I know how to speak Hebrew. In fact, for all intents and purposes, I'm fluent. I can handle repairmen, the hairdresser, my personal banker, my children's teachers and the woman responsible for slicing cheese at the deli counter of my local market. I can comfortably converse and even lecture on an academic subject. I have several very close friends with whom I speak only Hebrew and, fulfilling what is apparently some kind of ultimate test of fluency, I dream in Hebrew. All of this makes living in a foreign country where the primary language is Hebrew much easier and far more enjoyable.
Yet, there's a hitch. Although I can rise to the challenge if need be, I'm not very good at arguing or negotiating in Hebrew. Under stress, when finding the perfect word is essential, I scrabble around and hesitate. When faced with having to make a point, to convince the unconvinced or to tell someone off, I simply cannot find the words. It's times like these when I need my English skills and, quite frequently simply switch languages midstream, right in the middle of a sentence; taking umbrage in what I know best at the expense of losing ground with whomever I've decided to challenge.
Of course there are solutions to every problem and I've hit on mine. When faced with negotiating, closing or cancelling a deal, anticipating what is bound to be a difficult or uncomfortable conversation, I simply call my husband. He doesn't enjoy having to consistently "pick up the pieces" but after several decades is used to my "dropping the ball." Frankly, he doesn't really have too much of a choice--it's part of the package deal when one marries an immigrant.
One conversation that illustrates the way this works in our house goes something like this:
"Did you speak with Rachamim?"
"I gave him the keys to the car and left. Why?"
"You didn't speak with Rachamim?"
"Well, it was more of a non-verbal exchange."
"Did you discuss how much the repair would cost?"
"I told him where the car was parked."
Silence over the line.
"So you didn't get to speak with him about the price."
"Maybe you should speak with him."
Another pause, followed by a sigh. "I'll take care of it." Click. End of conversation.
Another example might be:
"Did you cancel the magazine subscription?"
"Well, they came up with an offer I thought was a good deal."
"So you didn't cancel."
"But you called specifically in order to cancel."
Conversations like these are both superfluous and tedious as we both understand that whereas there might have been some chance that I could handle these situations were they carried out in English, it's completely pointless to try to do so in Hebrew. Stuttering, bumbling and an abundance of grammatical errors do not make for a convincing display of authority, resoluteness or sense of purpose. They just add up to a mess.
As an adult, I find this an unacceptable situation. First of all, it's infantilizing. After all, in most ways I consider myself an accomplished adult. I don't like having to call on someone else to straighten out my messes. Second of all, the lack of that ostensibly minor (but oh so major) ability to strike while the iron is hot, to land those words when I really need them, has led to my inability to be a "real" part of Israeli society. How can I claim successful assimilation into life here in Israel when I'm forced to run to a "native" anytime I have to actually take one on?
No matter. I've made peace with this reality. After all, speaking a language has a lot to do with emotions and stressful situations might very well wreck havoc with one's ability to convert thoughts into words, to get the message right, in any language. I'm willing to concede that there are certain times it just pays to call in the troops. In these situations it helps to have my husband on auto-dial.