Lost in Translation

Seven  is a special number in Judaism: There are seven days in a week (with the seventh day being extra special), every seven years is a shmita year in Israel, and, of course, this is my seventh year as an Israeli. Ok, modifying that last one: seventh year in the country, fifth year as an Israeli. All the same… seven years! And I still can’t speak the language! Ok, I’m exaggerating. I speak Hebrew fine, especially after 4 years in an Israeli college and a lengthy seminar paper written entirely in Hebrew (on a keyboard with no Hebrew letter stickers, mind you). But my Hebrew is still littered with mistakes, albeit fewer than seven years ago and certainly not as egregious. (I won’t go into my decreasing ability to speak clearly in English in this post, but feel free to take a look at this blog’s disclaimer on the upper right hand side of this page.) This post is dedicated to some funny moments I’ve had with the Hebrew language since coming to this country.

Year 1: This story is actually something I’m proud of. My first year in Israel I learned in Midreshet Harova in the Old City of Jerusalem. One evening, an Israeli co-counselor of mine from camp called me to say that he was passing through the Jewish Quarter and wanted to stop by quickly to say hi. (Now on an important side note, I had a policy that when speaking to Israelis I had to speak in Hebrew no matter how badly I spoke it, primarily so I could learn from my mistakes, but also to break in/get more comfortable with the Hebrew language.) (An additional important side note: Since I stepped foot in Israel at the start of my first year I’ve been trying to speak Hebrew with an Israeli accent. Although I wasn’t horrible at the start, let’s just say my accent has improved loads over the years.) So anyway, I went to visit my co-counselor who was there with another Israeli friend of his. We spoke for about five minutes (in Hebrew), towards the end of which I got to a point where I simply didn’t know how to say something in Hebrew, so I switched to English for a few words and then continued speaking in Hebrew. My friend’s friend’s jaw dropped and he asked me (in Hebrew) how I know English so well. (The implication being that I was speaking Hebrew so well he thought I was a born and bred Israeli.) Grinning inside, I simply shrugged and told him (in Hebrew) that my mother is American. Let him he think what he wants to about me 😉

Year 2: I actually spent 2 years in Midreshet Harova. In my second year, one time when I went to do my laundry, I accidentally dropped a sock behind the washing machine and could not reach it. Fortunately, the seminary’s security shared a room with the washing machine. I turned to the Israeli security guard on duty at the time and asked him in Hebrew if he knew where I could find a stick (the idea being that I’d use the stick to reach my sock). Unfortunately for me, most of the Hebrew I knew at the time was biblical Hebrew and not spoken Hebrew. I said to the guard, “Slicha, yesh lecha mateh?” (“Excuse me, do you have a stick?”) He responded with a quizzical look, “Matateh?” (“A broom?”) Not knowing that a matateh is a broom, I responded, “Lo, mateh.” (“No, a stick.) At this point the conversation began to play in a loop: “Mateh.” “Matateh?” “Mateh.” “Matateh?” Until I finally asked the guard what a “matateh” is. He acted out sweeping. I realized that “matateh” is a broom and told him that that would work too. Then he asked me what a “mateh” is. I responded, “Mateh… ata yode’a… kmo hamateh shel Moshe.” (“A stick… you know… like Moshe’s stick.”) And this is how I learned something very valuable: “mateh” = a staff, “makel” = a stick. Thank you American Jewish education system for only teaching me biblical Hebrew.

Year 3: What a year. My first year in an all-Israeli environment. In fact, I was the only American immigrant in my college class. The first week of school I found myself in Psych 101. (Something you should know about me: I don’t even understand the subject in English, kal v’chomer in Hebrew!) About 15 minutes in to the first lesson I realized that I was completely lost and I wanted to ask the girl sitting next to me for help. But how to do that? How does one say “I am lost, help me” in Hebrew? Luckily for me, the Lost-and-Found in my elementary school was called “hashavat aveida” (lit. returning the lost object). Taking the root of the word “aveida” (being alef, bet, dalet) and applying my knowledge of Hebrew grammar (that any reflexive verb should be binyan Hitpa’el), I figured out how to say it. I turned to the girl sitting next to me and said, “Slicha, at yechola la’azor li? Hitabadeti.” Unfortunately for me, Hebrew grammar doesn’t always follow the rules. The entire psychology class fell silent and everyone stared at me. Why? Because little known to me I had just said, “Excuse me, can you help me? I committed suicide.” (Note for future users: the correct way to say “I got lost” is “halachti l’ibud.”

Year 4: This is a moment I am actually very proud of. In order to receive a degree in education in Israel, one must first complete two years of Hebrew Language courses. I was sure I’d fail, especially since all of my classmates were born and bred Israelis. In reality, I got the highest grade in my class. Why? Simple. The exam asked us to apply a bunch of grammatical rules we had learned over the course of the year to various words and texts given to us. When you are less familiar with the language and aren’t caught up in what seems right based on conversational Hebrew, it’s a lot easier to simply apply the rules as the teacher taught us to. Like math equations. Fun stuff.

Year 5: By my 5th year in Israel, my Israeli accent had developed to the point where my classmates told me that I sound like an Israeli who grew up in an English speaking household. Not bad! Except in certain scenarios, such as this. I was in the supermarket and wanted to buy sour cream, except I didn’t know how to say it in Hebrew. So I went over to one of the supermarket attendants and in flawless Hebrew described what I was looking for using every method of description except for the word itself (which I did not know). (Silly me – all I had to do was put the words for sour and cream together: shamenet chamutza.) The attendant looked at me like I was a crazy woman, speaking Hebrew flawlessly, like an Israeli, and yet not knowing the word for something as basic as sour cream. He probably thought I spent my life living in a cave eating wild mushrooms and drinking water out of a stream. The next time I found myself in the supermarket in a similar predicament, I made sure to speak in Hebrew with the most American accent I could muster.

Year 6: Because I can’t think of anything funny that happened in my 6th year, I’ll tell another story from my 3rd year. After class, one night a week, I went to a local Israeli seminary to attend a weekly shiur given by a well known and respected Israeli rabbi. Towards the middle of the year, the rabbi went to America on a recruiting mission for his yeshiva. A few weeks later I ran into him in the supermarket. He recognized me from his shiur and even though I was taken by surprise (yes, even though he’s a big rabbi, he’s not above doing the family’s shopping) I felt the need to say something. Wanting to comment on his return from his trip to America, I said, “Brucha hashava,” which is “welcome back” for a female. Oops. And I didn’t even realize until after I left why he gave me a strange look. I spent the rest of his lessons hiding in the back row.

Year 7: The year is still young, my friends. The year is still young.

Now for some comic entertainment (in case this post wasn’t amusing enough), here’s an awesome sketch by Jerusalem improv group HaHafuch poking fun at Anglo immigrants.

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