Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Letter From Israel

                                      elinor        אלינור   


You'll never find work if you don’t speak Hebrew (1)
[Yes, I speak French]

In the late ‘80s, those who made aliyah under the auspices of the Jewish Agency were assigned a madricha, someone who interviewed (and ostensibly followed the early path of) the oleh hadash or in my case, ola hadasha, the new immigrant. In the only interview I ever had with her, my case manager fretted over my future and coined the title of this piece for me. She was kindness personified, just out of school and wearing one colour from her hair ribbon to her socks. Somehow I felt I would survive without her.

Two things became obvious as I stumbled through ulpan, the internationally acknowledged total-immersion system which Israel created for teaching Hebrew: (1) I was not learning up to my own expectations and (2) I wanted to work only in English, since I had become something of a mumkhit(specialist) over the years.

Gradually I recognized that learning Hebrew was influencing my English, which was not a good thing. So I stopped trying to perfect my Hebrew and started looking for work, which was forbidden to state-sponsored ulpan students. We were granted a small monthly stipend on the assumption that we’d study all day and be fluent, if starving, Hebrew speakers at the end of the course. Didn’t work that way at all; at least half the class had surreptitious employment. They were the ones who bolted immediately after hours saying 'I have an appointment' and not hanging around to smoke, drink diet drinks and bitch about Israeli bureaucracy.

It’s funny how law-abiding citizens will adjust to atypical circumstances. I hove up to the offices of Manpower and asked if they had work for an English/French-speaker who could—Yes. They did.

Bituach Leumi, the National Insurance Institute, was looking for someone who could type in French and yes, I was available in the afternoons, since my mornings were occupied with my becoming another North American with a bad accent.

The offices of the NII were a bus ride away from ulpan but that was the only easy bit. The building, just at the entrance to Jerusalem, was a nightmare for someone on a moderate learning curve. And like many institutional buildings in this country, it had signs and rumours of signs. And arrows. Lots of arrows.

My job was to answer requests—sometimes demands— for possible pension rights from Holocaust survivors who had lived in Israel at some point but who had subsequently moved to other (presumably French-speaking) countries. Not just type the answers, mind you, but create them in French, a language I hadn't used for decades. I was reminded of the Hollywood saying: If they ask if you can tap-dance, say Yes and go out and learn.

The requests that were accepted had been shifted to another department. The ones I had to deal with bore an enthusiastic No scrawled at the top of the page and many of those heart-breaking notes were fast becoming antiques.

I sorted through the letters to find the eldest request that was considered illegitimate by NII. A quick calculation showed that the writer was probably deceased by now, so here goes nothing: Cher monsieur… Regret flowed from my keyboard. A tear struck the back of my hand. Imagine having to reject financial assistance to a Holocaust survivor.

Proudly showing my first draft to my boss, I was hit with rejection as stunning as that which I was writing: Don’t write a damned manuscript, woman—just say No! When I had emptied the basket of sadness he said, Good work, get lost, we'll call you if we need you.

As is thought in so many situations here, Never again. 

cross posted Geoffff's Joint


  1. I love these stories.

    Sorry I don't have anything to add to this one (not an experience I can relate to, since although my apparently thick North Jersey accent did kinda sound like a foreign language to people when I lived in Oregon, it technically wasn't one), but thanks for posting it. And thanks to Elinor for sharing it.

    She is, of course, welcome to participate here at any time, too!

  2. Oh, actually I can relate to one thing in a way. I've taught myself to speak a few words of Philadelphian over the past year, since I finally made it back here to my favorite American city one year and nine days ago.

    I have 'wooder' (water) and 'hoagie' (hero / sub sandwich) down pat. My long-e's at the beginning of words are actually, involuntarily, starting to shorten. Fascinatingly enough. I do not call our professional (American) football team the "Iggles" yet, but it's rather startling how close I sometimes come to doing so.

    I've ultimately decided against adopting 'pavement' in lieu of 'sidewalk,' though. That's just too odd, even for me.

  3. Oh, and then there's a couple other interesting things I've learned. Like how I've always said 'winner' instead of 'winter,' and 'dennis' rather than 'dentist?'

    Turns out that's a Philly thing, so I have no idea how I picked that up since my earliest days of speaking. Maybe it's because I was born down South Jersey, and even though my parents moved back up north before I even mastered walking, and before they even finished having kids, something of down here must have stuck with me.

    Either that, or maybe my first dentist was from Philadelphia and I only saw him in the winter, so he maybe influenced that. ;-P

    But I'll stop now with the linguistics stuff. Once I get started on that, it's hard for me to stop. As you may have noticed. Heh.

    Language and

    1. Oops. Premature reply.

      *Language and urban planning issues are the two things I can get carried away, way off into the weeds, with, if I'm given free reign.

  4. Touching article.

    Thank you for writing about your experiences in Israel, Elinor.

  5. I'm into language. I had no idea that Bibi's English had a Philadelphian tinge before you pointed it out on the other blog.

    Do they really call the footpath the "pavement" around your parts? The Brits do that. In Australia the pavement usually means the laid surface of any road or path although I have heard it used as a synonym for "footpath" mainly in one State, Victoria. I agree "sidewalk" is better than both.

    The differences between American English spelling and British spelling BTW is almost entirely due to one man. Noah Webster. Naturally I was schooled in British spelling and was taught that American spelling was "wrong". In fact more than wrong. Because of the gallons of American pop culture we drank in these "errors" were common. Teachers were told to stamp it out and some were ruthless.

    These days American spelling and British spelling are treated as optional. A much better arrangement so I pick and choose. I haven't spelt "program" as "programme" in any context for many years. At school "program" would have earned a violent red cross out.

    1. Yeah. Alone amongst all places in the US, the sidewalk is referred to as 'the pavement' here in Philadelphia, and our immediate vicinity. Just like they say in London.

      That's the William Penn in us, I guess. ;)


      Bibi spent about six years of his adolescence in Cheltenham (home of Gratz College), a town directly adjacent to Philadelphia. He and his brother both went to high school there, and there's a public Entebbe Memorial to the latter on the grounds of Mikveh Israel, on Independence Mall and just across Market Street from the National Museum of American Jewish History.

    2. *Add "in Center City, Philadelphia" to the end of that last sentence...

  6. Ah, that's right. Pictures of it here, too...

  7. And that reminds me. I've got at least two half-finished, old-school photo diaries of the sort that once made famous (heh) in the pipes. Just need to flesh them out, and post. I should get around to that soon!