Gas masks, school bells and lentils

Apparently, referencing episodes of ‘Hatufim’ and making the occasional Bar Refaeli joke is not enough to blend in as a new immigrant.

How do you say ‘gas mask’ in Hebrew? (photo credit: (Reuters))
How do you say ‘gas mask’ in Hebrew?
(photo credit: (Reuters))
As a new immigrant to Israel, I’m often asked the same series of questions by friends in both the US and Israel.
“What motivated you to make aliya?” “Are you worried about your ability to earn a living?” “Doesn’t the danger of living in the Middle East weigh on you?” Oh, and lest we forget my favorite: “How’s your Hebrew?” I answer these questions as follows. “It’s hard to quantify in words why I made aliya; it was a neshama (soul) decision, not a moah (mind) decision. I also really love felafel and humous.”
“I’m not worried about making a living in Israel because as a freelance writer in the States, I never made any money anyway.” “The Middle East is indeed a dangerous place to live, but danger is my middle name.” Lastly: “My Hebrew is pretty good; out of eight class levels in my current ulpan, I’m right in the middle. My Hebrish [Hebrew/English hybrid used by all new immigrants] on the other hand, is fantastic. So it all balances out.”
I’m currently living in Talpiot in the Beit Canada Absorption Center, studying in Ulpan Etzion with 200 other new immigrants from all over the world. This is a five-month program that aims to integrate us newbies into Israeli society, by enabling us to actually communicate with Israelis in Hebrew. (Apparently, referencing episodes of Hatufim and making the occasional Bar Refaeli joke is not enough.) Taking just my class of 25 students as an example, there are people from France, Russia, Brazil, China and of course the US. It’s great to have that kind of diversity and it certainly makes for an interesting classroom experience, as verbs are feverishly translated from Hebrew into English, French, Russian, Chinese and then back to Hebrew again. As someone who studied French for years in middle and high school, I like to sit in the back of the classroom with my five French comrades as they try to understand what is going on.
It tends to go something like this: The teacher says a word, such as “hevra,” and then translates it into English as “society.”
The Americans in class start taking notes. My French friends look at each other puzzled and exclaim, “Qu’est que c’est?” Then I look at them assuredly and say in the thickest French accent I can muster up, “Société.” At this point, there is an audible “ahhh” and a communal feeling of relief. This is repeated every few minutes for the duration of class. Occasionally, I interject with a yell of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!” just so they know I’m still rooting for them.
Essentially, I like to confuse myself as much as possible via simultaneous immersion in two languages, neither of which I have mastered. So I suppose I can add fluency in Frebrew to my list of accomplishments, which carries clout in certain social circles.
To be part of the new olim community is a badge of both honor and shame. There have been some quintessential moments thus far in my three months that have been more on the shame side of things. For instance, recently some rather loud and abrasive-sounding bells were going off in the area of my ulpan. Naturally, I assumed war had broken out and was on my way to the bomb shelter. In my panic and haste, I passed a friend who commented on how annoying it was that the school next door was back in session, because now we would have to deal with the bells going off all day. I blushed, agreed and made my way sheepishly back to my room.
Then there was the time I foolishly embarked on a mission to speak only Hebrew outside of class. I went around telling everyone I was happy, which in Hebrew translates to “ani smicha,” or so I thought. Fast forward to a few weeks later, and a friend wearing a look of mild concern tells me that I’ve actually been saying “I am a blanket.” What I meant to say was “ani smeha.” I was so close and yet so embarrassingly far.
Some of my friends in ulpan have decided to embrace their lack of Hebrew language skills and exaggerate them when shopping, in order to receive discounts and the accompanying looks of sympathy. Some of the terms that they have invented so far: “bevakashort” to replace “bevakasha” when thanking someone; “rock reggae” to replace “rak rega” when needing another moment; and my favorite, “low toad” to replace “lo toda” when politely declining an offer. This method has apparently been working for them. One friend rode the bus for free, another bought a tea kettle for half-price. Apparently, it pays to be slightly Hebrew-challenged.
With the recent events in Syria, there was a flurry of panic among my ulpan brethren. Talk quickly turned from “Has anyone gotten tickets to Rihanna’s concert in Tel Aviv?” to “Has anyone gotten gas masks?” I don’t mean to make light of the situation in Syria, but when conversation usually revolves around plans for Shabbat or where to buy the best lentils, if I had a shekel for every time I heard someone say gas mask when America was threatening an attack... I’d have a lot of shekels.
As new olim, and especially as ulpan students living together tucked away in East Talpiot, we live in a bubble. Whenever that bubble is threatened, it sends shock waves through our fragile collective consciousness. Most of my classmates have gotten gas masks by now. After hours of waiting in line, and in some instances missing a whole day of class, they are now able to upload Facebook profile pictures wearing their new wartime apparel. I tried one on, so as to be prepared if need be, and was saddened to learn that you can’t eat while wearing it. When attempting to take out the tubing by the mouth area, I learned, you render the mask ineffective. How am I supposed to eat my lentils in the bomb shelter? No one has been able to supply me with an answer, but I’m guessing snorting them may be involved.
In the event of chemical warfare, I am of course happy that all of us here in the ulpan will be prepared, even if it means giving up lentils temporarily.