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The Hebrew Class

            My first fear about taking an online Hebrew conversation class this summer was the half hour Zoom interview and assessment I’d have to get through first. I was afraid I’d be convinced to spend more money than I wanted to spend, because my social anxiety would kick in and get me to agree to terms I wasn’t okay with, just to please the interviewer. But as one of my readers recently pointed out, Duolingo can only take you so far, and I really wanted to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew (or any of my other foreign languages) out loud. My hope was that pushing my boundaries in this way would help me make progress in my life overall, but I also just wanted to become more fluent in Hebrew; it’s been a life-long dream.

         “I dream of chicken.”

   I was nervous about the interview for days ahead of time, and tried to think of every excuse to skip it, but in the end I forced myself to sit in front of my computer and click the Zoom link.

            First there was an initial greeter, a young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and where I lived and if it was anywhere near the Five Towns (it depends on what you mean by “near.”) And then he sent me off to a breakout room to meet with a teacher for an assessment. The teacher was another young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked me about my background in Hebrew. I thought I was supposed to answer him in Hebrew, since he was assessing me, but it was a struggle to find the words and he said I could use English to start with. Eventually, though, he started asking me to translate things, and answer questions in Hebrew, and then he had me repeating phrases in rapid fire scripted conversations. When I had trouble hearing him a few times early on we both assumed that the problem was coming from his computer, and he was apologetic and tried everything he could think of to fix the problem. Some things seemed to help for a short period of time, but then the problem would come back, and go away, and come back. We doggedly made it through the whole interview, though, and he told me that I’d be at the third level, out of eight. He told me that I’d be a little advanced at the beginning of the class, but it would be good for me to get a chance to build my confidence, rather than feeling too challenged right away.

I had to remind myself that the levels he was talking about were Israeli levels; being a good Hebrew student in America is not the same as being an Israeli native speaker. But it still hurt my pride.

“Harrumph.”          

  Anyway, then I was sent to the third young Israeli guy who smiled at me and asked about my background in Hebrew and then gave me an overview of the program, including the costs and class schedules. When I had trouble hearing him he said that the problem was coming from my side, and it turned out that he was right. I pressed every button I could think of and then unplugged my headphones, just to see if that would change anything, and the problem went away. I’d never had problems with those headphones before, so I hadn’t even thought of them when I was having my assessment with the teacher, but discovering that the problem had been coming from me all along sent me into a shame spiral. That poor guy had worked so hard to fix a problem he had no control over, and it was my fault. I get into shame spirals very easily, and I was already feeling guilty about not being more advanced in Hebrew, and for being uneasy with all of the young male energy, and for just being so uncool. But I was able to keep my head up and when the third young Israeli guy tried to convince me to sign up for a year of classes at a time, saying there would be discounts for each added semester, I was able to politely and firmly say No, I only want to sign up for one class right now. Even so, the cost of the class was more than I’d expected, and I felt guilty for spending so much of my salary from synagogue school learning advanced Hebrew that I wouldn’t really need in order to teach my beginner classes.

And yet, I decided to take the class anyway, because I really really wanted to. There would be two one-and-a-half hour sessions per week, for ten weeks, plus up to four hours a week of more casual conversational zooms for practice. There was also something about What’s App and Facebook, but at a certain point I wasn’t able to take in any more information. It was a relief when the Zoom was over and I could shut off my computer and take a breath, but almost immediately the shame spiral sped up and I went over and over my internal transcript of the conversations and worried that I’d said and done a million things wrong, especially signing up for the class at all.

  “You could have bought more chicken treats, Mommy.”       

   When I got the follow up emails, reiterating all of the information, there was also a video explaining how they used What’s App in their program (which was helpful because I’ve never used What’s App in my life), and even better, the teacher in the video was female. The tidal wave of young male energy on the Zoom had clearly been more overwhelming than I’d realized, because seeing a relatable woman, not my age but not twenty-two either, was an incredible relief.

            Why do I want to do this now? Because teaching synagogue school has been reminding me of how much I loved learning Hebrew growing up, and how much more I want to learn; and because I want to push myself to build my social skills, and my tolerance for being uncomfortable. But there’s also the extra push of the recent situation between Israel and Hamas, and even more so the media and social media reactions to it.

            I’m not an Israeli, and I have no plans to move to Israel, but the existence of a Jewish state has always been important to me. Israel is the only place in the world with a Jewish majority population and where Jewish holidays are celebrated as state holidays. In the United States, Christian holidays are the default holidays for school vacations and days off from work and national celebrations, etc., but in Israel, being Jewish is the default. It’s kind of like being a Trekky and going to a Star Trek convention, and suddenly you’re not a weirdo anymore. Or at least not the only one. Just knowing that a place like Israel exists makes me feel more acceptable for who I am.

            But a lot of the barbs thrown on social media recently have been questioning Israel’s right to exist at all, and have used many old anti-Semitic tropes and even outright support of the Holocaust in their arguments for why the country should be wiped off the map. As a result, anti-Semitic attacks in real life, in America and Europe, have increased, on top of the four years of rising anti-Semitic incidents during the Trump era.

            I can’t fix anti-Semitism. And I can’t fix the problems in Gaza and Israel and the West Bank. But I have had a lot of feelings about all of it, and the answer for me has been to deepen my understanding of Israel and the people who live there. There has been solace in spending time in Jewish spaces and reading articles from many different perspectives, and listening to Israeli music, and remembering my childhood joy when I first learned about the State of Israel.

            So, I’m going to take this very scary online Hebrew conversation class, and try to build my tolerance for things that are uncomfortable: like grammar, and making mistakes in public, and talking to people I disagree with. Because all of my reading and listening and thinking and remembering has left me believing that Israel is strong enough to withstand the criticism, and to correct her mistakes and accept multiple viewpoints in order to find a new way forward. Just like me.

“That sounds exhausting. We’ll just wait here.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

67 responses »

  1. You are so brave! I should probably sign up for a French conversation class to try to regain my skills. It surprises me how much French vocabulary I recall; isolated words seem to pop up when I’m looking for words for the New York Times Spelling Bee, in which of course French words don’t count! I’ll be looking forward to subsequent posts reporting how you get on.

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  2. Rachel, I admire your willingness to step outside your comfort zone. I too feel more and more the outsider in my own world. Good for you. Best of luck with your new experience.

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  3. Good for you. You have more courage than I do in tackling a new language.

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  4. Rachel–you are so much stronger than you think. Kudos to you for tolerating all those young guys and sticking to your guns about exactly how many classes you want to attend. Your new way forward is closet than you know. Go get ’em, Rachel!

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  5. I like the idea of going for it when there is something you really want to do. And I love your dogs!!

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  6. Always impressed with your experiences, Rachel. Shavua tov!

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  7. One day I’d like to attend a Star Trek convention and not feel weird!

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  8. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel – again, I read your blog post and feel the strength in you that you are often blind to. You always inspire me to try more than I would try without your words and feelings traveling in my head. Thank you for believing in yourself even when it feels impossible. I hope you know how much you inspire the rest of us!

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  9. Beautiful Post! I only visited Israel once but as soon as I got there, It felt like coming home! Bravo for taking the class! BTW, I got married in a beautiful Temple Israel in the five towns!

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  10. I like the parallel of Israel’s journey with your language learning adventure.

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  11. I enjoyed reading this post. You go, girl!

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  12. You can never stop learning! Best of luck in the class.

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  13. You go girl. 100% confident that you will succeed.

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  14. Good for you in following through with that class… and good luck. Your confidence will improve and I know you’ll do well.
    Art

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  15. My parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents all spoke Polish, but we kids only spoke English. I have always wanted to learn Polish. Your post reminds me of when I signed up for a two-week immersion class in Krakow (I was 58 years old and had been doing Rosetta Stone for a year). I was a very beginner, which was good with me because I found Polish much more challenging than studying French or Spanish. People ask me why I am studying Polish, and this line expresses my sentiment: “….because I really really wanted to.” I am glad you are doing it. For those of us who want a deeper connection with our culture or ancestry, language is a door. I hope you can have fun with it; none of the instructors expects you to be proficient.

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  16. I am a warrior! Repeat that to yourself.

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  17. Keep nurturing that courage. You’re doing great!

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  18. My computer insists on loading endlessly today, which is why I am unable to “like” your post. Technical challenges are a constant in this technological age. Shame spirals are, of course, among the many scars of abuse. Bravo on your perseverance, Rachel! Try to focus on your enjoyment rather than the level to which your proficiency is assigned.

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  19. So great to start something like that. Hope you get great enjoyment from it.

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  20. Awesome! So cool that you are challenging yourself. All the best of luck with the class. And I dream of chicken too.

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  21. Wow, that’s amazing! Your reasons are admirable. I don’t know the things that are being said in social media, but I can imagine. And I’m a Christian, however I don’t usually flaunt it, bc I want my actions to speak for me. Too many times in history and the present people, nations, and churches have hid behind ‘Christianity’ while doing deplorable things to other people, nations, and churches.

    Have you ever wondered why some places are more violent than others? Like experience more violence? Have you ever wondered why a recurring theme for Israel is genocide? When I read the Bible, it covers Queen Esther’s time and the foiling of Haman’s plot. But I’m sure there were others. The Maccabbees? I’m not entirely sure that was intended as a genocide or not. And then WW2 events. My point is why? Does the Torah mention an enemy, an adversary?

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    • There’s a very long history of anti-semitism in the diaspora, from treating Jews as second class citizens to expelling Jews from Spain and elsewhere, to pogroms to the holocaust, but in ancient Israel the Hebrews weren’t necessarily singled out as a target for prejudice. Even in Egypt, the Hebrews became slaves for economic reasons, not religious ones.

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  22. Rachel, You cannot be brave unless you are scared–I know you know that, but I had to say it anyway! As we face overwhelming badness in the world, we feel so small and helpless, but the only way to make it better is to do the small part we can. Your push outside your comfort zone is so important. If everyone would push on their own border just a little bit, maybe we could all understand each other a little better. Hang in there!

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  23. Anti-Semitism never seems to really go away. It is like that deep rooted dandelion–you can chop off the head but the darn thing will return. You are right to see it open right back up under the former president. As for Israel, perhaps everyone needs a refresher course on why it exists. That doesn’t mean everything it does is ok, but it has a right to exist. Congratulations on braving the online class. I wish you well with the Hebrew.

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    • Thank you! There’s so much in the news that deserves to be covered in more depth, rather than in hashtags. The more information we have, the less we need to rely on celebrities or even talking heads for our opinions.

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  24. I also dream of chicken. 🙂

    My social anxiety and people-pleasing has gotten me in some serious financial binds in the past. And when i’m manic i want to give money to everybody. I love languages, too.
    I guess what i mean is, great post, i related to so much!

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  25. Learning different languages is definitely a way to open the door to the world!
    It is worth taking the class, because you never know when you might need those advanced language skills!
    I went to Japan back in 2014 (for 10 days) to help 2 Japanese linguistic professors with an English language study. They had basically learned English, but I only knew 2 words of Japanese. I was stressed out most of the time, because I really couldn’t understand anything around me, and I was very afraid I was going to get lost in the large crowds at the train stations.
    (I did understand the weather forecast on TV one night, when I saw bouncing umbrellas all over the map—I figured it was going to rain. 🙂

    Lost Without Language

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  26. I think learning for the sake of learning is one of the most important things we can do. Lots of luck with your new classes!

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  27. As you clearly say, there are other reasons to take such a foreign language class than just becoming proficient in the lingo. It’s commendable you have the determination to make the arduous efforthere

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  28. I did enjoy reading about your feelings signing up for the Hebrew class. I ‘ve just taken a break from my Spanish class to give myself more time for other things, but I miss it a lot.

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  29. Hey! This seems like such a lovely post. I am just 13 and I have learnt quite some things on your blog. I am looking forward to reading your posts. I have a baking blog of my own and I would love it if you check it out. It would be great if you let me know your thoughts about it. Also, follow if you like and feel free to give suggestions!

    Reply
  30. Being afraid and doing it anyway – that is true courage. Thank you for sharing your self-doubts and “shame spirals.” Your honesty and courage remind me (and probably many of us) that we are only human after all, not quite as odd as we sometimes think. I always love to read you!

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  31. Good for you for getting past the young, smiling men and the upsell and the cost and the whole intimidating process. You’re gonna rock at conversational Hebrew!

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  32. I think it is great that you have pushed yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone. Try not to be so hard on yourself. You are learning and mistakes will be made. You have already overcome that first hard step. You are going to do great!

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  33. You are brave and dedicated and determined. I admire you. You will do great and you will never regret more learning and life experiences. God bless you.

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  34. I love righting to but I prefer on a electric

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