Shabbat Goy: Lost in translation

Hebrew is constantly tripping me up. I would like to think that it is to my credit that I still persevere with it.

Shabbat Goy cartoon 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shabbat Goy cartoon 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My Hebrew teacher pursed her lips.
“Do you want to try that again?” It was my first full sentence in Hebrew.
I felt quite proud of my achievement, so I obliged happily.
“There are people from all over the world in Eilat,” I stated confidently. She glared at me. From behind me in the class, I could hear a titter.
Anashim, not anasim,” she said sternly. Shin, not samech. People, not rapists. I lowered my head in shame. “Mind you, you may just be right...”
That was a very long time ago, I should say in my defense. But even so, I still make the most outlandish mistakes in Hebrew. I’ve called myself a pervert when I’ve wanted to say that I was drinking. I’ve mixed up a shopkeeper with a mohel.
Once, I cast serious aspersions upon the moral integrity of a poor woman unfortunate enough to have suffered multiple miscarriages. “What, she’s had four abortions? Can’t she keep her knees together?” (Look, it’s not my fault that the same word can be used for both spontaneous and induced miscarriages. How was I to know?)
Hebrew is constantly tripping me up. I would like to think that it is to my credit that I still persevere with it. After all, it is just about possible to live something of a life in Israel without a functional knowledge of Hebrew. But that won’t really do, would it? There’s nothing worse than pretending to appreciate how Eretz Yisrael functions if I can’t communicate in the language (Sarah Palin et al., take note).
That aside, my son has reached the age where, if I don’t actively work on my language-acquisition skills, I’ll find myself without a common language with him. This will happen eventually, of course; but I’d rather deal with this when he is a sullen and uncommunicative teenager, not now.
The last bit isn’t strictly true: The Small Noisy One is blessed with the capacity to express himself, clearly, in both English and Hebrew. For all the advantages of bilingualism, I’m not sure that this always works to my benefit, though.
For one thing, I can’t pretend that I don’t understand him when he makes outrageous requests, like having ice cream for dinner. I used to think that feigning a lack of comprehension would avoid tears and tantrums, but he now simply repeats himself, slowly and patronizingly, in the second language. And then I have the tears and tantrums...
Worse still, he’s taken to correcting my Hebrew mistakes. An example: I constantly confuse gender assignations, referring to a bed in the masculine and a computer in the feminine, for instance. That, I can live with. But when I talk to his little friends in his kindergarten, slipups can become catastrophic.
“What, can’t you see that he’s a boy?” he barked at me once, after I mistakenly addressed a little friend of his – indisputably male - in the feminine.
In the meantime, the other child’s face crumbled and he rushed to his parent, mortally offended by my lèse-majesté. “He called me a girl, boo-hoo-hoo.”
Oh boy... or should that be oh girl? On the other hand, my little bilingual monster fails to appreciate certain concepts that do not seem to translate well from one language to the other. He is quite polite in English, for example, but sometimes gruff and abrupt in Hebrew. We’ve worked hard, his mother and I, to get him to remember his pleases and thank-yous – in both languages – but he still sometimes uses the English when speaking in Hebrew. I guess that will be his little difficulty in the years to come, just like my – admittedly more embarrassing – malapropisms in Hebrew.
A digression: I didn’t pay much attention to Bibi’s recent jamboree in the United States, on the grounds that it wasn’t likely to change very much in the intolerable political relations between this country and its neighbors. Still, bits and pieces of the conversation filtered into my consciousness. “A state based on the 1967 borders,” “we can’t return to the 1967 borders,” stuff like that.
My humble opinion about the whole rigamarole is that... no, I’ll keep my opinions to myself. I don’t think that I speak good enough Hebrew – or Arabic, for that matter – to have an opinion worth more than the proverbial bucket of warm spit. For all this, I was interested in the interpretation Bibi chose to make of Obama’s words. After all, it seems to me that there is a not-so-subtle distinction between... no, I promised I’ll keep my thoughts to myself.
Anyway, a couple of days later I was going through some odds and ends that I’d accumulated over the years, and I stumbled across an old profile of Bibi in the New Yorker, from the period of his first stint in office as prime minister.
David Remnick, the author of the piece, came to Israel and hung around politicians, journalists and others to try to figure out what makes Bibi tick. (There is the argument that, since he did this in English, the opinions he collected shouldn’t be trusted. But since the people he spoke with would probably dissemble in any language, perhaps it doesn’t matter.) Through his interviews and conversations, Remnick was led to an interesting conclusion: “To understand Bibi, you have to understand [his] father.”
I don’t know very much about Ben-Zion Netanyahu beyond what there is in the public domain – scholar, right-winger, deeply suspicious of “concessions” to the neighbors – but a sentence a little further along in the profile gave an intriguing hint to the relationship between father and son: “After his son the prime minister makes a speech, Ben-Zion sometimes calls to correct a grammatical mistake. ‘Bibi’s Hebrew has gotten far better in recent years,’ [Ben-Zion] allows.”
Bibi, of course, is bilingual; he spent his teenage years in the United States. But I can’t help but wonder: Might it be that there are certain concepts that he can’t translate from English to Hebrew? Perhaps someone should ask Netanyahu Senior. He might just be able to clear up a couple of ambiguities...