Hebrew Hear-Say: A funny thing happened

"The trouble with Israelis," a new immigrant moaned to me recently, "is they don't take a decision and they don't take responsibility."

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
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"The trouble with Israelis," a new immigrant moaned to me recently, "is they don't take a shower, they don't take a decision and they don't take responsibility." The newcomer learned one lesson straightaway: Many veterans don't so much switch off at the phrase "the trouble with Israelis" as blow a fuse. I'm one of them. Or maybe I should write: I'm one of 'them'. At least I could sympathize from a linguistic point of view. The 'olah hadasha' was right in finding Hebrew verb-ally challenging. If you tell Hebrew speakers that you're going to take a shower ('lakahat miklahat'), they will ask "Where to?" The verb to shower is 'lehitkaleah'. And to choosing to say "to take a decision" in Hebrew is the wrong choice: You can only decide: 'lehahlit' as a verb in itself. As for taking responsibility: Well, she has a point. In Hebrew you can accept responsibility ('lekabel ahrayut') or be responsible ('lihiyot ahra'i') but you can't really take responsibility. But that's not our fault. Cleaning out my e-mails for Pessah, I came across several bloopers that immigrants and veterans (and even a couple of returning Israelis) have sent in over the past year or so. A Russian-speaker related her family's early misunderstanding. They were about to move out of their rented apartment when the landlord called to ask how things were going. "Fine," answered the son. "'Hakol harus'." Fortunately, the landlord quickly realized that although the young man had said "everything has been destroyed" what he meant was: 'Hakol aruz' - everything is packed. A Spanish-speaker had a similar problem: When a friend introduced him to "my fiancée" ('arusati'), the new immigrant assumed that this love was very destructive ('ahava horeset'). On kibbutz in my first year here, I had a surreal conversation about love and marriage: The religious kibbutz seemed even more excited than usual about the upcoming 'huppa'. When I asked a kibbutznik why they were making such a fuss, I was told it was because the bride and groom were older ('mevugarim'). I misunderstood the word to mean they were mentally retarded - 'mefagrim' - which was reflected in my subsequent contribution to the discussion on whether they would have kids or not. Many mistakes have been made on kibbutzim: I loved the volunteer ('mitnadevet') who informed everyone she had sneaked in ('mitganevet') and the visitor who wondered about the "escape route" ('shvil habriha') which was actually the path to the swimming pool ('shvil labreicha'). All immigrants who went into the army can fire off a list of bloopers. You'd be surprised at the number of olim who admit mistaking the firing range ('mitvah') for kitchen ('mitbach'). And I think that very few newcomers in the army haven't wondered about shouting out "mustard" ('hardal') instead of "hold fire" ('hadal'). Many of you (and us, and them) made mistakes that are barely publishable. If the Jewish Agency had a shekel for every immigrant who confused 'mishkafayim' (glasses) with 'michnasayim' (trousers) they could probably fund an extra ulpan. Some of us are directionally challenged. I had a weird conversation in Haifa where I was looking for the entrance ('knisa') to a building and was redirected to a church ('knesia'). When a passerby in Haifa once asked my dad to directions to Beit Zim (the shipping company building) my father redirected him to the 'makolet' (grocery) where he could buy 'beitzim' (eggs). Incidentally, we have collectively had egg on our faces: Among the unpublishable submissions were several concerning the fact that in colloquial Hebrew the word for eggs is the equivalent of the English slang word "balls." But what other language actually has a verb for "to scratch your balls" ('legarbetz')? A reader e-mailed me about his experience trying to rent a film from the video store: "When the clerk asked me which movie I wanted, I replied: 'Mekaschei shadayim' (boob busters) instead of 'Mekaschei hashedim' (Ghost Busters). In fact 'hashed yodea' (the devil knows) how many immigrants have confused 'shed' with 'shad' (bosom)." Another reader recalled the time he went to an office to sort out a problem and was told at the information desk "'lemata'" and pointed to the stairway "but there were only stairs going up. Was I again getting my Hebrew wrong: 'lemata' (down) and 'lemala' (up)? I went to the information again with the same result. I walked upstairs and at another information desk was again told ''lemata'' and a cubicle was pointed out. I went there and found Martha." And every time I recall the story of the immigrant who mistook the sign "To the ceremony" ('latekes') for a sale of latkes, I find someone else has been down that path. At least after a while "we" become "them" and can laugh at ourselves. liat@jpost.com