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