On the Tip of My Tongue

Context…. Context

As a nation formed predominantly of immigrants in the last 70 years (Palestine’s Jewish population under the British Mandate in 1948 was approximately 600,000 and now Israel’s is greater than 10 times that number), and immigrants who primarily did not speak the language (which was reinvented almost from scratch about 140 years ago), it was incumbent to the nation-building process that people learn Hebrew and learn it quickly. So the nation created a program of language learning focused on the ulpan, or Hebrew language school. It subsidized this program so that anyone who wanted to immigrate to Israel (“make aliyah”) could not only attend ulpanim (plural of ulpan) free, but also combine that with free to inexpensive housing and other programs to facilitate integration into society.

I previously had an experience in the early 2000’s in Mexico of trying to learn Spanish. Its private language school system – developed post-WWII – was an intensive language immersion experience which included not only 3 – 5 hours of school each day, but residential placement in a Mexican household so that you would continue your Spanish learning at “home.” That worked pretty well for me – though those of you who know my Spanish skills might not agree. So I naturally assumed that some version of that would be available to me in Israel. No such luck.

Turns out that the ulpanim in Israel cater almost exclusively to people wanting to immigrate (olim), young people (under age 35), or preferably, both. Foreign alter kockers (old farts) are apparently no prizes to the State. And the ulpanim do not have a residential placement option with the exception of college dormitory-like places which, again, are exclusively for folks under 35. People like me – and you’ll see later there ain’t many of us – are on our own facing the Jerusalem housing market. A market which can almost make Seattle’s look reasonable. As it turned out, after much effort and some great help, I ended up with much of what I wanted – a shared apartment with an Israeli. But the topic of housing is for another entry.

The ulpan I am attending, Ulpan Milah, is operated in an extraordinarily central location, down the block from the King David Hotel, the modern Mamila shopping mall designed by architect Moishe Safdie, and a short walk to the Old City. It is housed in the Hebrew Union College campus, which is connected with the institutional movement of Reform Judaism. A movement which is WAY bigger and more established in the United States than in Israel, where it struggles for its legitimacy as a Jewish religious entity.

Learning Hebrew was one of my principal motivations for this Israel experience. As with Spanish, I had been exposed to Hebrew off and on since grade school. I remember Senor Ibarra coming to 4th grade and teaching the words for mother and father and house and dog and cat in Spanish and then doing it again in 5th grade and in 6th. I remember learning the same words in my Sunday school Hebrew class from Rabbi Podet and others. I learned to count to ten in both languages and could sing the alphabet songs by memory. Because I went on to have a Bar Mitzvah, I learned to read printed Hebrew letters pretty well. Over the years, with both languages, I took stabs at improving my ability, but nothing really stuck and no real progress was made in either until the 10 weeks in Mexico in 2001. My objective for these three months in Israel is to get to approximately the level in modern Hebrew (as distinct from biblical Hebrew) that I got to in Spanish in 2001.

But why learn Hebrew now? There are several motivations. First, but not most importantly, is that learning another language is vital for brain alertness, especially as one gets older. My experience with last year’s heart surgery was a surprisingly traumatic impact on that alertness. It didn’t result in a personality change or major loss of long-term memory, baruch Ha’Shem, but I did experience a slowing down of speech and a markedly declined capacity for short-term memory and spacial orientation. I didn’t and don’t like those limitations and want to actively fight them.

But of course, that could be done more easily and cheaply by another language course in Mexico or Costa Rica. So the other and principal motivation for Hebrew learning is that it enables a richer exploration of my Jewish identity. We can see, even in the above use of baruch Ha’Shem, which is both a religiously inspired term and a common, and yes even secular, expression of everyday life in this country, that speaking Hebrew is a part of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st Century.

All that positive motivation being a given, I began this trip with trepidation, even fear, that I would fail to learn Hebrew. That I wouldn’t be able to keep up. That my brain would not be “young” enough to take this task on.

So, prior to even the Monday morning, February 11 start of ulpan, I went to the school on Sunday to purchase the text book and to begin to case the joint. The guard at the entrance didn’t speak a word of English. I finally blurted out “Ulpan Milah” and he pointed down the hall to a lady sitting behind a desk with young students congregating around her. When it was my turn to talk to her, I asked if she spoke English. Gratefully the answer was yes, but she seemed harried. I got the text book and sort of felt out of place taking her time up with such questions as “where do I go to class tomorrow?” A lack of knowledge that was to prove of some minor consequence the next day when classes begun.

The Ulpan

Walking into the front door of Hebrew Union College, I saw many students scampering here and there. I asked someone where Kitah Alef (beginning) class is for Ulpan Milah and they directed me with hand gestures and language that I didn’t understand. Upon entering a classroom – where I asked “kitah alef?” and was assured it was a yes, there were about 6 other students sitting at the little school desks that we work off of. All of them were young Palestinians*. I know this by their garb and the little clue that they were speaking Arabic. Soon more students drifted in. 8, 10, 14, 18… all but me were young Palestinians. Hmm…. that’s surprising and probably more challenging to my learning. The teacher came in and started calling the roll. When we came to the end, I told her I hadn’t been called. She said, that I am probably in the room directly across the hall. And it was so.

That class – my class – is wonderfully diverse. While I am the oldest member – by more than 10 years – there is an even mix of male and female students who hale from Cuba, Bulgaria, Korea, China, the Sudan, the Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Latvia (near where my mother’s family came from near Riga), the United States, and more than a third Palestinians from Jerusalem. The picture below is from our whiteboard in class after our teacher asked students to write her name in their native tongue.

The text book is called “Hebrew from Scratch” in English. In Hebrew it is “עברית מן ההתחלה.” After two weeks of 3 hours a day, 4 days a week, I can describe our pattern of learning.

There is one teacher in the classroom at any one time. We actually have had three different teachers (Liat, Nofit and Shlomit) during our two weeks together. Shlomit is a dead ringer for the actress Emma Stone. I tell her that and she thanks me as if it is a special compliment. But I ask her, “surely others have mentioned this?”, to which she smiled coyly, shrugged her shoulders, nodded head up and down and said, “yes… a few.”

The three teachers trade off times, but the curriculum is identical. We tackle about one chapter in the book per day. There is a strategic balance of reading, speaking, listening and writing. The writing is all in cursive – which is to me new and quite difficult. Hebrew cursive is very different from the “block” lettering found in books, newspapers, the internet and this computer. Like all cursive, it is subject to great variety of styles. So this has been one of several major challenges for me, especially given my poor penmanship. I don’t write cursive in English, so making my Hebrew intelligible is harder still.

All the students in the class know some English, yet the class is pedagogically assumed to be 100% in Hebrew. When extremely frustrated, some students in the class ask questions of the teacher in English, and the teacher may “give in” and at least say a word or two in English to help out. That all will likely improve with time, but being lost or not really understanding what is being asked can be exasperating. At one point my exasperation was showing enough, that the teacher came up to me during a break, sat down next to me with a warm smile, and said slowly and calmly “Daniel, lo panicka,” which means “Daniel, don’t panic!” She went on to say in English to me “Daniel, you have only been here a few days. You’re doing well and you will learn this. I am here to help, so if you don’t understand something, it is ok to ask. It is my job and I love my job.”

We learn to write each letter of the alphabet. We pronounce each letter. The teacher and students give examples of words that start with that letter. We go on to read, write and speak in dialog. The teacher often pairs us up and we solve problems with the other person. The teacher insists that we all move around the room so that we can get to know each other with different pairings. One woman – she is a character and a half – complained that she likes always being in the same place. The teacher would have none of that and she too needed to circulate.

There is time for call and response from the class as a whole. Like when the teacher presents a picture and the class must say in unison what the word for that picture is in Hebrew. Other times, the teacher calls on each person to respond individually.

I can’t say the three hours – actually 2.5 hours with a 30 minute break in between – goes quickly. At the end of each lesson I am plum worn out. It all feels SO HARD. Sometimes I feel like I am genuinely behind the rest of the students. I find it difficult to do anything at the same speed as all the others. Other times – especially when I have spent a bit extra time on homework – I feel like real progress is being made. Overall, I still feel uncertain about my chance for success. I asked our teacher Nofit what percentage of students make it? She said 99%. I didn’t believe her but I appreciated her optimism.

A few words about my fellow students and then we’ll call it an entry.

  1. A friendly and ebullient young Palestinian woman classmate is named Noor. I asked her if she was named after Queen Noor of Jordan – King Hussein’s 4th and last wife and now the dowager queen of the Hashemite Kingdom. My classmate Noor drew a complete blank. No, she didn’t know about Queen Noor.
  2. Noor, like a number of the Palestinian women in class, seem very gracious and solicitous of me. I think my advanced age now gives me a kind of safe, grandfatherly mien about me. This is both a bit of a relief and a disappointment for my ego! This aging thing is a two edged sword. A 40-something man came up to me and said that I reminded him a lot of his father. Thanks, bro.
  3. A young non-Jewish American woman classmate is volunteering at a hotel in the Israeli Arab city of Abu Gosh. We got into a discussion of hummus, to which she proudly said that a recent contest put on by the Guinness Book of World Records claimed that the best hummus in the world is from Abu Gosh. A number of our fellow students gave enthusiastic support. “But I was just in Ra’anana with my cousin,” I said, “and he claimed that the best hummus in Israel was at his local hummus shop. I tasted that hummus last weekend and had to say it was pretty wonderful hummus.” But they all laughed and scoffed at that. “Impossible”, they said. “Ra’anana is a new town – it can’t possibly make good hummus.” I now wanted that Abu Gosh hummus to judge for myself and I wanted it badly. Who could have foreseen that just the next evening, a friend of my cousin – whom Jean, sister Laurie and I stayed with 5 years ago – picked me up for a dinner date. I asked her, “where are we going for a meal?” “Abu Gosh” was her reply.

Ai yai yai…. Was that good hummus! (see below)

Abu Gosh Hummus Plus

4. During our 30 minute break in a class, I get to talking with a student from the Sudan and a student from Germany. The German student it turns out is actually from Riga, Latvia by way of Russia. I tell him that my mother was born in Russia though her family lived near Riga for awhile and she always thought of herself as a Lithuanian/Latvian Litvok (an ethnic type of Jew). He was thrilled to hear it. He himself was a Khasen (canter) and had come to Israel to improve his Hebrew. He said he knew what to sing but not what it meant. As the three of us talked about Israel, one of them said that it is such a narrow country in its middle. I asked “how do you say ‘narrow’ in Hebrew.” The reply was “tsar,” to which I said. “yes, Israel is very tsar… “tsar meod.” We looked at each other with a jolted recognition and said “Gesher Tsar Meod” which means “a very narrow bridge.” We started laughing and instantly burst into the hit Israeli song that was popular just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War:

And of course, my fears of not learning Hebrew all snapped into place.

Fear. It’s a hot topic now. The title of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the Trump Administration. The core political question as Israel goes to the polls in April with each side focused not on hope but which faction can generate more fear of the other. And a very personal question generating my motivation for this Israel experience – failing to learn Hebrew as part of experiencing a meaningful old age. Here’s a wonderful drash (opinion) about the notion of fear. A deeper meaning behind Kol Haolam Kulo.

*I use the word Palestinian warily. My presumption, which is based on some initial conversations but may be tested in the future, is that all of the students who seem like Arabs in appearance are from East Jerusalem. What people are called is a matter of great controversy around here. There are some people in Israel who do not believe that Palestinians are a definable people. There are others – the United Nations and most of the world – who have concluded that they are a people seeking self-governance. And there are extraordinarily complex questions of identity for those non-Jews who are living in East Jerusalem. In class, when the teacher asks “where are you from,” all these folks answer “Jerusalem.” Everyone else in class says what nation they are from.

10 thoughts on “On the Tip of My Tongue

  1. Hi Daniel!
    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog – your words are so descriptive that you bring everything to life and that makes me feel like I’m there, walking along the streets (well, almost).
    Hang in there with learning Hebrew. I’m sure you’ve heard Jean comment on my struggles to learn French. Agh! Learning a new language at our age is difficult, to be sure, but it’s definitely good exercise for your little grey cells. You’ll reach a point where the puzzle pieces will start coming together more and more, and when that happens you’ll really feel like you’re making solid progress.
    Enjoy your experience. I look forward to reading more about your adventures.


  2. You are setting a pretty high bar for retirement Daniel!! What an adventure. Talk about being a life long learner!!! I am sure you are entertaining all the lucky individuals that you meet and engage. Best wishes! kathy


  3. What a rich collection of thoughts, impressions, personalities and information, Daniel. I’m very much reminded of my experience in a Spanish immersion program in Oaxaca, and I can just picture the look of Farber Frustration on your face when the lesson wasn’t going well. Bravo for sticking it out to cross your very narrow bridge.
    I also appreciate the touchstones from our Bellevue childhoods, such as Senor Ibarra, the itinerant Spanish teacher who visited every elementary school in the district, or your prior mention of English teacher Roy Felstad, for whom I once wrote what was probably the worst poem ever put on paper.
    Now I just have to ask one thing: How do you write “Ay yai yai” in Hebrew?


    1. Fat chance, Farber! I only remember word or two of it. Pure doggerel, and Felstad and I both knew it, but he was too kind to do more than briefly grimace to himself after I read it aloud to the class.


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