My friend and I finished belting out our twentieth classic American song as we cleaned our hundredth container that day. As we started another hit, my friend looked toward the door and immediately stopped singing. I slowly turned, already knowing who was standing there: a commander in my unit. He stared at me with a look of disapproval (and did I notice some satisfaction?) and, in Hebrew, proceeded to interrogate me: “was that English I heard?” It’s an American song; it has to be in English! “Sing Israeli songs.” I don’t know the words to any. Maybe ‘Kol ha’olam kulo…’ “That’s a great song. In the meantime, down on your hands.” Twenty pushups later, I was back to cleaning dishes.
Although I am one of five non-Israelis in my company, I speak the least amount of Hebrew. Consequently, the commanders in my unit have taken to doling out punishment pushups whenever I speak or someone speaks to me in English. My entire company knows that no English is to be spoken around me when a commander is nearby. Truth be told, if they had replaced corporal punishment in schools with punishment pushups, not only would the students learn Hebrew at a more rapid rate, but they would also be in better shape!
As the only non-Israeli in my unit, at first I thought it would be really difficult to cope in an all-Hebrew environment all the time. Having another English-speaker in my unit would make life just that much easier: we could translate for each other, talk about nothing during our free times, and help each other cope with being in a completely foreign situation.
But after a few weeks, I’ve come to appreciate my unique situation with my Israeli fellow soldiers. As it is, I speak enough English with them and my American (and one Canadian) brethren. Some of the Israelis speak only Hebrew to me, others speak too much English, but most have developed a good balance between Hebrew and English: often we’ll start in Hebrew and interject English where I’ve, inevitably, lost the conversation.
It’s most difficult at nights, during our free hour and when we have lights out. The bantering starts and I’m left to wonder what their post-adolescent minds are discussing. I intentionally eavesdrop on their conversations, and try in earnest to pick out random words to piece together and form a coherent thought. But most is lost on me.
What I understand the most are the orders from my commanders. Each commander has his own “language,” the particular words he uses to issue orders. In addition, as I am now among Israelis of every color and stripe, it is certainly difficult on picking out words with their different patterns of speech and dialects. Some slur their words together while others speak clearly; some mumble and others talk a mile a minute.
My company commander has told me numerous times to speak up anytime I don’t understand any instructions. I respond with telling him that if I spoke up every time, we wouldn’t have time to do anything. He pressed the issue, truly wanting me to be in the loop, even if it takes more time for explanation.
To help accommodate its foreign soldiers, the army provides us with a Mishakit Aliyah, a soldier whose job is to translate our lessons. She’s instrumental in helping me to understand what it is the commanders are talking about when they teach us about rifles, guard duty, etc.
On the whole, my Hebrew has come a considerable way from just five and a half months ago when I first arrived in Israel. I can travel around without having to resort to English, most of the time. But I am still lost when speaking in Hebrew on the phone.
Yet, I am coming to the point in my comprehension where I begin to translate less in my head and just know what each Hebrew word means. For instance, one morning the other week my company and our officers stood in formation around the flagpole. As the Israeli flag was raised, everyone sang Hatikvah. Instead of the words “lehiot am chofeshi” being just a bunch of random sounds that I know mean “to be a free people,” I am now able to internalize and understand the words as they are in their Hebrew form. It brought the national anthem, its meaning, and my experiences to a whole new level.