Exit Ramp: Laughing at myself in Hebrew
One September, our Hebrew teacher began the school year by asking us to prepare an oral presentation about what we had done over the summer. He felt it was imperative that we progress in our mastery of spoken Hebrew because our book learning wasn’t going to help us talk our way out of a real-life jam in Israel.
I’d already been studying Hebrew in school for years and my family had traveled to Israel that summer, giving me the perfect topic. But I was then an insecure public speaker and feared the worst.
My voice shook, yet my talk proceeded without incident until I announced, “We went to Israel and buried the peanuts.” I’d wanted to say, “We went to Israel and visited our relatives.”
I was mortified that my nerves had done the talking. In my defense, I’d only switched two letters, turning “visit” into “bury,” though I have no idea where the peanuts/relatives swap came from. As much as he tried, the teacher could not suppress his laughter. Nor could I, once I recovered from my initial embarrassment.
The silver lining was that I learned to laugh at myself, realizing that it’s important to cut myself some slack as I head out into the world each day. I am human, after all, some of my mistakes bigger and more embarrassing than others. This is especially true in parenting, where there are no personalized manuals for each of the little people we are entrusted to raise and the margin of error seems to grow as they do.
I often consider the life lesson implicit in what my Hebrew teacher said about acquiring a new language. To master it, we have to speak it at every opportunity, bringing the words in the textbook to life on our tongues. Maybe we’ll be misunderstood until we find our groove. But risk paves the path to growth in any undertaking. To move forward — with a relationship, a career, even a new hobby — we have to put ourselves out there, to work at it until we get it right, even if we stumble along the way.
Unlike the French I studied for six years that has come in handy only when I do a crossword puzzle on occasion, learning Hebrew was an investment with ongoing practical—and meaningful—returns. Each word, each bit of grammar, was like a key that opened another door onto my connection with Judaism and the Jewish state. It gave me more intimate access to traditional prayers, and at the same time, enabled me to bargain over prices in the shuk.
My Hebrew peaked during my gap year in Israel when my Israeli roommate woke me in the middle of the night, brewing coffee to celebrate that I’d spoken it in my sleep. It was a sign I’d made myself at home, she insisted. But that was ages ago. And the Croatian-English mélange I have spoken with my husband for the past 25 years has taken over the better part of the real estate in the non-English-speaking side of my brain.
Still, I was determined to pull my Hebrew out of mental storage when I visited my son during his gap year in Israel two years ago. While waiting for a friend to meet me at the airport, I ordered coffee, or at least I thought I did. The confused barista looked at me with curiosity. He told me I hadn’t spoken Hebrew and I hadn’t spoken English and he had no idea what I wanted. It took a few moments to figure out I’d used Croatian, at which point he and I had a good laugh and I tried again.
I sat, my palms wrapped around my cafe hafuch, an Israeli-style cappuccino, and took in the wonder of being where I was. I reflected on my Hebrew teacher with renewed appreciation and reddened as I recalled my fumbled presentation long ago. I also thought about how important Hebrew is to us as Jews and how overcoming our fear of failure — through practice and repetition — is the only way to make a language ours.
I’d already laughed at myself and I’d just landed in Tel Aviv. I was off to a good start, my rusty vocabulary and less-than-native accent notwithstanding. After all, once you’ve ordered coffee just the way you like it in the local tongue, you’ve begun to make yourself at home.