“Er…It gets hard for me, Cookie. When you go fast in Hebrew.”
My mom will say that as kindly as possible then ask me to switch to English.
I sigh internally, the phone pressed against my asinine grumble.
She doesn’t get it. When I talk to her there is no fear. They think I am one of them. Dover ivrit.
I switch back and forth from the “mah koreh” to the clipped English “hi” all the time.
I like to hear my voice drop two decibels and gain more iron clad self assuredness with the words “Mah nishmah.”
I want people to know that i’m speaking Hebrew like a I own it.
But then, of course. I don’t. The confidence slips and i’ll slide back into English, peppering my sentences with Hebrewisms like “walla, “eizeh keif, “B’seder,” “yachol l’hiyot.”
I’ll hang on to as many swear words as I can remember too.
The minute a foreign language drops in a crowd it’s a curio. You could almost pick it up if it weren’t so very close to being an explosively suspicious package.
In an Israeli crowd it means lots of things.
It means you didn’t struggle, you were privileged.
Or it means you’re the Other on the opposite side of fence no one on either side is volunteering to cross.
The immediate condescension that ensues isn’t malevolent or cruel, it’s patronising.
If you walk into a store speaking English on your phone, a smug and slightly superior looking cashier will automatically address you in that language, their s’s turning into z’s, their syntax as broken as yours is in Hebrew, their eyes holding back before a long roll.
They want you to feel it. Even when you adamantly reply to them in that new suavely colloquial Hebrew you just picked up from a prime time TV show off “yes TV.”
That feeling of immediate disconnect, that sense of not belonging, of being on the outside looking in, is lonely and diminishing.
Sometimes they’ll laugh at you, sometimes they’ll offer you the correct word, sometimes they’ll be kind enough to ignore how you self correct a word mid sentence or start off shaky on what’s meant to be a perfectly fluent convo. Sometimes, they’ll be sweet about it.
Sometimes, even though you can say, “Ahalan” you prefer to be old fashioned and say “Shalom.”
Sometimes you hear the broken syntax but you brashly move ahead in your sentence because if Israel has taught you one thing, it’s to push passed fear, embarrassment and the dreaded social faux -pas.
You’ll still be asking for a tafrit in Hebrew after they offer it to your friend in English. You’ll mix up “L’an?” and “eipho?” all the time. Your plurals will be in the wrong gender and your numbers will be too.
You’ll go absolutely mad trying to read this פרפקציוניסט.
(That reads “perfectionist” by the way. English Hebrewisms are the worst. It hurts my brain.)
But your confidence will surprise you.
That girl at the cheap clothes store talking to you about the knockoff dress of the season and the song on the radio will be shocked when you say you don’t recognise the songstresses name.
“Everyone knows her. We grew up on her.”
“I’m sorry. Lo g’dalti po.” (I didn’t grow up here).
She’ll give you that quizzical look and say בֶּאֱמֶת? (really?) and you’ll swell with pride and your heart will grow three sizes because you feel that tickle of the flame when it touches another. There’s room for you, in her imagined narrative of you.
Sometimes it won’t glow, sometimes it’ll wound your pride.
Sometimes two security guards will overhear you and your coworker talking loudly in English and imitate you in the manner of 12 year old boys.
“Oh-MAYY-GAAD!” they’ll quack exaggeratedly as you pass. Your coworker, who is way more fluent than you, has the grace not to engage with them.
You’ll make a mistake and try a jab at them.
“Eizeh matzchik.” You sarcastically fling back at them while biting bitterly on your tongue, knowing this is the lamest comeback ever and just proves the point.
And then sometimes, when you’re least self conscious, when you want to reach out and feel that all encapsulating promise of a promised land, you’ll find the words bubble up from the surface smoothly.
When they come without thought it’s usually in the language of asking for help, or giving it. And that is a beautiful thing.
The same day my OMG was made fun of I went to a gluten free friendly bakery in search of Sufganiyot.
While my pastries were being packaged a girl came in and asked for a special order. The cashier looked unwilling and it became a battle of “who is going to be more demandingly Israeli about this.”
The cashier didn’t want to but waffled his way through a reason as to why. Meanwhile the girl tried to calmly insist.
I gave her a sympathetic look and asked her if she too was Gluten Free, even though i knew the answer.
“Yes, to the moon and back.”
Our chat lasted for about five minutes. I wished her good luck and a good night before I left.
She never gave me the impression that she knew. I was not unmasked. There was no sign or inkling of my foreignness.
And maybe it was only five minutes but they made me add a little lego block to my inner castle. I stoked that flame that oscillates this way and that in search of that…
That thing that brings people from miles and oceans over to a place they have only read about, dreamt about, and not felt.
My Henglish is on fleek. I splice the words, but that’s ok. I’m a DJ in both languages.
The music it makes it gorgeous and new and מגניב.
My mother sometimes surprises me too.
Things submerged in her mind from her childhood years will surface too.
“Hishtageah,” (that one shocked me).
“Akshani” (I didn’t even know that one.)
She tells me it is because Yiddish is her first language and most Yiddish words are Hebrew in origin.
I find it only a little ironic that my English speaking mother is giving me Hebrew lessons because of her Yiddish background.
Now I wish I could have told the security guard THAT.