Hebrew Hear-Say: Out of the mouths of babes and immigrants

The biggest mistake a new immigrant can make is not to learn Hebrew before making aliya. The second biggest...

hebrew lesson 88 (photo credit: )
hebrew lesson 88
(photo credit: )
The biggest mistake a new immigrant can make is not to learn Hebrew before making aliya. The second biggest... Well, there will inevitably be many embarrassing bloopers even if you studied the language for years before the big move. As one recently arrived colleague summed up in frustration: "It's like you were to go into a store in America and instead of asking for 'six,' asked for 'sex.'" This analogy is particularly appropriate for immigrant malapropisms because, for some reason, the biggest boobs always involve sex. Or maybe they are just the ones you are never allowed to forget. I found it hard to live down the contents of an urgent telegram I drafted to be sent to OC Northern Command detailing the procedure for "the emergency evacuation of UN soldiers from all the bras in the North." If one front is a hazit, the plural would logically be haziot and not hazitot, after all. I'm in good company: Another Post staffer recalls explaining the Yom Kippur War as "war on two bras." American-born pilot Joel (Yoel) Aronoff was as famous for his Hebrew mistakes as for his aviation skills. In an interview he once recalled a flight in the 1973 war: "These big white birds are coming up and I say: 'Look at all these hassidim' and the other pilot says 'Ah, hassidot [storks].' And I say: 'How do you know they are all female?'" He's got a point. If the bird is called a hassida, wouldn't that make the male of the species a hassid, and if a hassid is only used for an ultra-Orthodox Jew, what is his wife known as? Discussing with Post staffers the darndest things olim say, more than one pointed out the frequency with which new immigrants confuse mishkafayim (glasses) with michnasayim (pants) - "especially when they take them off in public," as Greer Fay Cashman puts it. The fact that the letter zayin can also refer to weapons and to an essential part of the male anatomy (not the end wearing spectacles), can also leave the innocent newcomer slightly less innocent but looking a lot greener. Even fairly well prepared immigrants can find themselves the unintentional comic act at the dinner table because the language - as language does - has changed since they learned it in heder. (Think about the English word "gay.") Although it's not incorrect to ask a guy "gamarta?" if you want to find out if he's finished something, the verb ligmor is generally used nowadays (how can I put this in a family paper?) for a more climactic act. If you're enquiring about him finishing his dinner, you're better off asking: "Siyamta?" Most mistakes are embarrassing, but there are different levels of painful: many an oleh has confused the sour cream (shamenet) with the fat lady (shmena). Your immigrant ordeal ain't over until the fat lady stops being eaten, it seems. One colleague who metaphorically dropped his glasses before fully picking up Hebrew talked about putting "adashim" (lentils) in his eyes instead of adashot (lenses)." Obviously not his ulpan's star "pupil." There is, of course, the old Hebrew-English rhyme that sums up the basic confusion: "Li me Mi who Hu, he He, she" It can only go downhill from there. A doctor's daughter recounts that her father's patients got upset after surgery when, countering complaints of pain, the physician told them "Magia lecha" (You deserve it) when he meant it's to be expected. Another immigrant apologized for being late, explaining "hitga'agati le'autobus" - well, there's missing the bus (fisfasti) and there's missing it in the heartfelt sense. The army, so essential to the Israeli experience, can beat the best-intentioned oleh. A South American fascinated by the military recalls seeing a soldier with unusual unit insignia and asking him to which omelette (havita) he belonged, scrambling the word hativa (division). A rookie on parade who confused a platoon (mahlaka) with a shower (miklahat) raised laughter in the ranks. And at least one proud Jewish mother has boasted that her son was mefahed tankim (scared of tanks) instead of mefaked tankim (a tank commander). Back in civvie street, some mistakes are beastly: The word dog (kelev) sounds inconveniently like a coathanger (kolav); cat (hatul) sounds like a diaper (hitul); and confusing hamor (donkey) and hamur (serious) can make the recent arrival feel an ass. My only advice is not to be afraid to speak out. When you've been here long enough, you too will look back and laugh. liat@jpost