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Speaking Hebrew

            I’m in my third semester of Hebrew classes with the school in Tel Aviv (online), and I’m still loving it. Each semester is ten weeks long, with about a month off in between, and it’s work, but their method lowers the stress level from where it would be in a regular academic class (no tests, short lessons, lots of repetition and variety). And I love that I’m meeting so many different people: from Italy, and Germany, and South Africa, and France, and India, and Australia, and, of course, the United States and Canada. It surprised me, at first, that aside from the fact that we’re speaking Hebrew, and we don’t have class on the Jewish holidays, there’s almost no Jewish content to the class. I don’t even know if all of my classmates are Jewish, because it never comes up. Sometimes I miss the Jewishness I was expecting, but this way I’m getting a real sense of what it must be like to be in a country where Jewishness is so much in the background, and so taken for granted, that it doesn’t need to be discussed.

            My original goal in taking these classes was to overcome my fear of speaking Hebrew, and especially of making mistakes, and I still feel a pinch when I get something wrong in class, or forget something I should have remembered, or lose focus for a second and have to ask for instructions again – but the pinch is so much smaller than it used to be. The accepting, non-judgmental style of the classes seems to be helping to change the wiring in my brain in a way that will, hopefully, translate into the rest of my life as well.

            I keep trying to figure out why I like these classes so much, despite the amount of time and money I’m spending on it that I should be spending on more practical things. I think part of it is that I like getting a chance to meet new people in a controlled environment, where I know what’s expected of me and where the boundaries are. But I’m not sure that that would be enough to push me to take a French or Spanish class, even in the exact same format. There’s a little girl inside of me who fell in love with Hebrew early in life, and she’s reveling in this chance to speak her language.


            But maybe my favorite thing about these zoom classes, especially since in-person gatherings have required face masks for so long now, is that my facial expressions are visible. There’s so much of who I am that comes through on my face and it’s been such a relief to be  seen again and to have people say – oh, Rachel doesn’t like that – without my having to say a word!


            I’m still – three semesters later – finding stores of vocabulary and grammar that I haven’t accessed in decades. The more I practice, the less time I have to spend rifling through the dusty attic of my brain, with its sticky closets and creaky drawers, for each word I want to say. But I still get anxious when I first log onto the zoom class and the teacher asks each of us how we’re doing and I have to think of a simple, polite answer to the question, in Hebrew. Even in English I would struggle to eke out an everything’s fine, but in Hebrew I feel even more tongue tied.

And yet, given how awkward these opening conversations are for me, it’s ironic, or perfectly reasonable, that I decided to teach my synagogue school students how to have a simple opening conversation in Hebrew. Person one: Hi, how are you. Person two: choose from everything’s fine, very good, and terrible. The kids love saying Al HaPanim (I feel terrible) so that’s been a hit. I love that the kids giggle and smirk when they say it, because that means it will stick with them. And I know from my own experience that there’s such relief in being allowed to say, “I feel terrible,” if only because we are usually expected to say we’re fine when someone asks. And when I explained to them that the literal translation of Al HaPanim is “on the face,” as in “I’m falling on my face,” or “I’m covering my face with my hands because it’s so bad,” they loved it even more. For me, just saying, “it’s on my face,” when my emotions often are right on my face, resonates.

            We’ve also started watching Israeli TV shows for homework between Zoom classes, and it’s exciting to see how much I’ve been able to understand (because even the subtitles are in Hebrew!). The first show we watched was a romantic comedy about the fashion business, and now we’re watching a drama about a group of army buddies with PTSD getting back together to solve a mystery. The TV shows are much more my speed than a lot of the Israeli movies I’ve been able to find, and it’s giving me a better sense of what Israelis themselves might choose to watch.

She has it/The Stylist
When Heroes Fly

            And, as a result, it’s getting more real to me that I may, eventually, be able to visit Israel. Even a few years ago it felt like a dream, or something for my bucket list, but now it feels inevitable. I feel like these classes are giving me the solid ground under my feet that I will need on the trip, in order to really appreciate the experience and not feel unmoored and overwhelmed. I still worry that Israelis won’t like me, because I am too soft, too American, but I’m learning more and more with each class about how Israelis, at least in Tel Aviv, think and speak in real life, and I’m finding that, just like Americans, they are all different, almost like real people.

            In the meantime, I keep practicing my Hebrew, reading slowly through My Hebrew copy of Harry Potter, watching Israeli TV shows and movies, and speaking Hebrew at home, at least with the dogs. They really seem to understand what I’m saying, though they might just be humoring me. It’s hard to tell. They can be especially inscrutable when they’re overdue for a visit to the groomer.

“We don’t need haircuts, and we understand every word you say.

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.

52 responses »

  1. “And, as a result, it’s getting more real to me that I may, eventually, be able to visit Israel.”

    Rachel, God only knows what’s in store for the future, but when (not if, when) you have the opportunity, GO!

    You will never regret it. To wander through the markets, to have Shakshuka for breakfast, to see the sea at Tel Aviv, all of these are marvelous. But to walk through the Old City in Jerusalem… there are not words.

  2. I had been told all my life how much I would love Israel. Then in April 2019 Kristine and I visited the Holy Land.

    It was incredible. I mean everything: the terrain, the food, the hotels, the archaeology, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, the people, the sense of God”a presence and blessings.

    Now when enmeshed in Scriptures my mind’s eye takes me back to that beautiful land. I completely understand why it is the promised land. Jerusalem is the most moving, inspiring city I have ever seen. I will never forget my time at the Wailing Wall or wandering through that astonishing city.

    Hope you get there as soon as the traveling conditions are ideal.

  3. Rachel–it makes me happy to read how much you love these classes. Yay for you!! And when people can read the expression on your face without you saying anything–that is the best! They totally ‘get’ you. Very happy for you.

  4. I’d find it very exciting to be studying with people around the world like that. I hope your dream of visiting Isreal happens so you can communicate effortlessly.

  5. Linda Lee/Lady Quixote

    Oh, I do hope you visit Israel. It would be a wonderful experience, I’m sure. Then you could share the experience with us here on your blog.

    I love the way you write. ‘The more I practice, the less time I have to spend rifling through the dusty attic of my brain, with its sticky closets and creaky drawers, for each word I want to say.’ — great imagery!

  6. I had to smile when I read that you use Harry Potter. I have the whole set in French and use it to keep my skills up in that language!

  7. Good for you for sticking with the classes. I have a great deal of difficulty with languages. I did take Hebrew classes 25 years ago, but sadly I wasn’t very good. I made tapes, flash cards, lessons to accompany the lessons, etc. and I still struggled.
    I had Spanish for 8 years and can barely say anything. The funny thing though, I can understand much more than I speak. It comes in handy often. LOL
    I think, when you get to Israel you will be so happy with the work you have done to speak the language.

  8. It’s great that you’re gaining enjoyment and confidence from the classes and spreading that around

  9. Learning/perfecting a new language is always worth the expense. Glad you are continuing.

  10. The act of learning a different language is truly mind-expanding. I’m glad you are able to immerse yourself in an accepting, friendly class setting.

  11. I found this online, Rachel.

    How Many People Speak Hebrew?
    In Israel, where Hebrew was made the official language in 1922, Hebrew is spoken by pretty much all (roughly) 8.3 million residents. Only half of those who speak it in Israel use it as their first language, but it is widespread throughout the country. Because of various patterns of immigration, the other half speak languages including Yiddish, English, Polish and Arabic, among others.

    There are about a million people outside of Israel who speak Hebrew, as well. Poland recognizes it as a minority language, and there are communities in the United States that use the language regularly.

    Once you are fluent, you will be able to converse with over 9,000,000 people. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

  12. Glad to hear how much you’re enjoying these lessons!

    Since I’ve been staying with my friend in Wales during the pandemic, we’ve been doing online Welsh lessons. It’s such fun, really cheap (works out at £45 per year for a 30 week course of 2- 3hrs a week, plus £10 for the printed coursework & there’s tons of free online resource) and really sociable, as they arrange other online activities, such as quizzes, reading sessions, TV / gardening / ukulele / singing clubs as well as the regular lessons & revision sessions.

    And, like you, we see folk from all over the world as well as Wales – plenty from all over England, Scotland & Ireland who have family connections or moved away, but Germany, Netherlands, Dubai, Australia, Canada and USA (Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania & others). Some of these folk are getting up at 4am or staying up until 3am to attend!

    We too are enjoying listening to Radio Cymru – I’ve even played a few numbers to my uke group! – & watching S4C telly – with English subtitles! (lots of children’s, history, travel, comedy, music).

    It’s a great way to have something external to do rather than focus on the news of being away from home. I’d certainly recommend learning a language on Zoom like this. Good luck and I’m glad you’re having a good time using it teaching your classes and starting to think about future travel plan options. How exciting! Jeanette

  13. Shalom, Rachel. Are you doing anything special with the kids for Purim?

  14. Hebrew is such a beautiful language.

  15. It’s impossible to describe the connection with a home or land you’re not born into when you bring it back into your life. For me it’s like every cell in my body begins to sing, and I’m not a stranger anymore. I hope your experiences will bring you much joy.

  16. I can’t imagine speaking Hebrew or even learning it. Sounds hard to learn and to speak.

  17. So pleased you’re doing so well Rachel, and even more, that you’re enjoying it. I find that’s half the battle!

  18. I’m sure your dogs are fluent in Hebrew now. You could probably practice on them.

  19. By the way, i tend to get a lot of positive reactions to my readings of Yeshiva Girl, heck one follower even told me they plan to buy the book. 👍😁

  20. Good for you! learning a language is something that give our brain excellent exercise and that is a good thing. I hope you will go to Israel and get to use some of your Hebrew.

  21. It’s just fine to spend money on what interests you instead of “practical” things. Good luck and have fun with your Hebrew lessons and fellow students.

  22. Good on ya for going the extra mile to learn the language!

  23. I find TV adverts a fun source of learning for other cultures and languages.

  24. Wonderful! Which school is it? My cousin is looking for a good recommendation.


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