I’ve been in the same online Hebrew program from Tel Aviv for more than a year now, but each semester feels like a new experience, with new challenges. For the first session of this semester, back in late October, our new teacher spoke quickly and mostly in Hebrew, only clarifying a few words in English here or there, and yet, I was able to follow most of it. A year ago I would have been lost and intimidated and now I’m not. I’m still not fluent, but I’m much closer.
One of the obstacles to overcome each semester is the renewed feeling that I’m the worst student in the class and have the least interesting life and the least impressive resume. My teachers keep telling me that I’m underestimating my fluency, but I’m the one inside my head, grasping around in the dark even for the words I thought I knew well. I do fine with homework and conjugations and vocabulary, but making conversation is hard enough for me in English, with all of my social anxiety, it’s that much harder in Hebrew, with the words endlessly trying to escape from my brain. Generally it takes me a few weeks to remember that everyone in the class is a flawed human being, just like me. I wish I could have mastered this lesson by now, but I guess I should be grateful that it eventually kicks in at all.
I’m still not sure what my goal is in studying Hebrew. Is it about going to Israel for a visit? Or just wanting to learn about Israel in more depth? Is the next step in my journey secular or religious, an activity, or more studying? I just don’t know.
This semester we’ve started to read Facebook posts in Hebrew, and other instances of natural Hebrew existing in the wild, to build our reading comprehension, but it has the effect of making me feel like an alien and uncool, now in two different languages.
One of the new things we’re doing this semester is that instead of watching one TV show from beginning to end, we’re watching single episodes of reality shows (not like “Married at First Sight,” which we watched in a previous class and that I keep trying to wash out of my brain), getting to hear different accents and different vocabularies with each show.
The first thing we watched was an episode of a show called “Makers,” where a team of creative craftspeople made new hearing aids for a hard of hearing singer, so she wouldn’t have to deal with so much static when she put her headphones on in the studio, and then they created a smart house set up for a pair of born-deaf adult twins who needed help knowing when someone rang the doorbell or when the alarm clock went off. They put light strips in every room, even in the bathroom, and programmed the lights in different colors for each alert: like the phone, or the door, or the sirens telling them to find shelter when rockets came from Gaza. And for one of the sisters who struggled with getting up on time, they attached a light fixture to her alarm clock that gradually grew brighter the longer she ignored it, and then if she was still sleeping, a fan would go on and blow in her face to finally wake her up.
We also watched an episode of a show called “On the Napkin,” about Israeli chefs, and the episode we watched was about a Japanese cook in Israel, married to an Israeli man for forty years with three adult children, and now she’s serving homestyle Japanese dinners in their dining room/restaurant every night, sourcing tofu and mushrooms and greens from nearby farms.
But the story that really got to me was from a show called “The Recording Studio.” The episode we watched was about a twelve-year-old autistic boy who wanted to record a song for his longtime teacher’s aide. His parents came with him to the studio, but he explained everything himself, telling the host of the show that his aide was so special to him because she’d spent years teaching him how to relate to his non-autistic classmates, teaching him how to speak their language so that he could live in their world and make friends. He said that it would take a degree in psychology to learn the autistic language, so he had to be the one to learn how to understand them. During rehearsals, he not only played piano and sang, he also made sure to communicate as clearly as possible with the host and musicians about what he wanted, and confronted them when they were making assumptions about what he could and couldn’t do, or which truths he could and couldn’t handle.
When his aide finally came into the studio, he hugged her and introduced her to all of the musicians, and then he sang the song with the band, and his teacher and his parents were in tears. It was so clear that she really had set him free from a lonely place, and that she had taught him how to relate to other people and feel connected to them, while still being himself.
Sometimes, out in the real world, I feel like that autistic boy, trying to translate all of my thoughts and feelings into a language other people can understand, and wishing they could speak my language instead, whatever that is. So maybe that’s why I am so drawn to learning languages in the first place, and why I’m working so hard to learn Hebrew in classes full of other people with their own internal languages and stories to share. Hearing about the countries they live in (Israel, Holland, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, America, Croatia) and the reasons why they want to learn Hebrew (planning to move to Israel, already living in Israel but wanting to speak the language, discovering a Jewish identity, trying to make peace with a Jewish childhood, wanting to talk to Israeli grandchildren, joining an Israeli dance company, or, very often, marrying an Israeli), helps me to feel hopeful that one day I will find the words to say what I mean and, in the meantime, other people will work hard to understand me, just like I work hard to understand them. And the hard work feels worth it, whether I become fluent in Hebrew or not, because the process itself is helping me create connections all over the world, and in my own brain, to help me understand myself.
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?