Published November 14th, 2011

Taking off the training wheels

Just like most people (aside from those crazy-talented overachievers who learn violin in a holiday weekend) I’ve tried and given up many different things in my life. That’s not to say I haven’t had my successes; I have, and I’m thankful for every one of them. But I’ve certainly started and stopped lots of new endeavors in my 25 years.

For awhile, one of those forgotten goals was to move abroad. I kept wanting to move, and I kept not moving. The destination was always either Israel or some country in Southeast Asia — and the dream popped up frequently through my teen years and early twenties. I wanted to study abroad in college; due to taking on too many leadership roles at Pitt, it never happened. I wanted to teach English in Vietnam after graduating; I got a too-good-to-turn-down internship offer that summer. I wanted to get a job in Israel post-internship; I couldn’t get my money in order, let alone find a job.

Thing is, those were all just excuses. I don’t buy the ‘life got in the way’ reasoning anymore; if you want something to happen enough, you’ll make it happen. Life doesn’t just fall into place all the time. More often than not, you have to take what you want and force it to work — it has to, right?

I type this, of course, from my bedroom in Arad, in the midst of the gorgeous Negev Desert in Israel, meaning I quit making excuses and finally did it. Recently, I’ve been feeling the same way about another goal that I so often picked up and put down over the past few years: learning Hebrew.

After a Sunday school upbringing, I’ve long had at least a basis of the language; I know the letters, I can sound out words and I know the Sh’ma — and that’s great for what it is, I suppose, but it doesn’t help me get around this country as a functioning, conversing human being.

Quick side note: I truly take issue with American Judaism’s ridiculous practice of teaching kids to sound out words but not their meanings; generations of Bar Mitzvah-trained Jews approach Hebrew as if it were a language of jibberish sayings that make for pretty melodies in synagogue, but not much else. What’s the sense in singing along to “Aleinu” if you’ve no idea what it means? Is that really prayer? But, I digress…

That hollow ‘read but not understand’ method had been my Hebrew ability for years. In school, I took two semesters of Hebrew but felt like I never really took flight. Could’ve been the teacher, or could’ve been me — I was a pre-occupied college sophomore. But now, living in Israel, I know why I dropped the class after a year and left myself in just slightly better shape than when I was 13, practicing for my Bar Mitzvah. The reason is that it’s infinitely harder to learn a language in a class with other people learning the language; the moment class is over, you go back to speaking your native tongue. The only fluent person in your circle is the professor, who can only give you so much attention. The best way to learn a language, I’ve found — and this certainly isn’t some new breakthrough; I’m far from the first person to realize this — is to be near and around and talking with others who actually speak the language.


That’s why, as much as possible, I speak Hebrew in Israel. Sure, most people look at me like I’m a fool and answer in English. The trick is not to care and truck on anyway. And it can be exhausting. But I’ve been taking advantage of every opportunity to learn new words and flex my Hebrew muscles. It sure helps that many of my students here volunteer in schools and with kids — there are no better teachers than kids.

I sat in a third grade English classroom today, amidst 30 kids whose English is about on par with my Hebrew. The teacher posted cards with basic English words on the board; the students learned a word, I learned a word. And between the moments when the students light up and yell to me, “Justin?! C’mo Justin Bieber?! Ani ohavet Justin Bieber! Baby, baby, baby, Oh!” I actually learn a lot from them. This morning, a small Russian Israeli boy with long, uncombed hair taught me the Hebrew words for each part of the face. And I taught him the English equivalent. I can now tell you that aynayim sheli are chum. And he can tell me that his are blue.

I’ve taken to cajoling Tal and my Israeli roommate Ortal to, at certain times during the day, speak to me in only Hebrew. Our conversations might not be too high level, but I come away knowing what they want to eat for dinner, or how they feel today, or where they are going tonight — basic stuff, sure, but necessary building blocks. My conversations with them allow me to speak, unembarrassed of mispronunciation or grammatical faux pas; to just speak, and adopt the flow and rhythm and sound of the language. It’s invaluable, and it’s something I never grasped in Sunday school as a kid or in 3-credit courses at Pitt.

When Tal’s cousin’s wife’s father (I know, I know… let’s say distant relative) disallowed any English at his Shabbat dinner table a few weekends ago in Petah Tikva, I began to sweat. But old Israelis tend to take great pleasure from watching a young American squirm through elementary Hebrew; I obliged, and soon I was explaining the ins and outs of my job to him. And what’s more, I was making sense, more or less.

I’ve no doubt it’s going to take me a long, painfully long time to master Hebrew. I’m not fooling myself; my Hebrew is still elementary at best. And I may never quite perfect it. But after years of trying and failing — really, just never amassing the momentum to succeed — it feels good to finally hear myself getting better. And maybe the biggest perk? I can finally mazmeen ochel b’meesadah, all by myself.

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