“Ulpan” remains a berated term in my professional lexicon. Whereas I have been Blessed with some level of mastery in composition, in storytelling, and in pedagogy, I remain dumbfounded when it comes to creating texts in Hebrew. As well, I speak Hebrew poorly, to the extent that I am challenged ordering falafel.
Unlike many of my peers, I do not shake, bake, rattle or even roll when it comes to fashioning discourse in the local lashen or when it comes to translating Hebrew into English or vice versa. I trip when declensing nouns and fall completely on my face when conjugating verbs. Since I learned English by dint of trying to satisfy my voracious reading appetite and my equally addictive writing habit, I have no learning experience to which to compare my misery in acquiring Hebrew (in high school and college, perhaps because kids flirted by using European tongues, I had far less trouble learning German and French. As per Yiddish, the milk of my grandparents, anything from the Old Country was irresistible and, as such, created no user dissonance).
In contrast, when confronted with snippets from Hebrew newspapers, with MP3 files of fairly syntactically simple dialogues, or with vocabulary lists, I experience irregular sensations in my lower intestines and in my solar plexus. It’s not gas.
What’s more, none of my nearest and dearest Israeli-born or bred friends are likely to help me overcome this tribulation. Those sweet gals from Haifa, from Kiev, from Manalapan, and from other geographically great places laugh at me, especially when I stumble trying to convey: that our local social hall’s lone toilet is stuffed, that a strange man, wearing unfamiliar garb, rifled through the local dumpster, or that I want to return the twenty shekel loaned to me, by one of those associates, when I was short of change at the makolet.
What my comrades do is pat me on my head, stroke whichever of my arms is easier for them to reach, and toss at me the same endearments with which I ordinarily address children whose birthdays number in the single digits. Thereafter, these wonderful women insist that I start my soliloquies over in English.
By this point, raw sewage has flooded two hallways, a stairwell and part of a walkway of our community center, the carcasses of unwary dumpster cats are strewn around the parameter of the garbage receptacle in question, and my sons and daughter have claimed the money I had set aside to repay my buddies (sometimes, my grown kids know no higher purpose in life than purchasing and consuming: frozen treats like “Igloos,” chocolate treats like “Krembos,” and necessary treats like plungers).
So, when it comes to my making progress with the local lingo, my gal pals are as useful as cheese danishes; sweet, habit-forming, but of little permanent use. Accordingly, I have turned to the Internet for help. For no money at all, international language forums offer participants the ability to get matched up with the adolescent of their dreams. Regardless of the number of times I have clicked a certain site’s “learning partners selected specifically for you” tab, I have been offered links to “hot” sixteen year-old girls from Kazakhstan, unabashed, twenty year-old males from Tel-Aviv, and the random Arabic speaker from Algiers. In none of these “exclusive” searches have I been afforded the chance to be befriended by middle-aged, Hebrew-speaking, mamas from anywhere on the globe. Funny, I had thought there is no shortage of women in that demographic.
Once my friends, the ones who literally pat me on the head, heard I was trying to use electronic schooling to better my language skills, they gave me buckets full of mussar and instructed me to insist that my family members help me improve my Hebrew. Those midlife mamas don’t appreciate that at least one of my scion would rather be caught wearing the wrong shade of black than help me sort out active and passive verb partners, and that another takes so much delight in broadcasting, via many known forms of convergent media, each faux pas I make in adjective’s count and gender, while simultaneously claiming to be too busy mopping toilet waste, burying dumpster cats, and checking my briefcase for additional change, to help me discern between ayin and aleph, that I’d rather struggle, all by my lonesome to articulate: “dead cats smell like hamantashen,” “I smile at flooded hallways,” and “my children have not yet returned my coins.”
As per the other two, to whom I gave birth, one is permanently preoccupied spinning tales about imaginary hedgehogs possessed of advanced technology, and the other is rarely sighted; her bedroom door has remained impassible since the last time we cleaned for Pesach (I suspect that more than tights, wrapping paper, bottle cap liners and books breed there). My spouse, further, although expert at software architecture, is useless in Hebrew. He works entirely in English for a European corporation. His sentiments, translated back to English are on the order of: “please pass the filet of dumpster cat,” “why did our child transform the loose change she found in the sofa into an aerial mobile,” and “Eureka! The community center’s toilet is overflowing. The instructor of the men’s aerobics class told us to bring bathing caps.”
In the end, I have come to terms with the veracity that I must pay strangers to teach me. Since I long ago used up my gratis sessions at public ulpan, I have been paying for subsequent studies. Initially, in the private sector, I embraced the role of fryer. Most recently, I have been paying a premium at a fairly new, entirely mindful, school, which, refreshingly, offers no sky-high promises. I have also been slowly improving.
B”H, I now feel confident yelling, in Hebrew, at the fellow at the local nursery, who tries to overcharge me for petunias. I now feel confident gesturing, in Hebrew, at the driver, who tries to cut me off on the highway and then slows to less than the speed limit. As well, I now feel confident harrumphing, in Hebrew, at the little old lady who tries to elbow me to get to the community center’s showers first (despite the calf-high sewage floating by).
If only I could make myself better understood, I’d be a bit happier. I yet aspire to communicate, in Hebrew: “let me help clean up the waste water,” “please send a municipal worker over to tend to the dead dumpster cats,” and “get your hands off of my change if you want to see your twenty-fifth birthday.”