Feeling good at Ulpan: Going back to school to Learn Hebrew is fun

Communication in class hasn’t been easy, especially during the breaks – we’ve had no choice but to try and chat to each other in broken Hebrew, with some hilarious results.

Ulpan students meet after class. (photo credit: BENITA LEVIN)
Ulpan students meet after class.
(photo credit: BENITA LEVIN)
It's been more than two decades since I last attended lectures and even longer since I sat on a school chair with wooden desks in front of a white board. The class is full of adults, mostly fellow olim (immigrants) who are offered the intensive five-month Hebrew course soon after moving to Israel. But one can’t help but feel like a teenager again, securing the seat in the back row, glancing surreptitiously at one’s watch to see when the next break is due and giggling with classmates about the increasing amount of “homework” we’re given, five days a week.
Our teacher is witty and sassy with a passion for the language that reminds me of Robin William’s lovable character in the movie “Dead Poets’ Society.” But if any students here were ever shouting “O Captain! My Captain” they wouldn’t be doing so in English. There are only five English- speaking students in this class of more than twenty – two Americans, two from England and me, waving the South African flag. I was stunned by the range of countries ‘represented’ in this archaic looking classroom – Brazil, France, Russia, Ukraine, Columbia, Mexico and Turkey. Classmates include a cardiologist, doctor, psychologist, biologist, advertising manager, clothing exporter, patisserie chef and a club deejay. In class, your qualifications and careers mean very little – all things being equal, we are all pupils being transported back to our youth, trying our best to access a dormant part of our brain, while hoping that our weekly test won’t be too tough.
Communication in class hasn’t been easy, especially during the breaks – we’ve had no choice but to try and chat to each other in broken Hebrew, with some hilarious results. Much has no doubt been lost in translation, as French and Portuguese interpretations fly across the room and many joke about our range of accents. But there is something incredibly moving about realizing that each person in this melting pot is trying to immerse themselves in a new culture and country. It gives one enormous solace realizing that people from so many different parts of the globe have made a similar move and are taking on a similar risk.
There are many people who choose not to go to Ulpan. We’ve met some who left the course to start working and others who believe one can manage with just English here, especially in areas like Ra’anana and Modi’in. I still feel one can’t integrate into a country, without at least trying to speak the language, even if the goal is to be able to speak to one’s children’s friends, teachers or the all-important bakery owner.
I was given a fabulous ‘sign’ which put paid to any doubt about taking on Ulpan. Shortly after arriving in the country, I received a Facebook message from a Ukrainian news editor. We’d met at a conference for “Women in the Media” in Washington six years before. Our contact since then had been restricted to using Google Translate to understand each other’s social media posts.
What are the chances? Ilona Fanta and her husband had made aliya a few months before us and we had both signed up at the same Ulpan venue. I had to reread her message a few times. Shortly after this online chat, we met for lunch in Ra’anana. A long way from Washington, Ukraine or South Africa! We both agree that when we meet up again, we both hope to be able to have most of our conversation in Hebrew.
Reconnecting with Ilona was just the “feel good” coincidence I needed to cement my decision to keep sitting on a wooden chair in front of a big white board, armed with a pencil, eraser and a cup of strong coffee.