Monday, April 8, 2013

A Letter From Israel -- Learning Hebrew 1

       elinor        אלינור   

The Israeli ulpan method of learning Hebrew is phenomenal. One is assigned a location, a teacher and a classroom full of people one would never have otherwise encountered.  I was sent to Beit Hanoar, an hour or so by bus from where I was temporarily living with my daughter in the German Colony of Jerusalem.

The course began in January and ran for months.  As usual, I am early.  There is only one other person waiting for the doors to open.  Julie, all in pink and looking 15 years old, tells me she’s from San Francisco and we have been assigned to the same class. Despite her youthful blonde blue-eyed looks, she is a graduate speech therapist who wants to learn Hebrew because she is Jewish and feels ignorant. She is ultimately called American Julie to distinguish her from Danish Julie who is almost twice her height. Everyone in the class is younger than me except Ernst, who is 63 and who disappears after every lesson.

The teacher enters the classroom, points to herself and says something in Hebrew.  I slowly realize that she’s saying Mina, my paternal grandmother’s name.  I get points for understanding my first word of Hebrew, accompanied by whistles and cheers.  Mina is instantly aware that she is facing a real handful.  However from that moment on, a word in any language other than Hebrew is forbidden.  The temperature lowers.

The Israeli system of total language immersion is so famous that a deputation of educators from Quebec has entered the room to observe the method, speaking my kind of French.  I was born in Quebec; I greet the teachers with enthusiasm.  I am chastised for not speaking to them in Hebrew.  No other option had occurred to me.

There are 19 students in our ulpan class, all somewhat staggered by the international nature of the group, from Sweden, Spain, South Africa, Germany, Great Britain, North America and one or two others.  The Biblical Tower of Babel is peanuts compared to what went on at the breaks.

There were a few local Arab students enrolled in the class.  They sought to upgrade their Hebrew, hoping to be admitted to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for higher studies.  I rode the bus with them.  They were young and ambitious and their English was pretty good.  One in particular decided that I should eventually learn Arabic because it is so beautiful and multi-layered that a person like me would appreciate its elegance and intricacies.  I never even had a chance to debate the value of learning even the simplest Arabic because they all disappeared from the class shortly after the first Intifada began and were never seen again.  I still wonder whatever happened to them.

American Julie, Shira and I became friendly.  In fact, all of us except Ernst and Yaacov hung out together after school.  When I was directed to be seated at the end of the front row beside Yaacov, then a chunky 19-year-old religiously observant boy from South Africa, my first thought was whatever will we say to each other, we come from totally different worlds.  He turned out to be an amusing, amazingly cosmopolitan and excellent study buddy.  It was not unusual for a snort of laughter to emanate from our location.  I hadn’t earned a censorious look from a teacher in decades and he, superb student that he was, swore he’d never received one.  After each lesson Yaacov returned immediately to his yeshiva.

Ultimately we learned that Ernst was German and wanted to make personal reparations to the Jewish people.  He had been hired by a hotel just outside Jerusalem to do rather manual labour but hoped to achieve a desk job with good Hebrew.  He left immediately after class to take his afternoon shift.

One day Shira asked if I knew anyone who had an empty living room.  Funny you should ask that, Shira—that’s exactly what I have.  Why?  Well, she said, I’d like to start a belly-dancing class.  And it began.  All the women in the ulpan class joined, but a more disparate and unlikely belly-dancing cluster might never be found.  Suddenly sensuous music poured out of my windows and the folks downstairs heard unusual thumping, mostly caused by our falling about in hysterical laughter.  They should have seen the gyrations.

The visa of Julie-the-Danish-nurse expired and she had to leave the country, but not before she taught us that cranberry juice would cure urinary infections.  Cranberry juice was impossible to obtain in those days but the sufferers held out hope.

We learned so much more than Hebrew during those months.  How to discern what Spanish Merissa was saying with her Andalusian ‘th’ and also her habit of saying why, why why, which I discovered was the Spanish version of oy, oy, oy. I always wanted to answer Because, because, because.

And then there was Olga.  Have I mentioned Olga, the Russian Tank?

cross posted Geoffff's Joint


  1. I feel solidarity with American Julie.

    Well, though not on the physical characteristics part. Even Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior aren't quite twice my size (though they're still significantly bigger), but yeah...


    Meningitis took most of my hearing away when I was 19, so this is probably why I won't ever make Aliyah. I just likely can't ever learn the language I'm sure my grandfather (who came to America from Poland over 70 years ago, and passed away almost 30 years ago, and who spent an entire adulthood in America never feeling fully safe admitting he was Jewish) would have loved me to learn in less than like 30 years.

    But, hey.

    Keep the stories coming!

    I need to know about Olga, now...

  2. This is a very beautiful series, Geoff.

    I cannot thank you enough for bringing it here.

    Elinor is in Jerusalem, yes?

  3. Hebrew is one of the most favourite languages of mine. I always try to learn it more and more. One of my friend give me a website to learn hebrew and that site helps me alot. Thanks to the author also to write such a nice post.