Featured Lifestyle

Israel without Hebrew

By Robert Swift | The Media Line

February 1, 2016


Navigating the Jewish state in your native tongue

[Jerusalem] – Israel, like the United States, was a nation founded by immigrants. To this day Jews from around the world (or certain parts of it, more precisely) continue to ‘make aliyah’ (immigrate) to begin a new life in the Holy Land.

A number of challenges await the new immigrant. Brits must be weaned off queuing, Americans learn to eat non-processed food and anybody thinking of getting behind the wheel of a car discovers that compassion is for “freiers” ( ‘suckers.’)

But one mountain that faces all new immigrants and that many choose to scale is the Hebrew language. Arguably not as difficult a language to master as say Mandarin or Binary, achieving fluency in Hebrew is no simple task.

There are several pitfalls for the novice Hebrew-language learner, Ben Fisher, 24, who moved to Israel a year ago, explained to The Media Line. The first is the lack of learning resources available to more widely-spoken languages, such as “Spanish or Chinese,” Fisher said. Naturally, the more people in the world who want to learn a specific language, the more options there are for learning it. Duolingo for example, one of the most popular language learning apps, does not currently support Hebrew (though there are plans in the pipeline).

A second pitfall is the high level of English spoken by the average Israeli. “In cities like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv everybody speaks English so you’re not forced to learn Hebrew, you’re not going to go hungry because you can’t speak the language,” Fisher explained. To make things even more infuriating, even when you do make the effort to speak Hebrew, people respond to you in English, “especially if you look like me,” the blond American said.

Israelis learn English from an early age, a skill that many perfect during their ‘obligatory’ post-army travels. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that on the English as a second language spectrum, Israel as a nation is second only to the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries in terms of proficiency, ahead of Germany and France.

For the most part, yeah they are really good (in English), it’s impressive,” Natalie Pilsk, 25, a hotel receptionist who has lived in Israel for three years, said. This “absolutely” makes learning the language more difficult, she told The Media Line, but there are flipsides. “Getting started is hard but actually there are patterns and rules that, once learned, make sense and are straight forward.”

As anybody who has tried to teach English will tell you, the idea of a language with rules that actually make sense is a refreshing novelty. But don’t get ahead of yourself and think you’ve got Hebrew sussed. You haven’t reckoned with Hebrew slang.

Not content with taking its vocabulary merely from the bible, modern Hebrew also contains an impressive amount of words cannibalized from English, Arabic and Yiddish (previously spoken by many European Jews). Added to this, Israeli street slang incorporates an arsenal of military jargon and national service acronyms.

Meaning that even somebody who has spent years in the country can miss the point at times. This is something Pilsk says she feels most when people are telling jokes, an important cultural connection she often misses out on. “There is so much slang in use in Hebrew that even when I understand what a person is saying, I can’t understand if or why it’s a joke,” she lamented.

This is due in part to the historical revival of the language, one of the more fascinating stories surrounding Hebrew. From around the year 400, Hebrew, a language spoken today by over 5 million people, was used only as a religious transcript much like Latin in Catholicism.

Modern Hebrew was revived in the last two decades of the 19th century by the early Zionists, ideologues who aimed to form a state for the Jewish people, Uri Mor, a scholar of Hebrew and Aramaic at Ben Gurion University, told The Media Line. As part of this movement, Hebrew was resurrected by the founding fathers.

However, although that generation were content to base their concept of the revived language on the “holy scriptures and rabbinic literature,” their children were not, Mor said. This led to the development of two strands to the language, one used in literature, the media and official speeches, and the other on the street.

“You actually have to master two languages and if you use the wrong language in a particular circumstance, you stand out,” Mor explained.

The dangers for the semi-fluent Hebrew speaker are everywhere, as summed up by Ben Fisher who described a mishap that occurred while updating his address with the Ministry of Interior. Thinking his Hebrew was good enough (and possibly wishing to avoid Israel’s infamous bureaucracy), Fisher decided to use the self-service option, entering his family details, address and place of birth into a computer. Returning home, happy with his linguistic achievement, Fisher admitted that it was only “the next day I realised I had registered my non-existent son.”

Print Friendly