Hebrew Hear-Say: Pass it on

Previous columns on the linguistic mistakes made by immigrants elicited such a huge response that, by popular request, here are some more of those "What did you say?" moments.

Compared to our forefathers' journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, it's undoubtedly easier to hop on a Nefesh B'Nefesh flight from New York or London and land here a few hours and a couple of movies later. But those making aliya all those millennia ago faced at least one less hardship: They arrived speaking Hebrew. Previous columns on the linguistic mistakes made by immigrants elicited such a huge response that, by popular request, here are some more of those "What did you say?" moments. Zipporah Porath, author of Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, obviously has a way with words, but like most olim has also found Hebrew words have their own way of playing tricks. She wrote: "When I am offered a cup of tea or coffee, I often find myself saying politely to the hostess: 'Al tatrichi et atzmech' (which in good Hebrew means 'don't trouble yourself'), but more often than not it comes out: 'Al tartichi et atzmech' (don't boil yourself)." Even before fighting this tongue-twister, Porath faced other battles, linguistically and literally. She recalls: "As an American student on a one-year program at the Hebrew University, I found myself caught up in Israel's War of Independence and enlisted in the Hagana, serving as a medic (hoveshet). Later, in the newly formed Israel Air Force I was assigned to set up an infirmary in the IAF training base in Haifa Bay... To reach the infirmary, patients had to climb a full flight of stairs and turn left. As I was billeted in a cell [it was a former police station] at the top of the staircase, the soldiers sprinting up the steps invariably burst into my room by mistake. To avoid this invasion of privacy, I placed a huge sign on my door: 'Na Lidfok!!!' (Please Knock!!!), with no way of knowing that in slang this also meant 'Please Knock (me) Up.' You can imagine how that announcement was received by the several hundred boys on the base." And on a similar note, a reader confessed that when her daughter was awarded a prize as "outstanding soldier" - hayelet mitztayenet - she ruined the proud mother bit by telling everyone that she had been given the prize for the "hayelet hamizdayenet" - known in army slang in my day as an "IDF mattress" (mizron Tzahali). And while we're on the delicate subject, a reader wrote in: "My very haredi rabbanit asked if I listened to a certain rabbi lecture on the radio. I meant to say, 'Rak shemizdamen li' (only when I have the opportunity). Instead I said, 'Rak she'ani mizdayenet,' (only when I'm fornicating)." Sometimes the joke is on us: A reader recalls trying to tell somebody that something wasn't funny (matzhik) but actually telling them: "That wasn't smelly" (masriah). More than one person running late (me'acher) has apologized for being ugly (mechuar). An old-timer recalls having her bottom pinched walking down a side street in Tel Aviv, at which she started screaming, to no effect, "Mishpaha!" (family) instead of Mishtara! (police). My reaction in a similar situation in London a few years ago was far more effective: I automatically turned around and shouted at my assailant: "Die!," which means "Enough" in Hebrew. From the look on his face, he was frightened to death by the English meaning of the word. And another in the dead serious category: Upon her second marriage, a woman who has always seemed nice to me told people she'd turned into an "ima horeget" (killer mom) instead of ima choreget [with the letter het], a stepmother. A reader in Chicago wrote of a friend who "arrived from South Africa and needed to take her son for an eye exam. She called the school and informed the secretary that she was coming to take him to the "rofeh ofanayim" (the bicycle doctor) instead of the rofeh einayim, eye doctor." As she pointed out: "I guess it's one way to get through the traffic jams at Tzomet Ra'anana." City dwellers have their own jokes (and linguistic urban myths) but several kibbutznikim and former kibbutz members wrote in with mistakes that could enter local collective memory. Shlomo Kroll of Ma'ayan Baruch recalls: "I was walking with a newcomer in the kibbutz, and he marveled how the cows went to the milking shed every day at the exact time, and took their places at the exact places. I said: 'It is parapsychology,' and he laughed and laughed. I asked him what's funny, and he answered, 'parapsychology - the psychology of the para [cow]!'" If you think these mistakes are funny but stink, you are not alone: A 77-year-old reader in Palm Springs, trying to learn conversational Hebrew, found the previous columns amusing but discouraging. My advice is to think of the mistakes as part of the fun of learning a new language. After all, as they say in Hebrew: "Avarnu et Par'o, na'avor gam et zeh" - "We got through Pharaoh, we'll get through this too" - an appropriate sentiment pre-Pessah or anytime. liat@jpost.com