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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?

Duolingo Yiddish

            My Duolingo adventure started a few years ago, when I was looking for a way to learn Yiddish online. I wasn’t up to going to an in-person class, and the Yiddish for Dummies book didn’t do much for me, but I couldn’t find a good, free Yiddish app. Instead, I decided to brush up on my Hebrew and learn German on Duolingo, in the hopes that the two languages would mush together in my brain and magically become Yiddish (The Yiddish language is written in Hebrew letters, but is largely based on German, with words also borrowed from many other Eastern European languages, like Polish and Russian).

“Voof.”

Earlier this year, after I wrote a blog post on my difficulties with visual learning and “reading” pictures, someone suggested that I could try learning an ideographic language, to see if that would be a useful step for me. I’d actually spent a semester in college learning Egyptian Hieroglyphics, but since Duolingo didn’t have a course in that, I decided to try Chinese, just to see if the pictures really could help me to remember the sounds and meanings of words in a way “regular” letters could not.

            And I discovered that Chinese is really, really hard. I don’t know if it’s the unfamiliar ideograms or the wide variety of subtly different sounds in Chinese that make it so hard for me, but I kept trying.

            Not long after I started my struggles with Chinese, Duolingo started to advertise a new Yiddish program, and I was thrilled! I immediately had plans to read Sholem Aleichem in the original Yiddish and connect to my Eastern European Jewish roots and maybe even work on my Yoda impression. But every time I checked through the language options on the Duolingo app on my iPhone, Yiddish wasn’t there. Finally, I went to the Duolingo site on my computer, and there it was: Yiddish. It seemed that the Yiddish program was still in the Beta phase of development and that meant it only worked on my computer for some reason.

            I tend to do my Duolingo practice in bed, as a way to relax before going to sleep, so the idea of having to sit up at the computer to study just seemed wrong. But I did it. And I found that my Hebrew/German mishmash really had helped me, because I was able to test out of a bunch of the early lessons of Yiddish, despite the fact that letters that were silent in Hebrew were used as vowels in Yiddish, and vowels that made one sound in Hebrew made another in Yiddish (though I found out later that that may not be universal, but specific to the dialect of Yiddish taught on Duolingo).

“Oy.”

            Despite all of the differences, the lessons were addictive, and I was racking up points on my Duolingo account that I was ready to spend on Chinese lessons, except, when I went back to my iPhone app that night the system got confused and logged me out. I had to reset my password just to get back onto the app, and I realized that, for some reason, using the Beta Yiddish program on the computer made my iPhone angry, or jealous, or something, and discombobulated the whole system.

“Grr.”

            So, I’ve been staying away from the Yiddish program, mostly because I’m too lazy to sit up at the computer to study when it’s so much easier to lie down, but also because I’m too lazy to come up with yet another new password when I inevitably have to reboot the app on my phone. In the meantime I’m still practicing my German and my Hebrew, and French, and Spanish, and every once in a while I get up the nerve to try another lesson in Chinese, but only when I have a lot of points saved up so I can make a thousand mistakes and still finish a whole lesson.

            Continuing to study German has its own benefits too, beyond prepping for Yiddish, because I discovered that there are a lot of German language murder mysteries on Hoopla, the streaming service I get through my library. I was running out of English language mysteries to watch, so being able to tap into all of the shows in German has been a life saver.

My hopes are still high, though, that once I can do the Yiddish lessons on my phone, in comfort, I will progress quickly to spouting yiddishisms everywhere I go and annoying everyone I meet. I’m a patient person, if not an energetic one. I can wait.

“Me too!”

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?

My Duolingo Addiction

 

I am addicted to Duolingo, the language learning app. I liked it well enough when I was using it on my desktop, but now that I have it on my smartphone, it’s my nightlight and my blanky all wrapped up in one. This could explain my recently developed wrist and hand pain, but I can’t give it up. I love the little trumpet bursts when I’m successful, and I love when a previously red or green circle turns gold, because I have (temporarily) mastered a skill. I do a little bit of Spanish, French, and Hebrew every day (who am I kidding, I do A LOT). I have to force myself not to add a fourth language to my training program (Italian? Russian? Yiddish? Do they even have Yiddish?).

B - and I'm getting sleepy

Cricket is, of course, fascinated.

It’s hard to know how much I’m really learning and how much I’m just punch drunk with the positive reinforcement. I was never much of a video game player as a kid. I tried Pac Man and Miss Pac Man and Frogger, but I never bothered to compete for high scores or move on to the more intense role playing games. But if I’d had a smartphone programmed with Duolingo and Typing Tutor (one of my old time favorites) and other learning games, I would have been a goner.

 

pac man

I always identified more with the ghosts than with Pac Man.

I’m pretty sure Cricket is learning by osmosis, just hearing all of these languages pouring out of my phone. But if she’s mastering any of it, she’s keeping it close to the fur. So far her primary language remains barking, and no matter how long she tutors me in this complicated communication system, I still can’t seem to master it. Clearly she needs to create an app for that.

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Cricket could be reciting her theory of how to achieve peace on earth.  I’d never know.

My long term goal with Duolingo is to improve my language skills to the point where I can actually use them, with people, but for now, there’s something so calming and low stress about it. Especially compared to all of the other learning tasks I have at the moment. Read two hundred pages and distill it all down to two paragraphs with citations, by tomorrow! Observe a group, without taking notes, and then produce a verbatim account of two hours of dialogue, and don’t forget anything important!

            The more stressed I feel, the more time I want to spend doing Spanish exercises. I am at risk of getting to the point where there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’ll have to decide what’s more important, getting my school work done or fueling my addiction. I’m sure I’ll come to the right decision when the time comes. Well, mostly sure.

IMG_0238.JPG

“Do the right thing, Mommy.”

 

Languages on the Brain

 

In college, after I decided not to be an English major, or a comparative languages major, I had to go for an interview with the head of the French department to see if I could become a French major. Sitting there in his office, I could barely put a sentence together, despite being in advanced French classes and doing well in them. The head of the French department was nonplussed and sent me packing, and I ended up as a philosophy major, where they accepted everyone.

Even after that debacle, though, I still felt tied to the languages I’d studied (French and Hebrew), and the languages I wanted to study (Spanish, Latin, Russian, German, Yiddish, etc.). I’m not sure what the draw is for me, because I have no particular talent for languages. My brother still remembers all of his high school French without even trying, or caring, but for me it’s a struggle.

Recently, I’ve been spending even more time and effort on my language studies, as a strange sort of antidote to all of the social work reading I’ve had to do for graduate school. I have computer games and audio cds and textbooks and short stories and poetry collections, in both languages.

The dogs have had to listen to a lot of people speaking French and Hebrew through the speakers on top of my dresser. They stretch out on the bed, or on the floor, and pretend they’re being told a bedtime story in gibberish. Actually, I have no idea how much they understand. It’s possible that when I try to repeat the Hebrew words the computer flashes at me, the poor puppy dogs are shaking their heads and thinking, How can you not know that word yet, Mommy? We’ve heard it a thousand times!

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Butterfly is listening carefully.

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Cricket, on the other hand, is getting annoyed.

It’s also possible that they couldn’t care less, and barely register that these words are in French or Hebrew instead of in English, because clearly no one is talking about chicken treats or pee trips, so what’s the point?

IMG_0105

“J’ai faim, Maman. You are starving me.”

I still have trouble producing words from the black hole of my mind. You would think, with all of the information I’ve stuffed in there over the years, the words would be spilling over the sides, but no, they go in and get sucked into another dimension and reappear only when they’re in the mood. I’m a writer with two master’s degrees, and I can’t think of the word for that plastic thing you use to mix cookie dough, or the metal version of it that can flip pancakes. I run through fork, knife, plate, napkin, flipper, baking thing, until Mom calls it a “spatula” and I say “Yes! That’s it!”

I can, and have, made a fool of myself in public many times when the wrong words popped up, or no words popped up at all. I think some of my nerve pathways must blink in and out of service like an old TV antenna. If I’m in a new environment, or under stress, even the most well-travelled pathways in my brain are hard to find. With the foreign language pathways, just the stress of being asked to remember a word can be enough to shut down the whole system.

Cricket never seems to struggle to find the right word, or bark, for a given situation, but maybe that’s just bravado and she’s desperately wishing for a larger, more comprehensive vocabulary with which to express her disdain. Do other dogs understand her? If she went to Paris, would Cricket be able to understand the dog in a beret, smoking discarded cigarette butts at an outdoor café? I don’t think she cares.

IMG_0460

“I have all the words I need.”

Maybe this herky jerky, non-fluent feeling I get from trying to speak in French and Hebrew is what I’m actually reaching for, though, as a metaphor that fits how I feel. My fluency in English doesn’t match the dysfluency of my mind. Maybe the struggle to find words in a foreign language, grasping for words and struggling with grammar, feels more like my internal experience of myself. And maybe, by working through this language learning process, I will eventually be able to feel more whole, or at least feel more like a dog.

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