When new English-speaking acquaintances ask me how I learned to speak Hebrew, it is always in the same tone of voice: slightly bewildered surprise. They are often struggling themselves with modern Hebrew, even after years of study in a Hebrew school or Jewish day school. I will speak freely here about one thing I do well, since it is through no exceptional talent that my Hebrew is nearly unrecognizable as anything other than native (on good days). I lived here as a child, I tell them, and usually the conversation ends there. The truth is more complex, and (I think) more interesting than that, however. I learned Hebrew very carefully, and through a system I began devising (somewhat unknowingly) when I was 9 years old.
When my family moved to Jerusalem a few months before my 10th birthday, Hebrew was already familiar to my ears. We had spent summers here and during the school year I attended a Jewish day school outside of Boston where we learned the Hebrew alphabet alongside the English one. Still, I was hardly prepared to be thrust into an Israeli public school on the first day of 5th grade, my loud and aggressive classmates barking in quick, clipped slang as they disobeyed the teacher’s orders to sit down and open their notebooks. When a red-headed girl spoke to me, I recognized only three words in her sentence: “you”, “new”, and “mine”. It was in that moment that I understood that my survival hinged on two things: the red-headed girl’s kind, open smile, and my ability to listen very, very well.
Fifth grade was boot camp for my Hebrew. I can’t say that I learned one other thing that year (certainly not math), but by the time 6th grade began, I sounded exactly like the other children in my neighborhood, at school, and in my Scouts troupe. Had we stayed on as a family, my reading, writing and, in fact, my entire identity would have been quick to follow suit. But my Israeli story is in parts. In the 7th grade we returned to the States, and the next time I lived in Israel was in high school. My 5th grade Hebrew had some catching up to do, and I fell back on a familiar strategy — I listened, parroted, and soon the teenage phrases in the air became my own.
As a college student in Beer Sheva the outdoor market was my favorite place to practice my more grown-up Hebrew. Half the shuk being Arab in Beer Sheva, I learned Arabic words and slang that still tinge my speaking today, occasionally confusing others when my outer appearance does not match the Sepahrdi-colloquial-working class lilt of my words. “Where are you from?” Israelis sometimes ask –not because they cannot place my accent outside the country, but because they cannot place me in it. “Are you French?” “From Bat Yam (a lower-class suburb of Tel Aviv)?” I give them the short answer, not bothering to explain that I learned my Hebrew from children, from the Shuk, from Eyal Golan songs, and from the street.
And now back in (a much more religious) Jerusalem, home to Hebrew University but also Machane Yehuda, I listen to the Hebrew of the Persian spice vendors (musical), to my Kurdish neighbors (colloquial), and to the young women who come for alterations at my shop (educated), and my varied collection of sayings and of ways of expressing myself continue to grow. And even though it fails me from time to time, and little old Ashkenazi ladies who probably taught the language to the Pioneers correct my grammar, I love my spoken Hebrew and its mix of inflections. I love that it is mine.
A couple of readers have asked for the recipe for the Tomato Zucchini gratin, pictured above, left, in the photo from this week’s meals for the L Family. It is a fairly simple recipe and I am posting the link here. A couple notes: no need to salt and sweat the zucchini. The tomatoes however do benefit from being drained. You can just saute all the zucchini at once if you have a wide enough saute pan. If cow’s milk cheese is a problem, you can use pecorino, which is made from sheep’s milk. Enjoy!