My trip to Israel was timed to coincide with two of my four cousins’ return to the country for Passover. The eldest cousin, Nir, has lived in L.A. for seventeen or eighteen years (we overlapped during his first / my last year in the city, the only time I ever lived remotely close to any of the four). The youngest, Rachel, moved to Norway with her partner and two young children about a year ago.
Irit, the cousin who is closest in age to me, picked me up at the airport when I arrived in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks before Passover. We took the train to Zichron Ya’akov, the beautiful town near Haifa where she lives with her husband and two kids. I had never met her kids — my first cousins once removed — in person, even though they are already a teenager and a tween, respectively. It was really nice to finally spend time with them. I got ice cream in the old town with Ella and I watched Almog play video games and learn to drive.
So… At the end of my last post, about my trip to Jordan, I wrote that I had to wrap things up quickly in order to “head off on my next adventure.” As I typed those words — while running fifteen minutes late to get out the door for the airport — my superstitious self thought twice. If I let those words hang in the digital air, would they jinx my first trip to Israel in fourteen years and somehow turn my coming adventure into a misadventure? Would they magically conspire to make me miss my plane, or get stuck in the country because of my passport issues (which reached new heights of ridiculousness this year), or prevent me from entering the country in the first place?
Turns out my paranoia was entirely misdirected. None of those things happened — though the hijinks of getting in and out of the country with an expired Israeli passport (during an interior ministry strike right before a major national holiday) were next level. What did happen was that I had to go to the E.R. in Haifa, I spent four days in the hospital there, and I had a semi-emergency operation, smack in the middle of my trip. It was not fun. But it was both mind and heart-expanding. Uncannily enough, my last night in Israel was the first night of Passover, and attending my family’s seder felt like a celebration not only of the ancient Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt but also of my own liberation from a health crisis that had been holding me hostage.
This week I bought myself a lifetime, unlimited languages subscription to Rosetta Stone for the bargain basement price of $179. The only hard part of the decision was picking which language to dive into first. Since I am hoping to visit Israel soon, I ended up starting with Hebrew. I chose a learning plan at the intermediate level, optimized for those who feel compelled to learn for familial reasons.
So far, Rosetta Stone’s technique seems to be close to Duolingo‘s, i.e. immersion without explanation. Not sure I love that approach, although I’m also not sure it’s the only one they employ — I’m still early on in the process.
As of tonight, I’m officially three lessons in, and I’m starting to be served words that I recognize but don’t understand, as well as some words that I’ve never encountered before at all.
I learned the word for “to swim,” for example — לִשְׂחוֹת (lischot). Useful! And in that verb’s case, it did seem effective to keep seeing and hearing the word next to pictures of people swimming. But in the case of the verb לְבַקֵר (levaker), a word that I have heard a ton before — but whose meaning evades me — the pictures of people waving did not help. My best guess was that it must mean “to greet” or “to say hello,” but there was no way to check within the lesson itself.
I was just about to Google it when my parents Skyped me, so I asked them instead. My mom’s immediate response to the question, “What does levaker mean?” was, “To criticize.” I told her that either she must be wrong or I must have said the word incorrectly, because the contextual images I was shown were all happy-go-lucky people waving to each other outside houses. Then she said, “Oh, well it also means ‘to visit.'”
I’m not sure whether the people without Jewish mothers will appreciate the brilliance here. This ancient language of my people has managed — with irony, with dry wit, with perfect precision — to nail the contemporary (and, it begs the question, perhaps also the eternal?) Jewish psyche in just one word.
Though it would never have occurred to me to think of it this way before, “my mother is visiting me” and “my mother is criticizing me” are virtually interchangeable. A visit without criticism would be like a ship without an anchor, an empty vessel.
While I need no explanation for how my mother makes the leap from visiting to criticizing, I was curious about how Hebrew made the logical link between the two. My father pointed out that a third definition for levaker is “to examine.” If you think of them on a continuum, it starts to make sense. The three actions flow in stages from one to the next: you visit, you examine, you criticize.
I just find it hilarious that Hebrew puts the entire continuum into one word, especially when another perfectly good continuum would be: to visit, to examine, to praise. Perhaps a different language — one belonging to a more lighthearted people — possesses a word like that.
P.S. It just occurred to me that this post was an exercise in levaker: I visited my blog, examined a word, and criticized both it and my mother.
Last year right around this time, I was supposed to fly to Costa Rica to visit my Israeli cousin and her family, who were concluding a sabbatical year there. My other Israeli cousin was due to arrive at the same time, and we were all going to have a weeklong adventure together. In preparation for the trip, I wasn’t sure if it would make more sense to review my Hebrew or my Spanish. I wanted to do both, but in the end I did neither. And as it turns out, it didn’t matter, because COVID cancelled the trip.
Costa Rica was never on my bucket list, but hanging out with my cousins for the first time in a decade, and meeting their kids, are both very high up there. My four Israeli cousins have had nine children between them, and I’ve only met four of them. One is already a teenager, and I’ve never even had a real conversation with him. So, I’m now committed to go to Israel as soon as I can after the world gets reasonably back to normal. If I make it there in 2021, it will have been 13 years since my last visit.
I had not really used my Hebrew in about as long — until six months ago. Then, on an acquaintance’s recommendation, I watched the Israeli TV series, Shtisel. I binged it twice in a row, gorging episodes back to back ’til 4 in the morning on work nights, like an addict. It was a strange time, pandemic-wise, and love-lorn black sheep Akiva, his recently deceased mother, his widowed grandmother, his tortured fiancee, and even his obnoxious dad, spoke to me. I wept for them all at the drop of a hat. I also wept at every instance of the theme music and at every dream sequence, i.e. quite a lot. It was the weep-fest I needed, after more than half a year of watching the world fall apart with strangely dry eyes.
It was also a Hebrew-fest. The nice thing about Shtisel is that they speak slow and sparse Hebrew (or as it is called in Hebrew itself, ivrit). Someone like me, who vaguely recognizes maybe 25% of all basic Hebrew words, can actually put the story together from context clues. I also used the English subtitles, but I tried to do so less on the second watch. By the end of those 40 or so hours, I had inadvertently jogged my brain with all the Hebrew words I had heard over and over again growing up but that had faded over time. I also learned new words, like sof sof (“finally”), which made me really happy, because I already knew the word sof (“end”), and now here it was being repeated to create a slightly different meaning.
I realized that this was a prime opportunity to jump back into learning Hebrew, which I had been dancing around doing for a few years in any case. I had already logged many hours of listening practice through Shtisel, and only a few months before, I had intensively reviewed the Hebrew alphabet in a panicked effort not to forget how to read and write. All that was left was to start speaking.
So, I signed up for an hour a week of Hebrew conversation with a tutor. (Though they speak perfect Hebrew, I didn’t even consider asking my mom, dad, or Israeli family because it would be annoying, frustrating and/or embarrassing depending on the partner.) More recently, I asked my colleague at work, who I only recently realized is bilingual, to chat with me for 15 minutes every Friday. And, I started using Anki to review / learn the 100 most common Hebrew verbs and 500 basic words.
After spending months of the pandemic thinking, “I should do something productive with all this extra time on my hands,” and doing nothing, it seems I’ve finally gotten to the part in “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray starts learning how to play piano and sculpt ice. Still, I’m not putting in that much work, so I don’t expect to become a Hebrew speaker any time soon. But what amazes me is that I can have conversations — about what is actually happening in my life and others’ — at the level I’m at. With French and Spanish, I focused first on learning the language from a book, and then on speaking. With Hebrew, my goal is to be able to communicate with my family, so I’m putting much more emphasis on speaking and listening than on learning the grammatical rules.
At the rate I’m going, it will be a super long time before I can hold my own with them in Hebrew, but that’s alright. Better late, and slow, than never. L’at l’at (slowly, slowly), as they — and now I — say.