Israeli Life: Reversing Babel
Two weeks into our ulpan—an intensive Hebrew class that uses an immersion method designed to rapidly integrate new immigrants into Israeli life—our teacher did something that would forever change the way I view my fellow students and even the way I see myself and what it means to make aliya.
She asked each of us to share our mikzoa, profession, before we made the leap from life as we knew it into full-time Israelis-in-training. Turns out that the Parisian I had thought of as simply the class conjugating champ was actually a lawyer, the shy woman from India with a steel-trap memory for irregular verbs was a professor and the couple who never failed to speed-walk during break were a doctor and nurse back in Ukraine. And my study partner Cheri? In her prior life she ran a thriving Long Island electrolysis business.
All of them—all of us—were pretty much at the top of our games with full lives—in India, Colombia, Ukraine, France, Turkey, Australia, Great Britain and the United States. We had fully realized identities, identities we more or less tossed in the trash to become olim hadashim, freshly minted Israelis. Now, two months into kita alef, first grade, we are communicating on the level of the average Israeli 2-year-old (“Shalom, Yossi! Shmee Devorah”). So, when I checked out a stack of toddler board books and the kindly librarian assumed I was planning to read them to my grandkids, I just nodded and smiled.
Back home, I got comfortable on the couch and dug in. A talking doll. The misadventures of a naughty puppy. A little boy and his family moving to a new apartment. Not exactly great literature. But exactly where I am right now.
In fact, learning Hebrew is delivering such a hit to my baby-boomer ego that I am filled with new empathy for the immigrants I have met over the years whose thick accents and malapropisms always gave me a chuckle. Now it is my turn to be the source of much amusement. On the bus, my Heb-lish conversation with the driver evokes pity—or outright giggles—from fellow passengers.
Back at my apartment, nighttime usually finds me exhausted from the struggle to communicate with my neighbors. But since it appears that there is no Hebrew-language chip to download directly into my cranium, by the next morning I am back in ulpan, cramming vocabulary words and those endless rules of Hebrew grammar into my brain. And then hope these 62-year-old gray cells can retain it. “Kashe,” we sigh after each new conjugation is thrown up on the board. “It’s hard.”
And yet, and yet, as we break our teeth on kone, kona, konim, konot, we know for a fact that ulpan is nothing less than a gift the State of Israel gives to new citizens. The founders of the state understood that one can only be truly at home here when one speaks this language and understands the ingredients listed on a package of bread, the neighbor’s greeting, repairman’s estimate, bus driver’s instructions and the song of the toddler down the hall. Ulpan is quite simply the State of Israel’s investment in each wave of immigrants since 1948.
When Jews began immigrating to Palestine from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, they spoke mostly Yiddish, with Russian, Polish and German thrown in. So it remained until a Belarus-born teacher named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda decided the time was ripe to expand the Hebrew language beyond its prayer and Torah roles and let it loose on the streets. What supreme chutzpa it took to think he could transform an ancient tongue into a modern language that would someday be fit for science and stocks, fairy tales and forensics, literature and lovemaking.
But I had to be 35,000 feet in the air before I could fully realize the power of this language. Two years before I made aliya, I was en route to Israel on Air France. After six hours of polite smiles, steaming hot face towels and “Voulez-vous café au lait?” the plane pulled into the gate and the door swung open. Greeting our ears was the loud voice of a man in the Tel Aviv ground crew rebuking his fellow worker in terms that one did not need to be a Hebrew scholar to understand, terms I doubt Ben-Yehuda ever listed in his lexicon. “That’s the most beautiful sound I have ever heard,” I said to myself. “I am home.”
Still, it took moving here for the secret of Hebrew—and really of ulpan, too—to be fully demystified for me. Nearing the end of the parasha of Noah, we read a strange little interlude about the Tower of Babel. Speaking a single language, these early humans decided they had built something huge enough to pierce the heavens and challenge God’s authority. Halfway through the construction, they were suddenly taken down a peg when the Creator placed a number of languages in their mouths.
The upshot: Thoroughly confused, these early humans abandoned their arrogant and rebellious project and “scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
Now, in ulpan, I see the Babel experience thrown into reverse. On the first day of class we had nothing in common except the determination as a bunch of Jews to become Israelis.
Speaking a dozen different languages, we could barely ask each other for the evening’s homework or directions to the ladies’ room. Now just a couple months in, we are actually speaking the same language. It is only toddler Hebrew so far, but just last week I noticed we actually began to laugh at each other’s jokes.
This time around, we are not using our unity to challenge God. By coming together in the language of our forefathers and foremothers, we are building something to serve Him in the land given to Abraham, to Sarah and to all of us who are their children.