Speaking the Language

The official language of the State of Israel is Hebrew. That's what Israelis learn in their schools. It's what they use in daily life, in their businesses and law offices and government agencies. Israeli music has Hebrew lyrics. Israeli novels are in Hebrew. It is the language of Israeli society. That's why, from the age of two until thirteen my parents had me study Hebrew; in order that one day I could come here and be able to speak the language. And though I am by no means fluent, I can speak Hebrew. I can walk up to any pedestrian, any employee in any store, or any waitress and speak to them just fine in Hebrew. It took many years of hard work and practice, but I'm pretty good at speaking Hebrew.

That is, I think I am. I can't be too sure, because hardly a soul speaks to me in Hebrew here. Here's how a normal conversation goes here.

Me: "Shalom. Yesh li she'elah." (Hello. I have a question.)
Israeli: "Yes?"
*I do a doubletake...did I speak to him in English? Or did he just respond in Hebrew?*
Me: "Ehh...Eifoh ani yachol limtzoh et harechov [shem shel harechov]" (Uhh...where can I find the street, [street name])
Israeli: "I've never heard of it."
Me: "Beseder...atah lo gar birushalayim?" (OK. You don't live in Jerusalem?)
Israeli: "I understand English just fine."
Me: "Fine. I'm leaving."

Either that, or I say "Ani lo meveen anglit" (I don't understand English) after his first response in English and he looks at me like I'm either crazy or confused. Or both. That's how it went for the first month or so. Now, I'm starting to learn some tricks.

  1. Fake an Israeli accent as best as you can for the first sentence you say. If it sounds Israeli enough that it leaves the Israeli confused about your nationality, he might respond in Hebrew. Once you have a Hebrew dialogue going, he might not switch to English.
  2. Ask a complicated question that requires a complicated answer, something medical or science related. If the Israeli doesn't know the terminology in English, he might respond in Hebrew. Once you have him started, pretend you understood his answer and change the topic to something you can converse about.
  3. Go where English speakers don't. Anywhere far from downtown. Look for restaurants where the primary menu is in Hebrew, synagogues where there are only books in Hebrew, and things like open air markets and shops far from downtown.
  4. At social gatherings, listen for who is already speaking Hebrew, and then join their conversations.
  5. Avoid areas around tourist attractions and malls.
  6. Learn Hebrew slang, and drop as many terms as you can as often as you can.
  7. Dress like an Israeli. Small t-shirts with the collars cut off, shorts-pants (I don't know what the term is but these things just look like absurdly long shorts), and sandals should do the trick.
Oh...and maybe learn Hebrew well, too.

Up in the Air

  I’m typing this from the second leg of my flight to Israel. I am sitting next to a girl named Yasmin (yahz-MEEN), with whom I have been practicing my Hebrew. She has taught me several slang phrases, such as “בכיף” (ba-KEFF) which means “cool."
  My Hebrew is a lot better than I thought it would be. I have been able to speak near-normally to Yasmin in Hebrew, even if in short and simple sentences. Once my classes begin and I am required to speak Hebrew in and out of class, I imagine I will start to regain my Hebrew much more quickly.
  The food is terrible on this flight and the individual entertainment systems don’t work well but the staff has been very helpful.
  We land in about an hour, when I will meet all the other Nativers for the first time and receive my cellular phone. Oh how exciting!

Facts about Israel

I'm flying out of SFO tomorrow morning on US Airways. I have one layover in Philidelphia, and then it's a straight shot to Tel Aviv, where I'll arrive Tuesday afternoon.

Some interesting things you might like to know about Israel:
  1. Instant messaging, cell phones, solar water heaters, Uzis, USB flash drives, cherry tomatoes, single drip irrigation (my favorite), Rummikub, and artificial gills were invented there.
  2. I do have family there, on both my mother's and father's sides. All my family there lives in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.
  3. Israel is technically at peace with both Jordan and Egypt, but it is a cold peace and these nations are far from allies of Israel. All other neighboring countries are not at peace with Israel. They do not trade, speak, or work with Israel; from time to time they attack Israel with military force. Indeed, just last month Lebanese snipers shot into Israel, killing one Israeli officer and wounding another.
  4. Direct peace talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas begin on Thursday, September 2nd. If we are to be honest, the sought-out results of a two state solution and long term peace will not be realized, but communication is the vital first step in the peace process and communication had stopped for far too long.
  5. Schwarma (SHWORM-uh) and falafel are the hamburgers of Israel. Schwarma is better than falafel, if you ask me.
  6. Israel has about 7.5 million inhabitants. An estimated 75% of that population was Jewish as of December 2009.
If you have questions about Israel, or my opinions, that were not answered above, comment below with your question and it will be answered.