Thursday, January 17, 2008

Yesterday morning, bright and early, I had my first day of ulpan, intensive Hebrew school. Five hours a day, five days a week, for five straight months. Sitting in that seat and realizing how strenuous the next five months are going to be, I felt not a little pang of despair. I'm not normally one to feel like that in academic environments, but the nature of an intensive language course, one for a language of the country you live in and desperately want to be a part of, the language of Abraham and G-d Himself; The nature of learning a language under these circumstances is slightly overwhelming.

I suppose you could just call that 'pressure.' Sure, there's a lot of pressure to learn, but it goes deeper than pressure. Think about America and the influx of Hispanics. How many of us think, "Can't they just learn the language of the country they want to live in? If you want to go to all the trouble of moving here, take the trouble of a year or two and learn English!" A common sentiment, no?

The same sentiment and attitude is present in Israel, but it's magnified ten-fold. Firstly, a huge majority of the citizens of Israel, the Hebrew speaking public, come from families that moved to this country around a hundred years ago or less, and mainly around seventy years ago from the period of 1929-39. So, if I ever find myself having a conversation with older people, like taxi drivers or the random guy on the street that asks if you got any cool pictures of Bush (true story, had a 20 minute convo with this stranger), I tend to ask where they are from. They say Israel. I say, "No, no, where were you born? Where is your family from?" Germany, Syria, Morocco, Poland, Russia, etc. The point is, everybody's grandad and grandma had to do ulpan, every one learned this language in the exact same way that I am right now. There's no other way, really, besides the army.

The sociological effect is a mentality of "Everyone else did it, you can too," and if you don't, or cannot... Well, there's obviously no punishment for not knowing Hebrew, except the social stigma and despise it will bestow. In a country of rough personalities, people that don't care to hold back their opinion, despise is just about the equivalent of a crown of thorns.

But don't worry about me. I'm not too terrible at the language, and I enjoy it, which goes pretty far once you're in the trenches of language acquisition. If you are forced to learn a language that you couldn't care less about, like Spanish in high school, you'll never learn it, and if you get overwhelmed -- you're finished. So, I love Hebrew, even if I suck at learning it. It amazes me that I can have whole conversations in this strange language, after only a few months of class time over the past 2 years, and especially when I compare my knowledge of this language to Spanish, which I took for four years in high school. Four years and I couldn't order food at the local Mexican place. A few months of Hebrew and I'm debating politics and religion...

The only problem is that I'm either the worst or second worst speaker in my class. Ulpanim are broken down into knowledge/skill levels, which are determined by a written and oral test. I am in an intermediate (lower side of intermediate) class, which is just about my level, but the kids seem to know a bit more than me. The demographics of the class are interesting: 3 Americans including myself, 2 Brits, 2 Brazilians, 2 French, and an Italian girl that's probably 6'0 tall. The problem is that European and South American Jews are taught to speak and listen to Hebrew, while Americans are generally taught to read. So, I may be the worst speaker in the class, but I am one of the best readers.

Unfortunately, however, in the hierarchy of learning Hebrew, speaking is king. Therefore, I am the dunce. One last thing: Were you wondering what it actually means for a language course to be "intensive?" It means that the class is 99% Hebrew. For 4 and a half hours the only English or non-Hebrew you hear is when a new word is explained. And the levels above me don't even get that much. The teacher just goes, "Shalom, boker tov blah blah blah blah." And you're expected to keep up, or else.

As my new teacher, Sara, told us, "If you do not review, you will not remember, and if you do not remember... You won't get a job!"

Wish me luck. I will absolutely need it.


Anonymous said...

You got this Danny boy, don't worry.


Israeli by Day said...

Thanks Gordo. You my bro.