Israelis can be an acquired taste but is it possible for an Israeli to be too Israeli, even for other Israelis? We have a tendency to be pushy, argumentative and circumspect about people’s motivations, especially when it comes to commerce and politics.
Even though I’m still acclimating, I sometimes encounter Israelis who are too “Israeli”, even for born Israelis who are accustomed to our culture. Last week one of my colleagues had an experience that made me laugh (and cringe a little).
She received a sales call from an Israeli vendor. The vendor was especially pushy and condescending and pitched my colleague on a variety of services she wasn’t interested in. My colleague, a born Israeli, tried for some time to explain to the vendor that she wasn’t interested in what the vendor was selling, to no avail.
The vendor kept going. At one point the vendor pointed out that my colleague was clearly ignorant of the space she was working in and didn’t appreciate what she was being offered.
Eventually the call ended and my colleague, exasperated, commented that this must be how non-Israelis perceive Israelis to be. I laughed and told her that this is pretty much the reputation Israelis have outside Israel. At least for the general public.
I was mostly amused that there are Israelis who are too Israeli, even for other Israelis!
Becoming an Israeli citizen was easy. Becoming Israeli is the hard part.
I feel like I am going through a rough patch in my relationship with Israel and my Israeli friends, neighbours, colleagues and fellow inhabitants of this little strip of hotly contested land. It has been almost a year and a half since we left Ben Gurion Airport as newly minted Olim Hadashim (“fresh meat” as my former Ulpan put it, with a smile).
When I wake up in the mornings and head out the door, I’m usually thinking about whether I’ll make the bus rather than the fact that I have woken up in our new home in Israel. It’s not to say I don’t have that thrill anymore. It’s just that it doesn’t happen as often in my typical day. The daily routine has a tendency to take over and sideline the sense of wonder that seemed like it would never subside when we first arrived.
We could communicate better
I also feel like we don’t talk much, Israel and me. More specifically, it feels like I just don’t know what to say. I literally don’t have the words and that leaves me feeling like an outsider. Sure, people still try help me (most of them anyway) but the last month or so have definitely been Very Bad Hebrew Months for me.
On top of this communication issue, routine stuff seems to take up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth. Consider your day-to-day pressures and stresses and add a factor of partial knowledge of the language it is all expressed and handled in. It can be more than a little intimidating at times.
Thankfully, my recent staycation with my mother gave me a break from my daily routine and much needed perspective on what living in Israel means to me.
Connecting with Israeli life
On the third day of our mini-break during Chol Hamoed Pesach, we all took a trip to Jaffa and walked around the market. It was my first time there and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pretty pleasantly surprised. The market stretched across a few streets and felt so typically Israeli. In one section people sold just about anything that wasn’t biological and breathing. Some sold old cameras, coins and other antiques. Others, usually next door, sold old fax machines and other junk that probably hadn’t served a useful function for about a decade.
This seems to be some sort of car shade/display area exchange between the carpet merchants and the car owners.
There is some fascinating stuff on display.
There is also a lot of random stuff no-one else wants.
An opportunity to go very retro.
Pretty eclectic vinyl collection.
One of the many street markets.
We had terrific Shakshuka in a little Greek restaurant across from stores selling old fashioned film lighting equipment and an eclectic collection of vinyl LPs, only some of which I recognised.
We decided to head for the Jaffa/Yafo port and were given directions from a shop owner in typical Israeli fashion. He dismissively told us not to bother with “this Waze” and to just walk straight ahead over a couple roads. It was the sort of direct, helpful and somewhat no-time-for-nonsense advice I have come to identify as typically Israeli: direct, somewhat arrogant but motivated by a desire to help. That short conversation was a highlight of the day for me because it seemed to epitomise what it is to be Israeli for me.
A busy market street scene in Jaffa.
I can only imagine what their history is.
Going back to where it all began
From Yafo, we took a bus to the Palmach Museum for a tour. If you haven’t been to the Palmach Museum and you’re interested in the early years of what became the IDF, you can’t miss it.
The museum is experiential and follows the journey of a group of immigrants to Israel as they join the forerunner of what became the IDF; battle the British and, later, Arab armies to secure Israel’s independence. The exhibits are a combination of themed rooms, video footage and reimagined conversations between the group as the conflict progresses.
Unlike most Israelis who have lived here for some time, I haven’t had the experience of fighting in a conflict or losing people I care about to a war. Just the same, following the story in the museum affected me profoundly. I could never compare what I felt going through the museum to what millions of Israelis have and continue to experience but, at its essence, I felt a connection of some kind to the tragedy that unfolded before us.
Watching the group’s story progress and remembering what I have learned about the conflicts leading up to the War of Independence left me with the strong sense that this is also a part of my history even though much of it predates me and my family has no direct connection to it.
I left the museum feeling a stronger connection to Israel’s history than I ever did to South Africa’s history. Israel’s history is the latest chapter of my people’s history.
Part of our reality
Now that we are here and living here, we face the same threats that our neighbours and friends do. Israel’s enemies don’t draw distinctions between new immigrants and born Israelis. We’re all Jews, we’re all Israelis.
We watched one of the memorial services for Yom HaZikaron one night this last week and one of the speakers mentioned how military service and speaking Hebrew are integral to Israeli life.
Our children may well serve in the IDF when they are old enough. I hope it won’t be necessary for them to serve but if the history of our people is any indication; one day they will be drafted and we will add the experience of seeing our children step into the harm’s way. I don’t look forward to that at all. I don’t think any parent does. At the same time, were it not for the young men and women who have done that, and continue to do it, we wouldn’t live in the only Jewish state.
For now, our kids’ biggest challenges are improving their Hebrew, doing their homework and finding time for all their friends.
When I think about them, Israelis feel a lot like an extended family, most of whom I don’t know and may never meet (some, I probably don’t want to meet). You have all sorts here. Many, like our friends, are hard-working, family-oriented people who continuously help us out and smile on the rare occasion I break out some Hebrew in my very Anglo accent.
I have also come across the Sabras with their tough exterior (mostly when dealing with me) and that sensitive, inner warmth (mostly when interacting with our kids). There are the Haredi who look like they have trundled out of the 18th century and who most other Israelis tend to leave pretty much to themselves. When I think about the personalities I have encountered, it’s a lot like taking your extended family of mixed nuts and expanding it into a population of millions with multi-faceted cultural and linguistic quirks to keep things interesting.
I sometimes think about how few Jews there are in the world and how much energy other groups spend trying to keep us down and push us around. It probably explains a lot of why Israelis tend to be so, well, Israeli. When you are a nation that waited thousands of years to be re-established and has had to fight every day since then not just to survive, but to thrive, you can understand why Israelis can be a little challenging at times. Becoming Israeli is also a lot to do with internalising that history at a visceral level.
Still, becoming Israeli doesn’t come naturally for me. I enjoy how Israelis tend to be pretty frank with each other. On the other hand, my limited Hebrew remains a stumbling block for me. I understand more than I did before but not knowing pretty basic words can be extremely frustrating, depressing even. I feel like I am missing some vital “Israeliness” ingredient. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.
There is so much to love about Israel and, like any family, it can drive you absolutely crazy more often than you may like. On the other hand, I have had so many experiences that leave me amazed that we live amongst such compassionate and engaged people.
I have so much to learn about being Israeli. A lot of that will come as my Hebrew improves (לאט לאט). As for the rest of it, becoming Israeli, maybe it comes more naturally the longer we live here and experience more of what it means to be part of this feisty nation.
Postscript: A few words from my wife
My wife recently published a related post on her blog simply titled “Home” that is worth reading too:
Despite all of the above, your children will be Jewish and will have a sense of pride. You will walk the roads where Jewish prophets and kings once walked. You will celebrate Jewish holidays and walk streets named after mega-Jews — not saints. You will become a part of Jewish history as it unfolds and, as an Israeli, you will be a Jew — not Jewish.
My mother arrived for her first visit to Israel and I took her to Jerusalem. Our first visit was to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. We took the light rail from the central bus station up to Mount Herzl and walked along the edge of the forest to the museum.
We decided to do a self-guided tour of the museum and hired two audio guides and entered the main museum. It is shaped almost like a deep prism and your path through the various exhibits is a winding one. You can’t simply walk from one side to the other, you have to cross through all the Holocaust exhibits and be immersed in the unfolding tragedy as you go.
I wasn’t new to the Holocaust. I’ve been exposed to it for most of my life. Just the same, I found the museum almost overwhelming. It was filled with stories of communities that were, at first, sidelined. Later, they were taken from their homes, relegated to ghettos and, finally, shipped to the camps where roughly two thirds of all European Jews were murdered.
What the exhibits depicted using photos, video footage from the time and collections of victims’ personal effects and writings was just how brutal the genocide was. I found myself fighting back tears for most of the two hours we spent walking through it all.
We emerged at the other end of the museum and were presented with this remarkable view of the valley. It is a life affirming sight, almost as if the museum’s architect is saying –
Look! After all this tragedy and devastation, this is what we must protect. This is a reminder of what we must never forget and what can never happen again.
Striking memorial at Yad Vashem
A monument on the Yad Vashem campus
Another perspective of the main museum
It was fitting that our next stop was the Kotel (also known as the Western Wall). On the other side of the Kotel is the holiest Jewish site – the Temple Mount. This was the site of the two great Temples and is also the object of considerable tension with Muslims who regard the Temple Mount as their third holiest site.
The first time I saw the Wall, it seemed so small. I expected it to be bigger and, as I learned a week later when we return for a tour of the tunnels underneath it, the visible wall we see now was only a small part of the original wall. Visiting the Kotel is a fairly personal experience. To me, it is a monument to an ancient people, my ancestors. It is a reminder of what we have been through and what we fight for every day.
Just the beginning
That day in Jerusalem was just the start of a staycation with my mother. I still had a couple more days to work that week before taking the week of Chol Hamoed off for some downtime, local tourism and quality time with my family. It was also the beginning of what turned out to be a profound personal journey that I’ll share in subsequent articles.
Bibi Canes is another learner Israeli who arrived in Israel with her family just 3 months ago. She wrote a post about some of her experiences and, reading them, they remind me of much of what we went through a short time ago (and still do, to a degree).
It definitely takes a bit of getting used to. I still think of the weekends as being 2 days. Friday feels like my old Saturday although there is usually a lot more cleaning involved before or after we schlep to do the weekend shopping. In a way it is great that the kids are at school on Friday mornings because it means we have a couple hours to do what we need to do, uninterrupted. Sometimes we even get to spend some time together!
We don’t have a car so Saturdays are forced downtime with the family. It’s usually a good break even though there is often a lot of stuff the kids want help with. Still, that part is pretty much the same as back in South Africa except we wound up driving all over when we could have relaxed at home more.
I definitely miss Woolies meat but my genius wife has managed to figure out which local meat is pretty good. My brother-in-law even found relatively cheap meat that tasted great, albeit after cooking for 3 hours. It isn’t the same but I am ok with what we exchanged Woolies meat for – a very different life. We work harder here, usually for less of the material stuff but, on balance, it’s a fair trade for what we gained living here.
Becoming an Israeli citizen was the easy part. It happened in about an hour and a half after we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport almost a year ago. What has proven to be much more elusive is my sense of my Israeli identity. I am an עולה חדש (oleh hadash – new immigrant) and the more time we spend here the more I believe that being fluent in Hebrew is my key to unlocking my new identity.
Hebrew is a remarkable language. It was drawn out of Biblical texts and given new life for a modern world about a century and some change ago and millions of Israelis use it daily like I use English or like you use any number of other languages. I wasn’t sold on the language in the beginning, mostly curious, but the more I am exposed to it the more I like it, love it even.
I am infatuated with the Irish accent, have been for about as long as I can remember. I didn’t think I would start to feel the same way about some Israeli accents with its overwhelming use of the “חחח” sound (somewhere between the “ch” in “cheese” and in “cherie” and “chez”) but having so many variations of the accent influenced, largely, by immigrant Israelis’ original accents creates many appealing flavours. French-, Italian- and Spanish-flavoured Hebrew accents are among my favourites.
Beyond the accent, the language itself says a lot about Israeli culture. It has turned abbreviations and contractions into an art form. It embodies the Israeli impatience to move on and get stuff done. Sure, you can do fine here with minimal Hebrew and English, but if you really want to integrate, you need to learn Hebrew. Without it you will never quite become part of the culture.
I consider myself a decent writer (well, you tell me?) and using the English language is critical professionally. It is also one of the primary ways I express myself so not being able to express myself effectively in Hebrew is pretty frustrating. Sure, it takes time to learn a new language. Unlike our children who have absorbed enough Hebrew to be able to use it almost exclusively day to day, I still struggle with basic conversations. I lack the vocabulary and, I noticed, seem to have performance anxiety when I’m speaking. Of course the cure for that is speaking more so there is that.
Thankfully, the Israeli government gives new olim free Hebrew classes (5 months if you do it full time and 10 months part time) and I have learned so much in the last year. The challenge is making sure you go to class, do your homework and, most importantly, use what you learn outside class (which is where I could improve a lot more).
The more I think about it, I realise that learning a language is really pretty simple: you just have to immerse yourself in it and use it as often as you can. Leaving aside the language’s relative complexity compared to your home language. I don’t think there is any other way around that. My teacher often emphasises that you need to love the language and I agree with that. If not love it, you have to have the determination to learn it and the persistence to stick with it.
I’ve met a couple people who just haven’t been able to pick it up despite trying for years and I imagine many people won’t learn the language. The rest of us can and will, if we make the decision to do it and to keep making horrible mistakes until we stop making them. I’m determined to improve to a point where I can write as well in Hebrew as I do in English. I have no idea how long that will take but my journey towards that point continues with my next awkward Hebrew conversation.
I noticed that people talk about nationality in terms of Israelis and South Africans, Americans, British and so on. Americans seem to have always spoken about immigrants as “X Americans”. For example, French Americans, African Americans, Indian Americans and so on. They acknowledge people’s different origins at the same time they affirm their shared identity as Americans. The convention seems a little absurd to me, at times, but it is a useful approach to defining a nuanced identity in a new country.
I resisted being labelled as a “South African” after we arrived here. I became an Israeli about an hour after we landed at Ben Gurion airport. At that point, my South African citizenship technically ceased. I started referring to Israelis as either “born Israelis” or “Olim”, but Israelis in both cases. I resist being identified as a South African here, not because being South African is something to be ashamed of (it isn’t although what has happened in South Africa is unfolding as a tragedy of missed opportunities) but rather because being identified as South African creates a distinction between me and born Israelis. The same applies to labels such as “British”, “American” and even “Anglos”, at least as a way of describing national identity. I am an Israeli, albeit a Learner Israeli.
Beyond citizenship, though, language unites us as a coherent nation. Jews have historically been divided geographically and culturally. Jewish communities have grown and thrived on almost every continent and each community has developed in its own way to some degree or another. I have been reading about Israel’s and Jews’ histories (the latter is a precursor for the former) since we arrived and the sheer diversity we have as a collective is wonderful. What unites us, fundamentally, is our shared history, norms and our belief system (even secular Israelis).
At the same time, we are still somewhat divided along ethnic grounds in a sense. I’ve been learning more about the tension between Ashkenazi (mostly Eastern European Jews) and Oriental Jews (North Africa, Middle East as far as I can tell) which creates profound social and economic distinctions in Israel. Coming from a nation once sharply divided along racial lines, these cultural tensions seem a little absurd given what we share as Jews but, then again, I am Ashkenazi, more adaptable to Israel’s Western bias and still very new to Israel and all its cultural and social complexities. Like South Africa, Israel has an opportunity to become even more united and stronger in the process if our leaders can find a way to convert our differences into overlapping enhancements.
Yiddish once distinguished Eastern European Jews from their neighbours and also created a shared cultural bond. The Holocaust almost obliterated that commonality when millions of Yiddish speakers were murdered. Yiddish survives today and, as I understand it, is mostly still in daily use in ultra-Orthodox communities where Hebrew is still regarded as a holy language to be reserved for prayer and religious observance.
Here in Israel, Hebrew brings us together again and helps define our Israeli identities. For the most part, if you hear someone speaking Hebrew outside of a religious context, that person is probably an Israeli (although not necessarily Jewish – non-Jewish Israelis also usually speak Hebrew for day to day use). Again, it is essential that you speak Hebrew to make a life in Israel but, I suspect, if you don’t you will tend towards living and working in communities that speak your language and, in the process, creating a linguistic ghetto.
One of the Russian olim in my ulpan class was telling me (in Hebrew, ironically, because he doesn’t speak much English) that he speaks Russian at work, his family is Russian and he shops at Russian stores so his day-to-day exposure to Hebrew is very limited, almost non-existent. I’m sure there are many Anglos who have a similar experience and when they need to interface with some sort of Hebrew language bureaucracy, they either seek out a more familiar language option (most government and commercial services seem to offer Russian language options – sometimes English too) or they get help from someone who can translate.
When we arrived we opted to integrate more into Hebrew speaking Israel. We placed our kids in a Hebrew language school instead of a blended English-Hebrew school for olim children because we wanted our kids to learn Hebrew and integrate faster. They struggled a little for a couple months and then the wonders that are their young brains sucked in the language and they have learned enough to integrate with their Hebrew speaking friends and teachers. Their challenge now is building on that knowledge and having parents who are slower at learning the language is becoming a hindrance (although I’m trying to keep up).
I wonder how much their sense of identity has shifted since they arrived here. I suspect the answer is that our kids don’t really think about identity in those terms. To them, they are their identities and nationalities are fringe elements. Perhaps growing older makes you more inclined to find a group to belong to and with so many overlapping groups and sense of belonging, it can be difficult to make sense of it all and find that golden thread that is your unique identity.
To me, my grasp of Hebrew has become a fundamental part of my Israeli identity. The language is tied to the land and to its people and it is also the primary language in religious life too. It is the thread that binds us to our land, to our faith (and many of our principles for secular Israelis) and to each other. Although we have only been here for a year and I am still very much a learner Israeli, it feels as if not knowing the language leaves you with a part of your identity absent here.
I still have a long way to go before I feel comfortable using the language and I think that is due, largely, to performance anxiety when I use my limited Hebrew it (especially speaking) and being lazy about using it more often. Sure, my vocabulary is a factor but the big hurdle is using what I have and being comfortable making more mistakes than I would expect and building my vocabulary by reading, listening, watching and engaging daily.
My ulpan class is ending soon and my teacher has invited my class to continue with the next level. I won’t be joining them, even though I’d love to continue learning with him. My wife is going to begin her journey in February. My teacher asked me if I couldn’t continue at the same time Gina starts her classes (they’ll probably be on different days) and besides it being Gina’s turn, I think it is also time for me to take my day-to-day ulpan class seriously, namely my day to day life.
In an interesting synchronicity, I received a call from a mobile services company inviting me to switch to them from my current provider as I was typing this. I understood the gist of what she was saying and managed to communicate without inadvertently buying something (big step!). It was frustrating but also an affirmation of a sort. I’m still getting started here and I’m passionate about learning Hebrew and better understanding what it means for me to be an Israeli. It isn’t easy but it’s worth persisting with.
Postscript: Although I started writing this article a couple weeks ago, we just passed our first major milestone in Israel: our first anniversary. It seems like a perfect time to share my thoughts about my emerging Israeli identity and its intrinsic link to the Hebrew language, at least for me.
Postscript 2: This article has been republished on Israel Forever, an initiative to connect Jews in the Diaspora with Israel. You can find the article here.
Even though you could probably get by just fine in Israel without learning much Hebrew, it has been really important to me since before we even arrived that we learn this ancient language. Besides being practically useful as a day to day language (being both an ancient language and in common use in modern times still astounds me), Hebrew is a key to integrating better into our new home and understanding Israeli culture. At least, that’s how I see it.
We placed our kids straight into a Hebrew language school, despite them only knowing a few scattered words, instead of an immigrant school which teaches in English and Hebrew. It was tough for them in the beginning but, after a few months, they started speaking and understanding the language at a remarkable rate. I’m so envious of their sponge-like brains!
As immigrants, the Israeli government gives us a number of absorption benefits that include free Hebrew language classes (called “ulpan” classes – not to be confused with “kibbutz” which is a different activity altogether). For adults it basically works out to 5 months full-time (mornings or evenings, 5 days a week) or 10 months part-time (I go to class 2 evenings a week for about 3 hours each class).
It is an incredible opportunity to learn and, as tiring as it is working full-time and then still going to classes and returning home late, I generally love going and make a concerted effort to do my homework and learn as much as I can. Unfortunately my older brain doesn’t absorb nearly as much as our kids do (or maybe I have more insecurities and inhibitions that get in the way) but it’s all slowly sinking in.
The challenge is making sure you use Hebrew as much as you can instead of defaulting to –
אני לא מדבר עברית
(“I don’t speak Hebrew”)
… and then switching to English. You get to a point where you can’t say you don’t know the language when you clearly know a little so procrastination takes the form of –
אני מדבר קצת עברית
(Roughly, “I only speak a little Hebrew”)
My latest is asking the person I am talking to to speak slower because the primary challenge now, besides my limited vocabulary, is that Israelis speak really quickly and have a tendency to blend distinct words into something that sounds like one word. One example that always comes to mind when I think about this is, ironically, –
מה אתה עושה
… which, instead of being pronounced “mah attah oseh” (“what are you doing”), sounds like “matta-oseh”. There are many other examples and, as I learned, also many contractions that are legitimate parts of the language. These are wonderful reminders about how little patience Israelis have for drawing things out any more than is absolutely necessary.
Anyway, as much as I am learning, my Hebrew is roughly comparable to my son’s (I know this because I can just about help him with his homework) but not as “advanced” as my 5 year old daughter who even has the accent down. While this is fine for homework purposes and talking to teachers who are accustomed to speaking slowly and using small words; it doesn’t help our kids advance their Hebrew.
We had a meeting with our daughter’s teacher who told us that our daughter works hard, has learned a lot in the short time she has been here and excels in most areas of her classes. Her concern is that our daughter’s Hebrew is still underdeveloped, relatively speaking, and this could hamper her progress in school (I was assured that language alone will never be a reason to hold her back). The teacher basically told us (this was all in Hebrew so it’s an educated guess on my part) that our little girl needs to be exposed to more advanced and varied Hebrew than the Hebrew she is exposed to at school and when she is with her friends.
There are things we can do to help her, for sure, but what this discussion highlighted for me is that being unable to speak more advanced Hebrew than our kids is hampering them. Our friends are native Hebrew speakers and can guide their kids like we do in English at home. It is obvious when you think about it but when our kids study in Hebrew and are also new to the language, not being able to correct their grammar or read story books at a normal pace and with fluent inflection is problematic.
As a writer, my limited Hebrew is frustrating. I can use the English language considerably better than I can use Hebrew so, on one hand, I look forward to a day when I could write an article like this as clearly in Hebrew as I can in English. On the other hand, it really bugs me that I am still trying to figure out past and future tense and my kids ask me to stop reading to them in Hebrew because there aren’t enough hours in a day.
Learning Hebrew (and any other language) isn’t always easy. It has different rules and forms, most of which are very different to English (which is a pretty bizarre language too, if you think about it). I’ve discovered that I am really interested in the language and have a strong desire to learn it well and that helps on days when it seems like I can’t string two words together (I call those days “bad Hebrew days”).
Returning to the discussion with our daughter’s teacher; if anything, it highlights the importance of not procrastinating and just throwing myself into the linguistic deep-end. I’ve started forcing myself to use Hebrew when I know it and throw in English when I don’t (no idea if that confuses people I speak to – probably does). Like anything new, it requires persistence and I’m still working on that too (although, as Yoda famously said: “Do or do not, there is no try”). I also really like something my ulpan teacher often says; that to learn Hebrew we need to –
לקרוא ( (to read)
לכתוב (to write)
לדבר (to speak)
And to love it
Bottom line: knowing more Hebrew is probably just as much about being able to help our kids adapt better and live up to their potential in a new country as it about being able to order decaf coffee and pay with correct change.