Also Speaking English

After a year of living here, I stopped trying to pretend that my transition from the New World, i.e. North America, to the Old World, i.e. Eretz Yisrael, would be as smooth as that of my children. I gave up the fight to linguistically acculturate and began, accordingly, to allow myself not only to access to, but also the regular use of, English (!) resources such as Janglo, the OU Israel Center and the AACI. Nearly five years after that decision, I can not say I regret making it or that I am behaving any differently.
I continue to attend English language comedy shows, English language shiurim, and English language finance seminars. I’ve gone on holiday, to northern, touristy sections of this Holy Land, with English speaking women, have played board games with children whose schooled language is the same as mine, and have built ceramics in studios where the artists were almost exclusively from Canada, from the United Kingdom, from South Africa and from Australia.
Additionally, I post on Israeli writers’ English language electronic bulletin boards, and have stopped trying to converse, on the phone, and in email, with my Hebrew speaking friends in their native tongue. Although I daven at least part of each service in the loshen of Torah, it is likewise true that I refuse to give up my bilingual, siddur.
Whereas such matters of cultural integration, as I am experiencing, have claimed the fancy of government, of media, and of public officials, the nuts and bolts of my finding my place in this society ultimately remains my province. No matter how many education stipends, ulpanim attended, housing allowances, tax breaks, free newspapers, complimentary hours of internet instruction, or what-have-you than I might receive, if I fail to locate myself in this mystical, dusty, ancient, yet cutting edge nation, that is, if I fail to secure my perch within Israel’s social strata, my integration has not occurred. So, I resort to English.
Aliyah pundits continue to busy themselves with pithy sayings about “the street,” about various neighborhoods, about the available array of schools, and about employment prospects. Regardless, each new oleh or olah is left, as am I, to do the greater part of seeking work, of seeking class placement for their children and of seeking a place in which to live. Even after using up one’s savings to pay “Special American pricing,” and even after using up all of one’s discretionary time to stand behind persons who sprint ahead, in lines, because of their protexia, it is often the case that apartments continue to be difficult to locate, school principals continue to be unwilling to make room for students, and agreeable employers continue to be nowhere to be found.
So, folk option to use learned tongue, to rely more and more on the kindness of social clusters of people who talk like themselves and to building social protection within those ranks. I know I did. I know I do.
Interestingly, when we first arrived, my family intentionally: avoided seeking housing in neighborhoods known to be Anglo, sent our children to schools where 90% or more of the other children are Sabras, and took ulpan only where the courses were given in Hebrew. Our idealism backfired.
It is the case that our neighborhood suits us and that we hear and speak more Hebrew in our residential area than we might in other residential areas because of who lives here. Yet, our friends prefer using their mediocre English to deciphering our mangled Hebrew and we’re still known as “the Americans.”
Similarly, half of our kids learned to swim, per se, when thrown into the native pool, but the other half did not and had to change schools repeatedly. That second half wound up in learning situations where either the school had a significant Anglo population or the school was geared to Anglo olim.
Per employment, Computer Cowboy remains with the international firm, based in Europe, of all places, where he had worked when we lived in the States. That corporation’s official business language is English. Depending who is at the helm of the local office, meetings are conducted in Hebrew or in English. Problem-solving sessions, though, might take place in Russian or in French. If my man doesn’t understand an important communication, he asks for a translation. Otherwise, he gets by.
The kids, even the ones who initially struggled in Hebrew, continue on in school in Hebrew, prepare for army in Hebrew, and work in Hebrew. They are assimilating.
Your Truly writes this blog in English, writes other blogs and magazine columns in English, writes essays, short stories and poetry in English, and publishes books in English. I am barely literate in Hebrew.
Nonetheless, I have made a sort of peace with myself. In accepting, but not allowing myself to be stymied by my linguistic limitations, I am living with a little bit more joy than I was living with earlier. My experience of aliyah, thus, continues to be wondrous, even when it breaks me from my comfort zone. In loyalty to myself and in gratitude to The Boss, my transition needs to be worked in a cheerful and appreciative manner.
For me, that resolve means, on the one hand, partaking festively of familiar language and culture at sma’achot while, on the other hand, perennially preparing paperwork for more sessions of Hebrew class. Although my attempt to communicate with locals continues to be laughably, my participation in life need not be.
As a result, don’t be surprised if the gal with an Israeli attitude, as communicated through her stance and gestures, coughs up English during women’s swim at the neighborhood pool. Don’t be shocked if the driver, whom you thought was indigenous, yells back at you in some New World tongue. Don’t be dismayed if the middle aged mama davening next to you, who appears home-grown, whispers to the boss in a relatively new language.
I am Israeli and proud of it. I also speak English.