Real Israel: Double takes

Another offering of Hebrew mangled by newcomers, tourists and veterans.

Coffee cup 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Coffee cup 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ouch. I must have touched a raw spot with the column on Hebrew bloopers two weeks ago. I had more material than I could include and was deluged with additional offerings. So instead of waiting for Passover for Part II, I thought, there’s no time like the present (an expression a friend swears she once saw translated into Hebrew as “ein zman kmo matana” – there’s no time like a gift).
It seems we continue to make a mess of meals – or at least ordering food:
“An American tourist who knows a little Hebrew told me this story,” offered one reader. “She was seated with some friends at a restaurant, and a young man who was just new on the job came to wait on them. She wanted to order a cappuccino with a croissant. The young waiter asked her what kind would she like (butter, chocolate, almond, etc.). So she answered, ‘Sheket.’ The young man looked a little shocked and asked again; she then repeated with a little irritation, ‘Sheket!’” It was a second waiter who figured out that what she wanted was not “silence,” but almond (“sha-ked”). Perhaps the drink was shaken but not stirred.
A veteran shared this story: “Someone we know, who was then an oleh hadash [new immigrant], once went up to a fast-food stand in the Tel Aviv bus station and asked for a ‘kelev ham.’ The fact that he was Irish didn't help any! The guy behind the counter just looked at him as if he were crazy.”
Or maybe he thought he was barking mad: “Kelev ham” is just too literal a translation of “hot dog” for Hebrew speakers (who refer to the sausages as “naknikiot”).
Another shared this memory: “My father, alav hashalom [may he rest in peace], when he came to visit Israel in the ’60s, went into the bakery on [Jerusalem’s] Hapalmah Street (which is still there!) and because my father ABHORRED raisins [tzimukim] (not just hated, practically allergic – passionately hated – you get the idea), he asked the owner to give him a halla, but without tzmigim. It became a family joke, of course.”
I bet they never “tire” of it.
THERE IS no end to new immigrants who have found themselves in some version of this embarrassing situation: “When my daughter was in the ulpan, she wanted to say to another (male) student: ‘You look better without glasses (mishkafayim),’ but she said: “You look better without michnasayim’ (pants/trousers).”
In fact, every time I ask for bloopers, I hear of some situation where someone was caught, figuratively speaking, with their trousers down – or maybe it was without rose-tinted spectacles.
Here is a major (but surprisingly common) “oops” on the learning curve: “My wife and I, many years ago, made aliya with our children, the eldest a boy of six who, weeks after we arrived, started kita aleph [first grade],” recalls a fan of the embarrassing mistakes collections.
“My wife went to her first meeting with his teacher and came back beaming, saying she had only heard good words about our son. That night, invited to a dinner, she proudly told all the guests what the teacher had said about our six-year-old son: ‘Haben shelach mizdayen.’ She couldn’t understand the looks of shock mixed with laughter that greeted her declaration, until somebody said, ‘You probably meant “mitztayen” [outstanding].’” The mother got a fail for both misunderstanding...and very bad language – and that’s the closest I can to get to spelling it out without the use of asterisks.
A colleague thinking out of the box submitted this memory of a woman standing in line at the supermarket, preparing to have her groceries delivered. Since she was worried about them being crushed, she ordered: “Ten li od orgazim.” You can figure out for yourselves what she said (albeit incorrectly). What she meant was “Give me more boxes (argazim).”
Another reader whose memory was jogged by the last column remembers: “I was dorming at Hebrew University in the ’70s, and on first seeing someone after summer vacation, blurted out, ‘Bichlal lo hishtanta!’ instead of ‘Bichlal lo hishtaneita’ [You haven’t peed at all/changed at all].”
Passing water, passing time, a passing phrase and phase.
The same reader, “feeling so proud with my Hebrew,” mixed up a “café hafuch” and “café nes” and asked for “café namuch.” Café hafuch is the ubiquitous “upside-down coffee,” combining espresso and a little steamed milk; nes (originally short for the brand-name Nescafe) is ordinary, instant coffee, while the reader’s café namuch is her own special blend – the word itself means “short.”
THE IDF and military terms are often a cause for misunderstanding: More than one person has confused “tothanim” (artillery) with “tahtonim” (underpants); at least one has discussed an Armored Corps soldier being in the course to learn how to be “mefahed tankim” (although he wasn’t really scared of them; he just wanted to be a tank commander, “mefaked tank”).
A colleague, who now knows better, admits: “For years I would hear on the radio, reporting on a military incident: ‘Esh nurta mehama’arav.’ I always wondered why it was never from the North, South or East....”
Hama’arav” means the West...except when it comes from the verb “to ambush.” Incidentally a soldier with whom I served, taking pity on my infamously pathetic Hebrew at the time, asked me in all seriousness if I knew the word “amboosh.”
My comrades often doubted my language skills, not so much because I muddled “hadal” (stop, as in “stop shooting”) with “hardal” (mustard) – like many a new immigrant before and after me – but because I argued that the huge soft cases we used to schlep home in those days should be called “kitbags,” whereas every native Hebrew speaker knew better than I that they were called “kitbegs,” with the emphasis on the second syllable.
An anonymous letter-writer is less than convinced that “if you will it, it is not a dream,” as Theodor Herzl so famously said. Their version sounds more like an anti-union rap: “Im tirzu, ain zo aguda.” Or perhaps it was a typing error, and not a Freudian slip, that turned “agada” into “aguda.”
Which, for some reason, reminds me of this offering from a colleague: “A friend of mine went to the Misrad Hapnim [Interior Ministry] to sort out a problem with his passport. He told the lady at the desk, ‘Yesh li ba’aya im hadika’on sheli.’” Well, we all risk having a problem with depression (dika’on) during bureaucratic encounters, but the clerk is more likely to be able to solve the one concerning the passport (darkon).
Another colleague tells of a woman who was hanging laundry on the balcony of her new apartment when she accidentally dropped a sock onto the porch below. She knocked on her downstairs neighbor’s door, intending to ask for it back. It would, of course, have helped if she had actually said “my sock [garbi] fell” instead of “gvari” (my man).
A READER admitted that it took her a while to understand that she was pronouncing my name wrong: “I thought le’at [slow] was a strange name.”
As an aside, we all know English-speakers who snicker at the name Dudu.
The French-speakers’ equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me” is “It’s all Hebrew.” The Hebrew-speakers’ version is “Zeh Sinit bishvili” – It’s Chinese to me.
Another Jerusalem Post staffer remembers when “a friend of mine was looking for an apartment in French Hill, and she called me to tell me the name of a street with an available place: ‘Midaber Sini,’ she said. A funny name for a street, she said, ‘Chinese-speaker’ [or more precisely, Chinese-speaking].”
When you hear Hebrew that sounds like double Dutch, don’t be too embarrassed to share it. We’ve all been there, up the wrong street (whether it was Midbar Sinai – the Sinai Desert – or something closer to home).