Learning the Mother Tongue in the Motherland
On a beautiful Shabbat evening in Eilat, a port city along the Red Sea in Israel, a couple of friends and I sit in an outdoor booth of a restaurant along the promenade. As we breathe in the mountain air and the scent of the salty water, a waiter comes to take our order. “Ani rotza… ze,” Rachael tells him. I want this. The waiter smiles and writes down the order. “You’re just saying all the words you’ve learned in ulpan,” he quips as he walks away.
Ulpan is the study of the Hebrew language, designed to endow students with the ability to converse in Hebrew as quickly and easily as possible. Everyone from international university students to internship-bound transplants such as myself can be found in an ulpan classroom. It is at Ulpan-Or, an ulpan school in Jerusalem, that I found myself many Sundays to Thursdays during my first weeks in Israel.
When I first started learning Hebrew I was just eight years old, attending Hebrew school at my family’s synagogue. Like many other ethno-religious cultures, the education a Jew receives in the diaspora is supplemented with one specific to our culture and/or religion. When you’re Jewish, you don’t just get to go to one school, but two. But unlike ulpan, my Hebrew school wasn’t looking to provide me with the conversational skills one would need to, say, live in Israel. The goal was simply to prepare me with the necessary reading skills, sans comprehension, to recite Torah on my bat mitzvah, and read from the siddurim during services.
Above all, Hebrew is a beautiful language. It connects Israelis, diaspora Jews, and non-Jews alike.
Like many non-religious (/angsty teen) Jews, I chose to stop going to Hebrew school after my bat mitzvah, and seldom used my Hebrew knowledge again, except when following traditions and reciting prayers during holidays. If anything, I tend to complement my spoken words with sporadic Yiddish phrases. Luckily for me, though, I never lost my ability to read Hebrew, which has come in handy whilst learning the mother-tongue in the motherland.
Unlike Hebrew school, Ulpan-Or strives to ready students for conversations in the real world through rapid language acquisition. Rapid language acquisition facilitates spoken Hebrew, rather than reading comprehension, which comes later. Essentially, Ulpan-Or teaches Hebrew how infants pick up a language from the world around them. Students are given texts and online resources to study from, but teachers encourage verbal and auditory practice, without the aid of visuals. Further, teachers urge students to exercise their new skills in the real world. Many Israelis are willing to support others in the process of learning Hebrew; it’s perfectly acceptable to approach a native speaker on the street and simply ask for the time so you can practice. Very many Hebrew-speakers in Israel also speak English, so you’ll seldom be left to your own devices.
For those of us with Jewish mothers and grandmothers urging us to find a Nice Jewish Partner, a choice phrase to learn might be ‘Ma ha telefon shelakh?’- What’s your phone number? But there are many other words and phrases I’d suggest learning before you try to score some digits from a local. You can’t walk down the street in Israel without overhearing someone say sababa. Adopted from Arabic, ‘sababa’ is the Israeli slang counterpart to hakuna matata. It is used to mean anything from ‘cool’ or ‘totally,’ to ‘no worries’ to the expression of a state of enthusiasm or satisfaction. Similarly, you might hear someone say yofi or beseder, which mean ‘great’ and ‘fine/ok,’ respectively. Israelis also tend to be quite polite and hospitable, so you’ll want to practice your manners. Todah is the Hebrew word for ‘thank you’. It is both preceded by and met with bevakasha, which means both ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome.’
There is often something lost when a language is translated to another. I’m happy I’ve found my way back to the one that has shaped a crucial part of my identity over the years.
When navigating the close quarters of the Shuk, a grand open-air market in the heart of Jerusalem, or the sometimes crowded aisles of public transport buses, you’ll also find that the word slikha comes in handy. Pronounced with that throaty Hebrew khaaa noise, slikha means ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry.’
In addition to the basics, I highly recommend focusing on categories of vocabulary that one will likely encounter daily on one’s travels. No matter the country or the language, one should learn how to talk about food, travel/ directions, greetings, and numbers in the language one is attempting to learn.
Above all, Hebrew is a beautiful language. It connects Israelis, diaspora Jews, and non-Jews alike, whether through speaking ability, reading ability, or even just an enjoyment of listening to Hebrew without understanding it. For me, it’s incredibly powerful and an honor to finally learn the original language of the songs, prayers, and words I’ve grown up reciting. There is often something lost when a language is translated to another. I’m happy I’ve found my way back to the one that has shaped a crucial part of my identity over the years. That, and my bubbe keeps reminding me how important it is to learn Hebrew.