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.
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.
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?