Learning to read the writing on the wall

Students learn Hebrew through street drawings of Theodor Herzl, graffiti that invokes Martin Buber, impromptu chats with the neighborhood barber.

graffiti 521 (photo credit: DEBORAH SINAI)
graffiti 521
(photo credit: DEBORAH SINAI)
‘Niva – bartender or whore?” read the Hebrew graffiti on the side of a run-down apartment building on Kishon Street, which cuts through the heart of the gritty south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin.
“It looks like Niva broke some guy’s heart,” Guy Sharett said, as a group of new immigrants stood by trying to decipher the spray-painted Hebrew.
Little did Niva’s spurned erstwhile companion know that his defacement of the old edifice would soon become course material for Sharett, the Florentin resident who leads “graffiti ulpan” walking tours for new immigrants looking to escape the tedium of in-class language instruction.
Instead of rudimentary grammar lessons through laborious textbooks, Sharett, a 39-year-old former journalist who studied linguistics at the Hebrew University, thought that olim would better enhance their knowledge and recall of Hebrew by absorbing the language from street and store signs, graffiti, bumper stickers, public want ads and random conversations with familiar faces from the neighborhood.
“These walking tours are my baby,” said Sharett, the former southeast Asia correspondent for the Yediot Ahronot daily and Channel 10 television.
Fluent in seven languages, Sharett combined his linguistic proficiency with an unorthodox teaching style. The result is a not-so-ordinary Hebrew lesson where the group’s surroundings are the classroom, and the course work comes in the form of political statements scribbled on buildings or catchy sales pitches that adorn window shops.
“It all started a few years ago when I was teaching [Hebrew] one on one,” he said. “I started doing those walking lessons with individuals, private lessons, but we were either walking or sitting in a café. And I saw that I was able to use the material of the street and the signs, graffiti, as my textbook. Also, sometimes we would sit in the café and work on a text and someone at the adjacent table would say something, so we would eavesdrop on people and analyze what they said.”
Students who embark on the tour learn the language through street drawings of Theodor Herzl, graffiti that invokes Martin Buber, bumper stickers of Facebook groups exclusively for tall people, impromptu chats with the neighborhood barber, and signs that adorn the entrances to some of Florentin’s synagogues and shops.
“It’s not only graffiti, it’s also learning Hebrew through meeting the neighborhood life,” Sharett said. “We would stop by the local dog salon and talk with [the owner] Gavriela. It’s something that stays [in your mind] because you remember how the light was, how we walked, Gavriela’s face, whatever. And many times you would see things a few times, which is good linguistically because we need to be reminded of new words.”
The Florentin tour also gives students a glimpse into the rich history of the neighborhood, which has been heavily populated by the remnants of the Jewish community from Thessaloniki.
The tour winds down with a walk through the neighborhood’s industrial heart, Komfort Street, which is lined with welders’ shops, carpenters and abandoned well houses.
Sharett says the main advantage of this teaching method is that students are better able to absorb the language’s nuances. “Because it is contextual and situational, we remember things better than if we were reading a boring dialogue from a textbook. It gets into our memory better and stays there.”
The social tent protests that sprang up on Rothschild Boulevard – which were replete with banners and signs that bore politically driven slogans – provided Sharett with an opportunity to give immigrants a crash course on Israeli society.
“When the protests on Rothschild started, I decided to start tours and lessons [that involved] reading the signs,” he said. “I saw that many new immigrants were not feeling part of [the protest] because they could not understand what was written on the signs.
And I was the mediator in a way, so we would walk there and suddenly see biblical references. Any Israeli that walked past that and reads it understands the effect, but when you’re an oleh hadash [new immigrant] you need to say, ‘Okay, what can I make of it on a literal and political level?’” According to Sharett, language can be learned faster and more effectively if the student can associate the process with something that is enjoyable and fun. Under Sharett’s instruction, a female student who was an avid fan of the Meryl Streep-Nicole Kidman flick The Hours watched the film in English but followed the Hebrew subtitles, pausing after each frame in order to gain an understanding of the text.
Sharett has also tutored individuals through Israeli popular culture, assigning his students episodes of A Star Is Born (the Israeli version of American Idol) and the hit situational comedy Ramzor (Traffic Light). A French student who was taking classes in krav maga (an Israeli brand of martial arts that was originally conceived for use in the military) was assigned newspaper and magazine articles about the topic.
Sharett said that he has largely received positive feedback from his students.
“Up until now they’ve been quite amazed,” he said. “They keep telling me, ‘Wow, we have to go through really boring classes in the ulpan and this is so fun and interesting.’ But I tell them that [the tours] are complementing the ulpan, because conjugations have to be learned. But people are happy and excited, and they contact me afterward. And they e-mail me pictures of graffiti from their home and send it to me to learn what the words mean. So they are more a part of the city and the local culture.”
“I speak seven languages, and I know what it means to be a student and to learn a language,” Sharett said.
“It means that I can identify with their difficulties. So I’m a teacher, but I’m always a perpetual language student.”
Sharett said his next plan is to offer walking language tours of the Carmel open-air market in Tel Aviv as well as the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.