Real Israel: What’s the Hebrew for ‘Oops’?

Another selection of mistakes made in the holy tongue.

March 23, 2013 19:32
Hebrew blooper: Without fear of shmita or foreskin.

Hebrew blooper: Shmita and foreskin 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A friend of mine likes to say, “I don’t like spreading rumors, I just don’t know what else to do with them.” I feel the same about Hebrew bloopers.

I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at your mistakes – and my own.

Since I last published my biannual selection of bloopers, readers have continued to confess their often embarrassing moments when they realize that what they said and what they meant were two very different things.

As the new government is sworn in, some recollections are particularly timely.

One reader wrote in, “My mum lived in Israel for a couple of years, and she told me how, when listening to the news being reported on the radio, they always used to quote ‘Sarah Bitahon.’ She always wondered why they asked Sarah’s opinion on so many things! (In case you haven’t worked it out, it was actually sar habitahon [the defense minister]).”

A Russian-speaking family friend had the same experience with “Sarah Hutz,” instead of the foreign minister, sar hahutz. Masha also thought she was being called whenever anyone asked, “Ma hasha’a [what’s the time]?” On a trip to Denmark, accompanying our group of Israeli journalists was a wonderful Danish Foreign Ministry representative called Bo. I was the first to realize he thought we were constantly calling him or talking about him behind his back every time one of our party said, “Come,” in Hebrew.

A group of Israelis returned from Ireland and laughed about their first reaction when being introduced to their guide, Orla. It’s a perfectly lovely name for an Irish woman, but being called something that means “foreskin” in Hebrew is asking for trouble, particularly among the young male members of the group, as it were.

And while we’re on the subject, readers and Facebook friends have taken great pleasure in forwarding me the label of the kosher-for-Passover wine that, in Hebrew, boasts that it abides by the laws of “shmita” (the agricultural sabbatical year) and “orla,” which forbids the use of fruit that grows on a tree or vine for the first three years after it’s been planted. In the do-not-rely-on-Google-translate category of commercial errors, the English proudly proclaims: “Without fear of Shmita and foreskin.”

I’m not going to say what I’m thinking. You’re probably thinking the same.

AND WHILE we’re on the embarrassing moments, a reader recalls “the time in Ikea when I struggled to find a word for a duvet and so asked the assistant for something that goes on a bed, except I asked for mishehu al hamita instead of mashehu....” Someone instead of something? No wonder the shop assistant couldn’t help smiling.

Another reader wrote in last month concerned she’d missed her chance at sharing her experience, although she has been trying to live it down for a very long time: “When we arrived in Israel as new immigrants 35 years ago, I was the proud mother of three small boys and a seven-week-old baby girl. I knew virtually no Hebrew, and we weren’t given a place in an ulpan because of the baby (go figure). So I learned my Hebrew from the children, the street and TV, as did so many others.

“But one thing I realized quite quickly was that the endings of nouns and adjectives have to agree. My grasp of numbers was hazy, but I worked out, according to these rules, that if anybody asked me how many children I had, I should reply, ‘Yesh li shloshim banim (matching endings, you see) v’bat.

“I don’t know if people in Herzliya were talking about this strange new family, but it was several months before a kind person said to me that I might have that a little wrong.”

Of course, if she’d really had 30 boys, as she was proudly stating, she would have been too tired to speak coherently in any language.

More than one reader admitted confusing the word gezer and gever – which could be particularly awkward if you’re thinking of a carrot salad rather than a “man” salad.

In Hebrew, you can refer to making a salat (salad) as making a mess of things.

One reader from the South, however, says: “I also ask people to fry my words [letagen] instead of translating [letargem] them.”

Another reader touchingly refers to learning Hebrew and the culture that goes with it as “a lifelong process!” It’s hard to imagine an Israeli summer without eating a refreshing watermelon, but as this reader discovered, the word does not directly translate from English: The reader’s requesting “melon mayim, being careful to get the adjective in the right place, amused the owner of the fruit stand who initially had no idea what I was talking about.”

Many people have told me they confused melon with malon (hotel) and milon (dictionary), but to a native Hebrew speaker, a watermelon (avatiah) is in a class of its own.

Incidentally the reader who got embedded in the misunderstanding in Ikea also remembers “the time I asked in the supermarket for haim arukim milk (why, wouldn’t you?).” Um. No. At least not any more. And in case you’re wondering, long-life milk is called halav amid; haim arukim is literally a long life in the sense of a blessing.

Apropos: A reader in the US wrote that my “last column on mangled Hebrew” reminded him that “when my dad started learning Hebrew in 1958 at Ulpan Etzion, he wanted to practice by placing a blessing on the head of one of his congregation.

But instead she got a verbal swimming pool!” Bracha/breicha... it helps if you’re blessed with a sense of humor.

A NOT-EXACTLY-NEW immigrant (she made aliya with her husband from South Africa in 1999) shared a relatively recent mistake she made as a volunteer in the offices of an English-speaking organization.

“A few weeks ago, the entire staff was in a meeting, and I was asked to answer the phone. Most callers speak in English, but as luck would have it, a young man spoke in Hebrew. I decided that it was time to give it a go and reply in the vernacular.

He asked to speak to Nava.

“My reply: ‘Nava lo nimtza – hi bashvita.’ “There was silence on the other end, and he then asked if I would like to repeat myself in English.”

It was at that point that she realized she should have said Nava was “b’yeshiva” (in a meeting) and not “bashvita” (on strike).

Of course, it’s not only English-speakers who make mistakes in Hebrew; it is sometimes the other way around.

“Case in point,” as a reader wrote: “There was a gynecologist here in Haifa in the Hadar [neighborhood], who had a shingle hanging outside his clinic saying in proper Hebrew: ‘Rofeh Nashim V’Mahalot Aherot.’ The problem was the translation: ‘Dr. of Women and Other Diseases.’” One wonders what Orla would have made of that.

Sometimes you can simply try too hard. A veteran reader notes not so much a classic mistake as a classical one: “When I first arrived in Israel in 1977, I was greeted by the madricha [counselor] of our youth movement, and I thought that the opportunity to use my university Hebrew had arrived. She asked me a question and I answered, ‘Ein ani yode’a (I do not know),’ and she started to laugh. I asked her if my Hebrew was incorrect, and she stopped laughing for a moment and said, ‘No, your Hebrew is fine, but the only person in Israel who would say ‘I don’t know’ like that is Abba Eban.’” The immigrant experience: Just when you think you’ve found your voice, you realize it’s not really your own and it sounds funny.

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