Because my exposure to Hebrew consisted largely of reading the letters on a dreidl (“Gimel! I win!”), during obligatory Hannukah games, I decided that before coming to Israel I should at least try to learn some Hebrew. I wanted to avoid being seen as another clueless American who travels the world expecting everyone else to speak English. I wanted to assimilate conversationally, at least a little bit. I could learn a little Hebrew, enough to get by in Israel for eight weeks, right? Sure the alphabet is completely different, and there is the whole reading right-to-left thing, but how hard could it be?
My linguistic theory was shot down shortly after I sat down with a tutor for my first Hebrew lesson. Learning to read right to left turns out to be the easy part. I found the alphabet baffling. The near-absence of vowels, predicated on the expectation that one will, based almost solely on recognizing the consonants and their relationship to each other, know what vowels are implied, made learning Hebrew practically impossible for me. I have a hard time advancing beyond the toddler stage of Hebrew, in which the vowels, or absence thereof, are in many cases denoted by specific dots and dashes that appear underneath the consonants. I struggled. I developed newfound respect for every thirteen year old who has gone through bar or bat mitzvah.
A month later, just as I was starting to getting used to the dots and dashes that denote some vowels, they were taken away. I was expected to read with consonants alone, aided only by the occasional yod or alef. Vowels are like oxygen or national security – you only pay attention to them when you start to lose them. I never knew just how fond of vowels I am until they were taken away. I tried not to give up, but my efforts lost steam. I decided to focus on what was most important to me: food. So I learn misada (restaurant), yayin (wine), eshkolit (grapefruit). But privately I begin to suspect that Hebrew is not, in fact, a language. Some of the sounds cannot be made without chain-smoking for 20 years first. It is a secret code, by its very design indecipherable to gentiles.
Now that I am here in the country, I wish that I had applied myself more in my study of Hebrew. Sure, many people here do know some English, and are able to help me navigate ordering my daily shwarma and café. But I can’t read store signs or menus that don’t offer English translations, which many of them don’t. When my son accidentally got locked in the bathroom at an Israeli theme park, I had no idea how to convey the situation to the proper authorities. En route to the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, I wonder whether the taxi driver is really dropping me off in front of the museum -- because he could pretty much let me out in front of any large building in Tel Aviv and I would not know the difference, because I can’t read the signs. And it sure would be nice to know what the lifeguards are calling during their periodic shout-outs while I’m swimming with my kids at the beach. Are they saying “The waters of the Mediterranean has never been so warm and beautiful! Enjoy it, lucky American tourists! When you are done, come by for a free facial and cherry Pez.” Or are they yelling, “A large school of starving, child-eating sharks is making its way swiftly to this shore, to be followed closely by a tsunami. Run for cover as fast as you can! And don’t forget to bring your trash with you.”
It does not matter; I do not understand a word. I just smile and nod.