Jewish Journal


July 13, 2010

A Cow Goes Moo, Liat Goes, “Mehhhhh!”


Unless you’ve taken a kabbalah class somewhere along the way, you might not realize that Hebrew is not just a language. It’s a commentary, a philosophy, a teaching, a code filled with insights and secrets. “Oh, Lara, now you’ve really lost it,” you might be thinking. Aval, lo! Ani lo magzima afilu iota! (But, no! I’m not exaggerating even a drop!)

Check it out~
Basic, basic example:  “Dahm” means blood (remember dipping your finger in the wine on Passover?).
                        From that, we get “Ah-dom” which means red, and “Ah-dahm” which means man.
                        From that we get “Ah-dah-ma” which means earth. As man was created from earth and returns to earth…

“Hebrew is an ancient language,” Tamara, our dynamo of a teacher said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. To her, it must be plainly evident – these connections are all over the Hebrew language!...(And, both her parents are rabbis.)

So, in response to our wonder, Liat, another one of my favorites, might say, “be-tach,” meaning of course; from which we get “ba-too-ach” which means I’m sure, and “le-havtiach” means to promise! All these words have the same root, the essence of their meanings linked.

See, Hebrew is made of “Binyanim” or, buildings, which again is a perfect description of the system because the words build upon themselves, upon their roots, brick by brick.

AND Hebrew also contains within it lessons and messages. Take the word, “ahava” which means to love. The root “hav” means to give. The “ah” is a modifier meaning I.  So the word for love, literally translates to I give. Love is giving. So, while in English we speak of passively “falling in love” (a perplexing word choice, by the way, as my teachers point out), in Hebrew, the language itself teaches that first we give, and as a function of giving, create love. There is wisdom in this language!

So, as you can likely see by now, intensive Hebrew language class is fascinating! This is not the same as learning Bulgarian! (Though I’m sure that language has several…redeeming…things…er, nuggets…and…insights!...surely…to offer. And…I love the Bulgarian cheese here, by the way. Really sets off my watermelon well. So…thanks, Bulgaria. I was just…sayin’…)

Furthermore, it’s incredibly satisfying to feel growth every day. Swimming as my head sometimes is in all the binyanim and their different structures, I can’t seem to get enough of this language. Lucky for me, my classmates are also extremely dedicated to learning. Everyone has the aim to actively participate in Israeli life, so this study is far more than recreational.

Seizing the opportunity, I started “Ulpan Café,” essentially class outings where we get together outside of class, expressly to speak in Hebrew. No English allowed! So far, we’ve had lunch gatherings, coffee gatherings, seret v’seecha (movie and conversation – Hebrew movies, of course), drill team where we quiz each other, laila meeschak (Hebrew game night) and coming up soon will be our Shabbat Lunch! We’re quite a unit and feel very lucky to have such a fun and enthusiastic class!

Another thing that’s made our group dynamic such a blast is, of course, our amazing teachers! Let me give some insight into our classroom. Typically, teachers drill us, using the Socratic method of calling on people at random to test their comprehension. They give us a sentence to translate, and we must respond immediately, or they will move on to someone else.
“I had a donkey,” Fina quizzed.
“Hita li…donkey?,” Toby answered.
“Donkey – chamor,” Fina explained, writing the new word on the board.
“Why will I ever need to know the word, donkey?” Toby called out.
Fina turned around, looked him straight in the eye and said, “In Israel, you have many reasons to use the word donkey.”
And the class erupted into laughter.

“He understood,” Liat challenged.
“Hoo heh-veen,” said Shelli.
“He will understand,” Liat continued.
“Hoo ya-veen,” Shelli answered.
“He understands,” Liat asked.
“Hoo…um…mah-veen?” Shelli tried.
Mehhhhhh!” Liat bleeted like a goosed sheep!
I assure you, my classmates and I never forgot the word, Mehhhhh-veen.

And so it goes. The teachers provide stories, or humor, or songs, or gestures to help us remember…and they work! There’ve been plenty of times when I’ve been called upon and been completely shocked to hear the right answer pop out of my mouth! This sort of automatic response is precisely the aim of our teachers. And they make sure they get what they want: “Don’t mess with me,” Tamara said one time when the whispers at the back of the classroom got too loud. “I was in the army!” she shouted, eyes twinkling. We all laughed but knew she damn-well meant it! The whispers scrammed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because it’s so true: Ulpan Morasha rocks! If they can’t teach me this language, nobody can. And fortunately for me, my class happens to be moving faster than any they’ve had in a long time; after 2 ½ months, we’re already at the same level as those who’ve attended 3 ½ - 4 months of ulpan. Yippee! We have been moving along speedily. Our teachers are pushing us, but thank goodness my class is committed to learning and working as much as necessary to become Hebrew speakers by years end.

It’s so exhilarating to have the opportunity to learn Hebrew in Israel, in Jerusalem no less. Since I was 13, I’ve wanted to do this! And now I feel it’s finally within reach. It’s a serious challenge to learn a language in 4 ½ months (especially in a town as Anglo as Jlem), but I feel it’s possible! An Australian who now speaks Hebrew better than English told me it’s tough until you reach a certain threshold and after that, everything just clicks; the speed comes and words you thought you’d forgotten re-emerge from your cranial recesses. As gross as that sounds, I can’t wait for it to happen to me!

Finally, I used to feel that wanting to speak Hebrew was such an irrational, impractical desire. (Wouldn’t Chinese serve me better?) But that was pure hogwash I fed myself. (And how dare I, as a member of the tribe, feed myself hogwash?! To shame!) No, after seeing the insights and joy that learning Hebrew has given me, I see my desire was not irrational, but rather spiritual and so, harder to explain. It was an intuitive directive that led me to all the gifts I’m now receiving here in Israel. Thank goodness I finally listened to that chitter-chatter!

To be practical, a language doesn’t need to be spoken by 80% of the world’s population…or even 10%. Learning Hebrew makes me feel connected to Israel, a place that I’m intensely proud of; it will allow me to teach my children Hebrew, granting them the gift of intimately understanding Judaism and the ability to immediately bond with Israel and her people; and it deepens my connection with own spiritual self. How could I ever have dismissed that as impractical?

Thank goodness, Hashem never gave up on me. He kept that little voice inside me jabbering away and guided me here in the right time. Why did I have to wait until age 30 to follow this dream? Well, surely my appreciation for this experience would not have been the same had I come at 20 years old. Furthermore, as you might have noticed by my ambition of fluency within 4 ½ months, I enjoy visible, tangible, nearly-instantaneous results. Much to my chagrin, sometimes Hashem wants to teach us patience, and what better way than to give us something to be patient about? So, le-aht, le-aht (slowly, slowly); one foot in front of the next; one verb and then another until… tafasti! (I got it!)…can’t wait!

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