Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I am not a Fish

There are many challenges along the road to making aliyah and successful absorption in Israel. I realize that as challenging as things may be, we have it much easier than the waves of olim who preceded us, whether in the first and second aliyah, my grandparents arrival in the 1930s, waves of Jews from Arab lands in the 40s and 50s, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews more recently, etc. Among the many challenges is language: Learning Hebrew. Acquiring Hebrew is the product of formally studying in an ulpan, but also interaction with other Israelis and learning from them and their Hebrew in real time. But because Israel is a country of immigrants from many countries all over the world, grammar, slang and accents are not uniform, so to the ears of a relatively new immigrant, one never really knows if the real Hebrew used on the streets is what all Israelis use, or just that of another oleh who does not know any better than another. Another challenge is that sometimes it’s very easy and comfortable not to have to learn Hebrew, and one can speak his or her native language, in my case English, and get along just fine. Recently, I heard a story of a neighbor’s grandmother who lived, and died, here for decades, but still never spoke Hebrew. But that does make those moments when one has to speak in Hebrew all the more challenging, especially when your grandchildren are not raised to speak your native (or most comfortable) language. I was reminded recently of an experience that took place when I dropped my youngest son off at gan (Kindergarten) for the first time. He's the youngest of our six children and our only native Israeli. We only speak English in the house so he was in for a culture shock as well as the trauma of being left alone for the first time. I said to the head of the gan (a veteran immigrant herself from Tunisia) as I left, "B'hatzlacha." (Good luck). She replied, "Al tidag." (Don’t worry.) My verb conjugation was very off and I replied, "Ani lo dag." (I am not a fish.), when what I meant was “Ani lo do’eg” (I am not worried). I think she understood, I hope. As my youngest son experiences Israel as a native Israeli and grows up and is educated in Hebrew like my other children are, and to which they have adapted so well, I hope that my own Hebrew will improve and that I won’t make these mistakes again, or at least not as much. I have resigned to the fact that this might not happen, and I will always be an immigrant, like my grandparents and great grandparents before them. Even my father was an immigrant. It’s hard. But since I come from a long line of immigrants, and since they all made it, so will I. I am not worried, ani lo do’eg. But if I remain an illiterate, I just hope that my kids laugh with us, and not at us. Whether I tell someone I am not a fish or, as my wife once said in giving directions to the house, turn right at “the ceiling with the trees.” But either way, I’ll get by. I hope that my grandchildren will understand me and that my children’s future spouses will not think I am a total moron if I smile and nod a lot in place of more substantial verbal communication. I am not worried, ani lo do’eg. And, in case you were wondering, I am also not a fish.