Sunday, June 30, 2013

When Language Ego Ruins You

This past Shabbat, there was a community experience here in Neve Daniel. You could sign up to either be a host or a guest, you were paired up with perfect strangers, and the idea was that you'd meet new people and spread yourself out a bit on the yishuv.

I've experienced these kinds of things before, and I've always loved them. Back in Teaneck they called it Mystery Shabbat, and you didn't know where you were going for the meal until you showed up at synagogue and someone handed you a card with an address on it. It was fun, I met some awesome new people, and I got to break out of my insulated introverted bubble.

Here, on the other hand, my attempt to burst out of that bubble failed miserably and resulted in a demoralizing and alienating experience.

It's no one's fault but my own, I'm sure.

The hosts were great -- the hostess even went out of her way to make a gluten-free cake for dessert. When we arrived they spoke in English, the comfort zone for both Mr. T and I, but when the other guests showed up, there was no turning back, Hebrew was the name of the game at the meal.

Mr. T has been in Israel off and on for nine years and works as an electrician on job sites where Hebrew is the common denominator among Russians, Arabs, and other workers. As a result, he doesn't have much of a language ego -- he just speaks, he doesn't care if he gets things wrong or his accent isn't right, he knows he's getting the message across and that's fine for him.

I, on the other hand, have a huge language ego. My first Hebrew class was my senior year of undergrad in 2006 in Nebraska, and it was biblical Hebrew, one semester. I refined my already keen knowledge of the aleph-bet (thanks to attendance at a Reform synagogue where singing allowed me to pick up on the Hebrew sounds and words) and picked up a few basic words that, thankfully, existed in biblical and also modern Hebrew. But it was several more years before I took a legit Hebrew course in graduate school and then carried on to the intensive Hebrew-language learning program at Middlebury College in 2009.

June-August 2009. That was my first taste of actual Hebrew. Of being able to speak a full sentence with some semblance of confidence. That's less than four years of modern Hebrew under my belt.

I know plenty of people who got a bit of Hebrew in primary school or Sunday school, even a few people who had cousins in Israel, who are able to get more out than me. My problem is I know it, but because of my background in copy editing and how well-spoken I am in English, my language ego halts me.

I think of what I need to say, I evaluate the sentence structure, I consider the pronouns, I conjugate the verb, I make sure I have the right tense. And by the time I've finally reassured myself that I know what to say, the moment has passed.

So I sat there throughout the meal just listening. I picked up bits and pieces of the conversation. The hosts translated words here and there into English, but the other couple seemed to act as if I wasn't even there. When I did want to say something, I tried in Hebrew, and inevitably switched to quick English, getting whatever I needed to say out of the way as quickly as possible.

It was embarrassing.

And yet, I can walk into a restaurant, ask for a menu, ask questions about the menu, place an order, make smalltalk with the waitress, ask for my bill and pay with the greatest of ease. I can see the Efrat Burgers Bar girl working in Jerusalem and -- without thinking -- instantly blurt out in Hebrew, "Hey! What are you doing here, you don't work here!" and have a brief conversation about how she needed a change of scenery.

I know that someday, when I have children, they'll hear the sounds of Hebrew outside and at school, and they'll teach me something I don't know. Inside the house they'll get a polite mixture of American and English, thanks to their parents whose languages are similar but so different. My kids will be fluently bilingual.

But there's something about being placed in a situation with people you would call my neighbors in a community that isn't so big where Hebrew is what will be spoken where I just cave, I turn inward, and I look like an idiot.

I've had a Jewish neshama my entire life, but with my awakening didn't come automatic or even primitive Hebrew knowledge. With four years of Modern Hebrew floating around my brain, it's done nothing but insulate me. And Israel makes it far too easy to default to English.

Something's got to change.