My Story: Meeting the Hebrew challenge

Not wanting to sound like I thought I was incapable (read: not wanting to be honest), I said sure, no problem. Then I freaked out.

mystory 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mystory 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I can't resist a challenge. When it comes to something I wouldn't even dream of volunteering for, why is it that if someone asks me if I can do it, it becomes a challenge? With my ego at stake, my mouth can't help but say yes, while my brain is shouting NO!!! Such was the case when my son's eighth grade teacher told me about a planned reenactment of the exodus story before Pessah. Set to begin at the ridiculous hour of 4 a.m. the following Tuesday, they were arranging to have some parents first tell the stories of their personal "exodus" - their aliya - and would I consider telling my story? In fact, they weren't even sure that the event would take place, or that I would be ultimately approved for the task. They were just wondering, in theory, if I would consider it. Well, far be it from me to be the one to refuse. Figuring it was unlikely to come to be, and not really thinking beyond that moment of gratification ("they picked me!"), I said yes. Within a few days, the reality created by uttering that simple word hit me like a ton of bricks. The exodus event was indeed going along as planned, and they all agreed that I should tell my story. My stomach went on a roller-coaster ride as they confirmed the date with me - and told me that I should plan on speaking for a half hour. Certain I had misunderstood, after all, at 4 a.m. who would have that attention span (myself included)? Most importantly, how in the world was I to speak continuously for a half hour in Hebrew? But no, a half hour was what they meant. Not wanting to sound like I thought I was incapable (read: not wanting to be honest), I said sure, no problem. Then I freaked out. With only a few days to prepare, I dove into it, Hebrew dictionary in hand. After all, this is my story, how difficult could it be to tell it? Of course, I needed to know my audience - and I did not. With all the public speaking I've done, I'd never spoken to a group with any of these criteria: born in Israel, kids or Hebrew speakers - and this group was all three. With my notes written up in a mix of Hebrew and English (I had to make sure I understood what I was saying), I prepared for a long night. At 4 a.m. Eitan and I drove to the community center where the school was meeting. It was a cold, dark, misty night; a perfect setting for a creepy movie - or a reenactment of the exodus, I suppose. When we arrived, I searched in the dark for Eitan's teachers, Baruch and Hila, among all the sleep-deprived parents milling about with their kids. It's amazing how every woman looked like Hila in the dark. But Hila herself, I could not find. Finally the kids spread out in a somewhat disorganized fashion, and parents began telling their tales to select groups. By the time I found Eitan's teachers, the stories were mostly told and they were beginning to line up for the hike. Baruch asked me how long I was planning on speaking. I thought he was joking, since they clearly asked for a half hour. Thinking he must now be regretting that plan, I offered to speak for 5 or 10 minutes, since they obviously no longer had time for more than that anyway. Baruch wouldn't hear of that - he said he didn't want to waste this opportunity, and would I mind coming to their class on Wednesday to give my story "the attention it deserves"? I was shocked - but (of course) I said yes. Anyway, it would have been a nightmare trying to read my notes in the dark, and a worse nightmare to try and speak without my notes. I was more than happy to put off what I was terrified to do. Of course, it could not be put off forever. On Wednesday I arrived at my son's school, basically shaking in my shoes, thinking of all the things that could go wrong: I won't be able to put sentences together, the kids will be totally bored, I'll use the wrong words to a disastrous result. The sky was the limit to all the potential calamities. Finally, I began. No, I did not suddenly find my inner-Hebrew speaker and speak fluently without a hitch. There were plenty of hitches. But somehow I spoke well enough. I made sentences that more or less made sense. And most importantly, the kids were totally with me. From the beginning, till the very end, - nearly 40 minutes later - the kids were attentive, participated, asked questions and seemed to really get something out of it. I spoke to the kids about the challenges and the rewards of making aliya. I spoke about the different kinds of aliya: that made by people escaping oppression vs the phenomenon of Western aliya, of people leaving behind great lives to live in the Land of Israel. I spoke of the expectations of aliya and the subsequent realities that take their place. Most of all, I spoke from my heart, and I spoke from my soul. My Hebrew was far from perfect, I stuttered and stammered and I threw in lots of English words. But when I was done I was certain of one thing: They got it. At the end, Baruch asked me if I had a final message I wished to leave them with. That was easy: After 2,000 years we've been given the opportunity to return to Israel, a challenge embraced by many. But these boys, all except Eitan, were born in Israel. They must always appreciate what a tremendous privilege this is and never, for even a moment, take for granted that they live where for so many others, for so many years, it has been but a dream. The enthusiastic applause from every boy told me everything I needed to know. The writer is the author of Moving Up: An Aliya Journal.