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.