Suddenly Sabra: I'm lost in translation

When I'm short on time, I respond in English. It is an embarrassment but sometimes it's the best I can do.

computer illustration 88 248 (photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
computer illustration 88 248
(photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
An Israeli woman I know, on a professional level only, recently made a faux pas that made me pause the day I flew back to Israel. It started with a Hebrew e-mail. She works for an organization that rallies around many causes, including Diaspora-Israel relations. She was setting up a meeting and wanted to know if the appointed time was convenient for me. If not, she wrote, "let me know what's more comfortable for you and there's no problem." It isn't entirely far-fetched that I would hear from this woman as I am, after all, Little Miss Left-Wing. But seeing how I hadn't spoken to her in over a year, I tapped off a short response saying that while I would be happy to attend, was I the correct Talia? I wrote this e-mail, as I do much of my hurried correspondence, in English. Though I read Hebrew well, writing it is another matter. And being a perfectionist means that I will second guess myself on each word - checking and double-checking the spelling of anything I send in Hebrew. So when I'm short on time, I respond in English. It is an embarrassment, but sometimes it's the best I can do. The morning I left, I received a response. Again in Hebrew, and again misdirected - a forward that ended up in my inbox rather than the Talia's it was meant for: "As though this American girl can understand the mistake from what I wrote." I sat there and read the short line over and over. My stomach began to ache. But she had a point. So I did a most American thing. I wrote a short apology to her. Yes, I can understand, I wrote. I am sorry I didn't respond in Hebrew. And I sincerely was. As I folded clothes - some culled from what remains of my wardrobe in Florida, others purchased second-hand-and arranged them in one suitcase and filled another with used books, I wondered why I was going back to Israel. I could probably make more money in the States. I could see my family more often; maybe I could convince my grandfather to have a closer relationship with Mom and me. I would never have to worry about my accent, which has been laughed at - eize mivta! (what an accent!) - more times than I can remember. And I wouldn't have to make the choice between laboring over my correspondence and being mocked. When you're an immigrant still dangling between two worlds, everything, however small, makes you think about which string you should cut and where you'll land after that snip.  Land I did - in London. As I approached the first security counter on my way from one terminal to the next, I readied my boarding pass and American passport, tucking my Israeli passport into my purse. "Do you have another passport?" the woman at the counter asked, extending her hand. I told her I did and I placed the blue-bound book into her palm. She flipped through both - each the same color, but folded from a different side - and looked from my ticket to the passport. Then she made the decision I'd been unable to make for myself. "You should be traveling on this one," she said, holding up the book imprinted with a menora. "You're a national and you're headed home." I opened my mouth to explain - I'd left the States on my American passport, and besides I can barely write Hebrew - but in the instant it took for me to hear the words in my head, they seemed hollow. And I recognized them for what they were: excuses. Just as I'd excused myself for responding to e-mails in English when I should have, could have, been responding in Hebrew. I also realized how I both resent and remain attached to my American identity. Cutting the string of language would land me more firmly on the other side. I landed on the other side, Israel, in the early morning. I breezed through passport control - the Israeli booth marked by green letters, the foreign booth marked with stop-sign-red letters - collected my suitcases and headed to the exit. My suitcases felt heavy as I towed them behind me, carrying weight from the States. I decided that was good - it wasn't baggage trailing behind me; it was a little less anchoring me on the other side of the ocean. I told the driver where I was going in Hebrew, of course. He responded in English. I repeated his words back to him-making them a question in Hebrew. And then I answered him, and myself. In Hebrew. "Eize mivta, ken?" I asked him as I shut the car door.