Meir in the Middle

Talking the Talk, Part I

Hebrew is different than English. And besides for the obvious difference (or not so obvious: “lethitfasbek” = to Facebook; “pelephone” = telephone; “paaahhhncakes” = pancakes) of pronunciation, the others become pronounced upon seeing how inherent Israel’s Middle Eastern ethos is in its language. Like so inherent I’m going to do this convince you that it is.

When I started yeshiva here in 2008 my hebrew was an ice-cafe’d blend of verbalizations- solid enough to haggle down taxi drivers, melting when put to the test of descriptive conversation. But that all changed when I ordered a bagel one Old City morning.

Meir, pocket Rashi in-hand, chest-puffing in confidence, yo-I-got-this-ordering-in-hebrew-thing-so-down-this-bagel-barista-better-have-brought-her-Aladdin-pants-so-she-summon-a-genie-to-wish-away-the-impending-bicultural-intimidation: Ehhhhhhhh tavi-i li bagel eem shuman bevakasha.

Bonkers Bagels Employee, cracking up, eyes b’emet?-ing: Ein po shuman. Ze nikrah shamenet.

Meir, turning as red as the Kabbalah string bracelets the guy who thinks he’s Avraham Avinu is giving out next door: Oh. Ha um… yea, that’s what I meant…

Eizeh Fashla.

Shteiging it up circa 2008

Shteiging it up circa 2008

Mortifying as it was, (there were Harova girls there, okay!) ordering fat instead of cream cheese on my bagel effectively opened my eyes to my language capacity (or lack thereof) and I decided to make it my business to master hebrew. I enlisted in hebrew shiurim, spent Thursday afternoons volunteering in Shaare Tzedek’s geriatric ward- where during my first visit one octogenarian told me: “you sound like an idiot” (WELL, MAKING NUANCED OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE WEATHER AND GARDENING CLOGS FOR AN HOUR IS DIFFICULT IN ANY LANGUAGE, LADY!!!)- and started speaking to any and every Israeli that would listen. In college I read hebrew translations (“קללות שאין עליהן מחילה”– way to make the Unforgivable Curses in Harry Potter sound like something you need to do teshuva on) watched Israeli TV (Ramzor FTW) and accosted my Israeli friends to teach me slang and translate unfamiliar words and expressions (what the hell is kloom b’pita and when would I ever say that besides being mad at a restaurant?)

I stuck with it, and so when I destroyed the army enlistment hebrew test this past year I figured I had a pretty good grasp on this being an Israeli thing. During my first weeks as a soldier, however, I quickly realized that speaking wasn’t enough: I needed to sound and act like an Israeli to be one.


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