comfortable in speaking to her. I don’t know her well; have only exchanged a few sentences here and there before today. So I didn’t care that I couldn’t say things as precisely as I’d like. And that relaxed me enough to go deeper and experiment with expressing more complex ideas and asking more searching questions.

She was so gentle with me. I’m not gentle with myself. I’m terrified of being one of those people who live in Jerusalem for decades and barely get along in Hebrew. There are lots of them. Perhaps you are one of them and I’m offending you.

Maybe I just have to be willing to stay a little shallow, and keep practicing conversations that I find inane, little chats about the weather and the goings on at my kids’ school. Maybe that’s how I’ll build the vocabulary to go deeper.


Faitha said...

What an interesting post! I have often been curious about the psyche of expats as far as languages. Do let us know when you start thinking and/or dreaming in Hebrew!

Unknown said...

Fascinating. My challenge has always been that my Hebrew was mainly acquired as a child, so my vocabulary seems so limited only to things that would matter to a child and not to the profundities of life. I can point out every animal at the zoo and every fruit in the store, but feelings? Politics? Fuggedaboutit.

Keep writing - it lets me vicariously feel like I'm in Jerusalem too.

Chaya said...

Ha! Ariel--I have a different asymmetry to my Hebrew. Whenever I'm in a restaurant or a clothing store, I'm at ease: all my vocabulary is about food and clothes. So much for my depth . . .

Chaya said...

Faitha, that's interesting--when does one start to dream in a second language? I already do think in Hebrew, in as much as there are parts of my life that only happen in Hebrew. I guess the difficulty in speaking is where I'm translating my English thoughts into Hebrew sentences.

Julie@walkablejlm said...

A recommendation:
One way of getting excellent practice and greater confidence in spoken Hebrew, is to find people to talk to with whom Hebrew is your common language -- i.e., immigrants from non-English-speaking countries.
When I came here 20 years ago I found myself surrounded by Russian olim, and to this day my best friend in Israel is a Russian woman I met then. She had already been in Israel for 2 years when I arrived, and I learned a lot of Hebrew from her, without embarrassment or pressure, and without having to worry that she was going to switch to English on me.

Times and demographics have changed, but maybe there are "Frenchies" in Nachlaot whose society you could cultivate?

Chaya said...

Julie, that's a good idea, thanks!

Espresso Aroch said...

Are your twins in school yet, or just starting gan hova?

My husband says not to worry, in a few years they'll most likely prefer speaking Hebrew and you will learn up - to - date Hebrew from them.

Don't have time to think / write much but I do encourage you to value small practices and not dismiss them. In life, and also in Hebrew. Just one little Ema chat at a time, the exchanges in the know where you are going and can allow yourself to enjoy the journey. I appreciate the difficulty in feeling inauthentic and hope in time that will improve.

Shabbat Shalom!

Chaya said...

EA, thanks for the encouragement. I hope your husband is right. My girls were in trom hova last year, so it was their first year in Hebrew-speaking gan. I guess they'll be more used to it next year. It's always surprising to hear them speaking fluently, because in home it's all English with Hebrew words thrown in.

Just Julia said...

Im so glad your writting during "the onesh hagadol" I mean "chofeshhagadol..." I love your writting and relate so much. My first journal entry last week was in was so deep and powerful, I amazed myself as I too am an immigrant here in IL..but im married to an israeli so ive spent the last decade speaking mostly my kids get really frustrated when I whip out any instructions in english...but I try to remember that itll benefit them and as hard asit is I have to keep trying...but the best way, I believe, to really get all the good words, feelings, expressions, is through good soulful music, like udi davidi, just grab the lyrics and see for yourself, my mom who was born and raised in IL learned most of her english this way...from John Lennon and Elvis..

rutimizrachi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rutimizrachi said...

"Something unremarkable and awesome happened today." Loved that sentence. And identified mightily with this one:I feel like my essential self is wrapped up in my ability to express myself."

Speaking with children (other than one's own) helps. Here's a cute incident that humbled and motivated me:

I am impressed with you. It seems that you have taken yourself a long way in just two short years. Kol hakavod!

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