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Found in Translation

Found in Translation

The Spanish couple on the textbook was breezy and carefree. The Italians were beautiful and moody. Now I'm living in Israel learning Hebrew and it's a whole different story.

by

In seventh grade, the Spanish couple on the cover of the textbook was breezy and carefree. Sitting at their beachfront cafe, they called merrily to the waiter: ¡Camarero! ¡Dos Coca-Colas, por favor! Throughout the trials of irregular subjunctives and false cognates, they remained lighthearted, perpetually sipping their Cokes in the sun.

In college, the Italians were beautiful and moody. We watched The Bicycle Thief and La Strada and admired the characters' glamorous despair. We learned improbable idiomatic expressions ("In the wolf's mouth" means "good luck") and discovered dozens of ways to talk without saying anything (You know, like, I mean, um, rather, that is to say…). Nothing seemed very serious in Italian. The language lilted and rolled, tossed its hair, and never discussed politics.

Now I am in Hebrew ulpan, and it's a whole different story.

We are a class of eager new immigrants who speak to our families in French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, and several varieties of English. We have made aliyah because we love Israel, and have proven ourselves worthy of sitting in this classroom by successfully navigating countless rounds of foreign bureaucracy.

Now we, the fresh new citizens, pore over the newspaper on a sunny Tuesday morning and learn these words: WARNING. ALERT. WOUNDED. LEADER. ASSASSINATION. We dutifully copy them into our notebooks, trying to ignore the shadows they cast in the room. It is a sobering initiation.

In other language classes, the word for assassination weighs the same as the word for tomato. Words are simply vocabulary: combinations of letters to be memorized and put into use when the appropriate time arises. Here, words leap off the page and become substantive with a frightening immediacy. There is no transition between vocabulary and reality. As soon as we learn a word, we live it. The headlines barely stick to the paper.

My classmates and I struggle with the front page. We did not move here because of the ugliness it discusses. The danger is real, the politics are real; we do not delude ourselves. But we are here in spite of the new words we are learning.

Gratitude, blessing, hope. These are the words out of which we want to build our lives.

We sit in class and try to work our mouths around the shapes of them, the shape of this reality we've chosen. We taste the sweetness of learning Hebrew in Jerusalem even as we feel the sharp edges of the headlines in our mouths. We fill our notebooks with heavy, dangerous words and still try to save room to write down gratitude, blessing, hope. These are the words out of which we want to build our lives.

Modern Hebrew contains no verb form to express the past conditional state: that which would or could have been. Instead, conditional statements are formed by combining the past and present tense. The Hebrew language does not dwell on lost opportunities; the idea "I would have come" is literally rendered "I was am coming."

To me, this linguistic peculiarity expresses the unique beauty of living in Israel, where new possibilities are created every moment through the dynamic intersections of past and present. This deep place, with its tangible, ancient past and its challenging, complex present, is the most fitting location for my classmates and me to build our future lives.

Israel is the physical expression of the experience of immigration, through which people choose to make the past conditional state irrelevant. We newcomers have seized stagnant WHAT IFs and IF ONLYs and turned them into our NOW. We have conjugated ourselves into the present, and we are moving forward.

Thus, my classmates and I read the newspaper with a combination of pride and pain. We do not want to understand the words on the page; our developing competence is a mixed blessing. But the despair of current events does not define our reality. Our sense of time is not limited by verb charts. We are living future-oriented lives in an ancient landscape, and it is this intersection that gives us energy and hope. Although we read the front page haltingly, we defiantly recite the words that got us here. We try to keep their intensity and power alive as we learn the violent vocabulary of citizenship.

L'elui Nishmat Hayim Shlomo b"r Alter Itskhak Israel

Published: January 24, 2004


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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) orachaya, March 6, 2007 3:39 AM

Thanks for this great article, it reminds me of my own Ulpan experience 15 months ago. I used to point out to the secular, but MOST respectful morah (who was excellent)every time I would learn a new word in her class, that I'd found in my Siddur, Tehillim, Chumash,etc, she thought it was great, and it was kinda educational for the rest of the class too.
May Hash-em bless you and your family with a Yishuv Tov v'klita kala.

(11) Anonymous, January 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Mazaltov

Mazaltov on being "found in translation".

Moving on can be hard to do. The concept you express here beautifully shows the importance of living in the present with a vision for the future. We always learn from the past but our decisions must be based on the present to make decisions that affect our future.

May you always exude "gratitude", be blessed with good "blessing", and find "hope" to get past the "WHAT IF"s and "IF ONLY"s.

(10) leah angerman, February 2, 2004 12:00 AM

impact

wow.
even reading it again, i'm still taken back. this is definitely "doing something." keep going. you can do it. i'm very proud of you. wow. i miss you. i love you, leah

(9) ken, January 29, 2004 12:00 AM

is it hard

How hard is Hebrew to learn. I learned spanish in school. My understanding has been spanish is the easy language to learn , Hebrew the hardest. kw

(8) DENISE, January 27, 2004 12:00 AM

REALITY

WHAT A FABULOUS PIECE OF WRITTING. I SPENT ALL OF 1983 ON KIBUTZ EIN HASHOFET IN ULPAN, READING THE ACCOUNT OF MIRIAM RUBINOW BROUGHT BACK, " AS FRESH AS A DAISY" HAPPY MEMORIES AND FEELINGS, ALL OF WICH I HAVE THRIVED AND LIVED ON EVER SINCE. IT WAS SO MUCH A LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE, NO TIME TO SIT ON THE FENCE, GET OUT AND SHOUT FOR PEACE, SHALOM, THE FIRST HEBREW WORD I HEARD. OH THE NIGHTS WE STRUGGLED TO LEARN MORE, IT SEEMED IMPOSSIBLE AT TIMES THAT IT WOULD EVER BE POSSIBLE TO HOLD A REAL CONVERSATION IN HEBREW WITH A VERY PATIENT AND TOLERANT KIBBUTZNIK. I AM INDEAD SO PROUD TO HAVE BEEN PART OF A BEAUTIFUL YET DIFFICULT COUNTRY WITH A LIVING LANGUAGE, THAT PENITRATES NOT JUST THE MIND BUT THE HEART AND SOUL WITH A PASSION NO OTHER LANGUAGE CAN EVER DO. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH. SHALOM

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