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Letters From Tel Aviv

Photograph Ninasaurusrex

Please Don’t Mflugah the Pn

When you are immigrating to a new country, it’s not always clear which vowels you’ll miss most. After six months of studying Hebrew in Tel Aviv, what it’s like to discover you’re illiterate.

At the age of 27, I find myself in a Tel Aviv grocery store, demanding in Hebrew, “bread, humid,” “bread, humid,” so many times that the grocer finally forces me to switch English and hands me the breadcrumbs I want. “Bread, humid,” “bread, dry,” “bread crumbs.” What is this guy not getting?

At the age of 26, I was having my own grocery problems. Wilted lettuce was pissing me off, as were requests to donate for “Kids with Cancer” at the check-out line. In general, I had had enough with flaky friends and too many How I Met Your Mother reruns on TV. I ascribed my grouchiness to a sense of stagnation that had stifled my post-college buzz.

I found myself in the mood for a change. I looked into the Peace Corps, but the flush toilet situation was questionable, and Europe wasn’t handing out visas to anyone. One route seemed still open to me: taking advantage of my one-half Jewish blood and hightailing it to Israel. Toda reba, many thanks, to David Ben Gurion’s concept of “Right of Return.”

So, up in the air I went in Newark and down I came in “the Country,” as Israelis call their homeland. As my pre-departure “So, You’re Immigrating to Israel?” pamphlet predicted, the passengers burst out in applause as we touched down, so happy they were to be home.

Israel likes immigrants, very much so, and upon landing I was presented my sal klita, or integration basket. It’s a combination of money in the bank, a housing stipend, access to cheap cellphone plans, and, to top it off, six months of daily Hebrew classes, free of charge. Not a bad deal, but one only open to those of us with at least a quarter Jewish blood.

L’chaim! I yelled. Mazel tov! Hannukah! Falafal! My vocabulary, at the time, was quite limited. But with a gleam in my eye, I enrolled in ulpan, or full-time Hebrew school. We would meet for five hours a day, with three hours of homework a night. It sounded like a perfect eight-hour workday.

As my pre-departure “So, You’re Immigrating to Israel?” pamphlet predicted, the passengers burst out in applause as we touched down, so happy they were to be home.

Have you ever done just one thing for five hours a day, five days a week, for six months? And then done it again for three hours every night? Learning to rephrase is an important skill for language learners, so I’ll put it another way: Do you enjoy beating your head against a brick wall?

It turns out that learning a language full-time, especially a hard one like Hebrew, is something of a slog through the desert. The daily grind was grueling. But at least Israel had mastered the process of teaching foreigners to speak their language—and it has the textbooks and audiotapes and pedagogy to prove it. Israel, after all, is a nation of immigrants. Over one million Soviet Jews arrived in Israel in the 1990s; they all learned Hebrew. And before that came Jews from Arab countries; they, too, had to learn to speak the mother tongue. And so on, backward and forward, as millions of people attempt to master guttural gags and gendered nouns and Arabic slang. It’s nice to have some company.

As I was getting settled in Tel Aviv, the Israelis I met seemed uniformly a nice, solid bunch. It was with my Hebrew teachers that I first began to see other variations of the sabra, or desert prickly pear, as native Israelis are called. Language teachers always seem a bit… off… and no exceptions are made here.

Our teachers ranged from a veteran with 40 years of classroom experience, whose rage over grammatical errors extended to whopping repeat offenders over the head with Tel Aviv’s daily newspaper, to another who shed tears over our lexical recalcitrance. Things were never quite as relaxed as they had been in ninth-grade Spanish.

Tension was a recurrent theme in our classes. Tension and politics, often inseparably intertwined. Our instructors had political views. Sometimes they were subtle views and sometimes obvious ones, but woe betide the student who accidentally—or, God forbid, intentionally—stepped on someone’s toes. Me, I kept things simple: Let’s discuss restaurants, movies, relatives. While we might venture into international topics—the economy, Mubarak, tsunamis—I so thoroughly managed to avoid controversial topics that I went the entire six months without learning the words for “West Bank,” or “Gaza.”

 

I did manage to learn some Hebrew, quite high-level Hebrew, in fact. By the end, I could discuss nuclear disarmament, water shortages, and the effect of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on U.S. military recruitment.

Outside of the classroom, however, I do not believe I have ever discussed these pressing issues. Rather, I have discovered that I never bothered to master the word for fork. Or stop. Or thief. I do know fire, but only by deriving it from cease-fire.

I have discovered that I never bothered to master the word for fork. Or stop. Or thief. I do know fire, but only by deriving it from cease-fire.

I like to chat with my building’s doorman. Sometimes I’ll catch a bit of the local news and attempt to discuss it with him.

“Hi. Did you hear about the cease-fire fire in that building of apartments? Did they catch the person who makes fire? Did the fire-police make it not go?”

“Did they catch the arsonist? Did the firemen stop the fire?”

“Yeah, what you said.”

Imagine how frustrating it is to be in a country armed with a linguistic arsenal, only to find you don’t know the word for gun. Or go. Or get. It’s a situation that results in a fair bit of gesturing, interrupted by some rather eloquent phrases. “You… I… I really want ticket for con-, con-, concert next fortnight, if it’s not too much of a bother.” So far, the locals have seemed more impressed by my proper use of fortnight than distracted by my lack of definite articles, but it’s a tenuous situation at best.

My other problem is reading. Or, rather, the fact that I’m functionally illiterate.

In our course, the textbook took us in baby steps from reading letters, to words, to sentences, to short paragraphs and all the way up to whole, long interesting articles. Unfortunately, what we are reading is not Modern Hebrew. It is Modern Hebrew for immigrants and, sorry to say, for the intellectually disabled.

What the difference? Nikkudot. Hebrew, like Arabic, Farsi, and their dialects, is largely written without vowels. Native-speakers can read it with ease. Whts so hrd abt rdng wthut all th vwls? Beginners get nikkudot, a series of dashes and dots placed above and below the letter, which tell you what the vowels sounds are. Beginner textbooks use these hints; nobody else in Israel does.

Give me the pn. The pan? The pin? The pen? It’s context, context, every Hebrew teacher will repeat. Heat the pan. Sure, but what about when it’s half gibberish to start. Mflugah the pn. Clearly, you’d only mflugah a pan. Who would be silly enough to think you could mflugah a pen?

What’s worse than opening up a foreign newspaper and being wholly unable to read it? Doing so after studying the language for six months. Give me a Hebrew newspaper and I will see exactly what you see, assuming you don’t speak Hebrew: a block of squiggly shapes. Sure, with enough time I’ll be able to make out some words and perhaps a sentence and eventually tell you the article’s topic. Bt fr sx mnths stdying, thts not so imprssv.

 

If the point of moving abroad was to shake up my life and jostle my thoughts, I succeeded. It’s hard to settle into a mental rut when 90 percent of your brainpower is devoted to just staying afloat in a sea of still-foreign words. Radio ads and glossy inserts, chatty cab drivers and screaming kids: All of my old daily annoyances are reformulated here as a linguistic puzzle. And when it all becomes too much, I blink twice and it’s all reduced once more to undotted, glottal gibberish.

Still, even if I can’t always figure out the words for “bread crumbs” or read the label on a package, I have faith. After all, it only took my neighbors 40 years to get out of their desert. I bet I can do it in 10.