Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ivrit - Don't Sweat It

Well, Ulpan is winding down - next week we have an oral test and our written test is scheduled for the last week in July.

I can tell you that I've made great leaps in my Hebrew - more vocabulary, more understanding of grammar, familiarity with slang phrases, etc.

I can also tell you that while I feel MORE comfortable, the sense of panic just before I have to speak Hebrew still remains.  I still prepare what I am going to say.  I still bungle it when it comes out of my mouth.  

So here's my take on learning Hebrew - don't sweat it.

You see, all of us in Ulpan have those days when no matter how well we think we've done and how much we think we've improved, we just can't do it.  The words are somewhere in our brains, probably wandering around and bumping into the Spanish/French words we learned in school/college, and introducing themselves and then continuing to wander aimlessly.

The conjugation,which looks so lovely in my machberet [notebook] is a big hazy blur.

Last week I had a semi meltdown in Ulpan - there, I've said it, I admit it.  Hi, my name is Susan and I CANNOT for the life of me speak Hebrew.

Here's the story - the teacher (and believe me they are wonderful and kind and understanding, this is not any fault of theirs) was teaching us how to - are you ready? - write letters.  I kid you not.  Teaching us how to write a letter of thanks, of complaint, of apology, etc.  Complete with "put the return address here" and "this is the salutation."  Hello, fourth grade!

I was getting more and more frustrated with what I felt was a waste of time - I'd much rather spend the four hours each day in Hebrew conversation than in learning how to write a letter.  I finally said something and the teacher patiently explained that we do need to know the phrases to use for the various more formal letters we will write.  In a way she is right - I mean in Israel, like in any country with a big bureaucracy, there is lots to complain about and one has to know how to phrase your wording.

So, yes, she was right, but no, I still don't believe that was the best use of our time.  So I made a decision - the best part of Ulpan is still the best part - hearing and speaking Hebrew for 4 hours every day, getting corrected, learning new stuff.  The rest, including the test, is for the birds but I'll go along with it.  I mean these teachers work so hard and we love them!  I'd hate to make them feel that their time is not appreciated.

So today I went to the Modiin Water Company because they sent us a letter and (I think) it asked for a copy of our papers so that they could bill us for the water.  Fair enough.  Sat down with the lady.  Said (in Hebrew, ahem), "I received this letter - so please let me know what I need to do."  She probably heard the American accent within 2 seconds, so proceeded to speak slowly and simply to me and we had a fine conversation.  I even asked, at the end, if in the future I can pay via the website and she said yes.  At least I think that is what I asked and I think that's what she said.

But then, true Olah moment, I walked into a nearby store and when the woman asked if she could help me and I replied in Hebrew that I was just looking, she heard the accent and proceeded to speak to me in English.  What a relief!  I was so happy.  

Another thing I've learned is to ask for help.  This is something I'm not very good at.  But I have learned to ask people to speak more slowly, to ask if the word I'm using is correct, etc.  Israelis love it - they truly like to help you and soften the minute you ask them to slow down.  Seriously, I've never come across an Israeli who doesn't want to help me with my Hebrew.  

Tomorrow we have to go to the cellphone company and complain because although we changed our plan to a cheaper one, they still billed us for the more expensive one.  Fact of life, gotta deal with it.  THAT should be interesting.  

I am practicing how to say, "But you are ripping us off."  I think if I say "reep ov" they may get it.

So, in closing, those of you planning to make aliyah and worried about your Hebrew - don't sweat it.   You'll be fine.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What Things Cost

Some of you out there may actually be considering moving to Israel, so I thought I'd be Mrs. Super Helpful and give you some idea of what things cost here, so you can, you know, budget correctly.

Ahem.  Here we go.

Things in Israel COST A LOT.

No, no, in all seriousness, let's have some practical lessons.

Thinking in shekel:
First of all, you have to change your mindset from dollars (or Euros, or Yen, or whatever) to shekel.  Right now each dollar nets you about 3.8 shekel.  Do not, please, I beg of you, ask me to explain how this works. My mind cannot handle it.  It's sort of like time differences - I keep having to calculate it in my head and that sometimes hurts.

So, let's say in your mind a kind of cheap thing in the US, like, let's say, a bottle of water, costs $1.  In Israel that would be almost 4 shekel.  But as someone who is used to thinking in dollars, when you look at the number 4 on the item, you don't immediately think, "Oh, 4 shekel, that's not a lot."  No no, instead you think, "Four somethings is a LOT for water."

Getting used to the prices:
Now let's take breakfast cereal.  It is still quite disconcerting for me to go into the supermarket and see the number "22" on the price sticker.  Immediately I divide by 4 and that means the box costs me almost $5.

What you really have to do is stop translating things into dollars and just work from ground zero.  My son in law Elie taught me this trick.  You look at an item that shouldn't cost a lot, like a pack of gum and see what it costs.  Then you use that as your point of reference.  Makes sense, I know, very smart.  Can't do it.

I can't stop my brain from turning the shekel amount into the dollar amount so that I can see if it is a decent price.  When we found out the cost of our car, I found myself saying witty little sayings like, "I could buy  BMW for that much in America." - things like that.

So I really should stop doing that because when I do that calculation, it is NEVER a decent price, it is always more, sometimes twice what I would pay in the US for the item.

Shoes!  Wow. Clothes!  Double wow. You get the idea.

But there are some solutions to this:

1. Deals:  Just like in the US, where every other day Macy's is having some kind of sale (Wednesday sale!  Third Tuesday of the month Sale!), here you have to get savvy about looking for sales.  For example, for the past couple of weeks the whole country has been celebrating books and the bookstores have some amazing deals. Or the supermarkets - if you have a "club card" you get special deals.  For example, the other day at the supermarket I got 5 packages of plastic cups for 10 shekel. Awesome.  Never mind that they are the super cheapo Israeli plastic cups that fall over if you look at them the wrong way. (I actually think it's a feat of Israeli technology that they can make plastic that flimsy.)

2. Live differently:  we are much more cognizant now of what we spend.  We started out with some "extras" and have since decided they weren't worth the cost so we got rid of them.  And you know what?  It is just fine. Really, I mean who needs water anyway.

3.  Learn about the things you are going to have to pay for:  Israelis love fees and clubs.  They love to offer you a club card but somehow often forget to mention the fee, or tell you in very rapid Hebrew, hoping you'll get that "oleh facial expression" that we have been able to perfect - the wide open, blank eyes, the head cocked just a bit, and the mouth hanging open, drool starting to emerge - then they know you won't ask a question.

4. Get some perspective:  Yes, it's a changed way of life, but all in all I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world.

So just keep an open mind,  keep your hand on your wallet, and keep your moadon card in your hand and you'll be OK.

Gotta go - the peaches are 1/2 price today!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


I know you are all interested in whether or not my new garden hose is working, so I won't make you wait any longer.  It isn't.

Well, it worked just fine the first time, and there I was filling up the pool, cleaning the mirpeset, so happy.  Then, suddenly, in a moment of pure frustration with itself for working well, the hose decided to break.  Literally - the hosing came off of the end piece and water was shprizing everywhere.  So hose investment #3 is a failure.

It's finally happened. My brain is full.  I cannot cram another conjugation, adjective, or infinitive into my head.  Now I sit there with a dreamy expression on my face and whatever goes in, goes in.  Most falls right on the floor.  Near my seat is a hip-deep pile of information that crash-landed trying to fly into my brain.  I guess 5 months is a bit too much for me.  But I'm still going, getting whatever I can out of it, and we'll see what happens when we have the test.  Yes, there's a test and no I don't plan to do well.

It's hot.  It's June and we've already had several days over 100. So be it.  The a/c in the apartment and in the car works just fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine.

There is an entire network of dust bunny matchmaking going on in my apartment.  Shadchanim are meeting practically every moment, making matches, and apparently dust bunnies don't date or get engaged for long because there are little baby dust bunnies that have been created almost daily.  I sweep Monday.  And Tuesday there are more.  The gestation time for baby bunnies must be about 15 minutes.  I mean, there's barely time for sheva brachos.

I dust the furniture constantly and while I am dusting I hear it (I am not delusional) laughing at me.  But it's kind of like Ulpan, I'm not giving up.  I know I can't defeat it, but, but,but....

We are both working, b"H, but mostly from home.  Imagine two people who have always worked in separate offices now working at home, together, all day long.  It is hard to get into it, and one does need to get out every day at some point and no, we don't work in our PJs all day long, but it is going ok.

NOT the same topic as Ulpan, although related.  At some point what you learned in Ulpan, in Hebrew class, etc. all starts to come together, but it is such a slow process.  I hear words now and know that I know them, but can't remember the meaning fast enough to make sense of what is being said.  I want to say something but can't find the words so end up saying things that, in English, would sound like, "I and the daughter of mine seek to walk to Jerusalem to buy things but we know not how to reach it."

I finally feel like I know which coin is which without staring at it like a dumb cluck for 15 seconds.  I know the red bills are the happy ones (200s).  But I still have to stare at the cashier with drool coming out of my mouth trying to figure out the amount she just told me I owe.  "OK, maatayim is 200 and chamishim is 50 and sheva is 7, so that's..........257! Which means.....that if I give her a red bill and another bill she will give me change....."  

So all in all, it's coming together.  Don't mind my kvetching - the big, BIG deal is just living here in what is literally a holy place.  Every time I see an archaeological dig pop up along the side of the road because some construction crew found an ancient synagogue buried there, every time I realize that the beautiful majestic hills that surround me every day were probably traversed by some ancestor of mine, and more importantly when I think of my own more immediate ancestors who would have wanted to live here, I am profoundly happy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What do you mean, you don't want the Shoko?

Culture clash.

Here are some examples of why Americans (or people from ANY other country) are constantly amazed at the Israeli culture:

1. Turning down a mivtza (bargain or sale) - Israelis, bless their little hearts, cannot for the life of them understand why you would turn down a mivtza.  To wit, yesterday's conversation at the supermarket checkout:       
  • Cashier: We have this HUGE bottle of shoko [Israeli chocolate drink, which may or may not have some natural ingredients in it, but I doubt it] on sale!
  • Us:  We don't want it.
  • Cashier (with a look of utter bewilderment on her face): What?  But it's a mivtza!  Look how much you save!
  • Us: We don't DRINK it, though.  [This is when we start good naturedly laughing, assuming she will laugh along.  She does not.  Quite the contrary, she is supremely insulted that we have turned down her mivtza]
  • Cashier:  So what?  You should buy it.
  • Us:  But we don't want it.
  • Cashier shakes her head and continues completing our checkout.
  • Us [on the way out] - they must get a kickback for selling that stuff at the register.
2. Driving
Israelis drive on whatever the heck side of the road they want to.  It does not matter that it is YOUR side of the road.  Defensive driving has taken on a whole new meaning here for us - it means assuming every single driver on the road is going to try to pass you or do something incredibly dangerous.

3. Customer Service
Hahahahaha!  Sorry, I couldn't help myself there.  Basically, as the customer it's not that you have no rights or deserve anything - you are on your own, buddy.  You do get used to it, and Israelis are not bad or mean people, they are just very tough.  

I heard on the radio the other day (in Hebrew, folks, so I may have understood the story completely wrong), the announcer told a story that he called the city government office to find out how much he owed in property tax.  The woman who answered responded to his question with this one:  "What do you think I am, a computer?  I have no idea what you owe!"

4. Fashion
I can't quite place the fashion sense of Israeli women.  It's somewhere between tacky and OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS SHE WEARING?  Forget that about 99% of Israeli women dye their hair some unnatural color of red/maroon, and the makeup is applied, it seems, with a magic marker (permanent), but what bothers me is that in fact so many of these women are actually quite beautiful without a drop of makeup (my theory about most makeup/women, but that's a discussion for another time). The heavy makeup they wear, well, let's say it doesn't help them.    

Maybe it's that they just don't care, they want to wear what they love and what they think is beautiful and fashionable, and I assume they think they look great.  Maybe in the end that's how we should all feel.

5. Business culture
I'm new to this, but it seems to me that Israelis in the business world assume you are trying to pull one over on them, and that if they agree to something, they are being taken for a ride.  I'm still trying to figure this one out, but there is a general sense of suspicion and not wanting to be a "fryer."

A "fryer" is defined as someone who you have taken advantage of.  A sucker, sort of.  The phrase "I'm not a fryer" tells the person you are talking to that you are not going to let them pull the wool over your eyes.  There is even a website for Anglos who want to avoid being fryered - - check it out, I'm not making this up.

6. Living in a country surrounded by its dire enemies
So, of course this is a more serious one, and in a way it explains some of the above.  But after having grown up in the US, which sort of has a "king of the world" mentality about it, here you are part of a thousands-year-old struggle which you feel every day.  It's what makes Israelis so tense, yadda yadda yadda.  But of course it affects every day life. 

Every Israeli you see has probably lost someone in their family in combat or an act of terrorism.  It's not like the US where only some people have relatives in the military.  Here it's every single family.  So these are the things you have to get used to:
  • Seeing guns wherever you go
  • Checkpoints
  • People in military uniforms everywhere
  • High school kids discussing which branch of the military they'd like to be in
  • High school parents realizing their 17 or 18 year old is about to start risking his or her life
  • Having your bag and car inspected before you go into a mall, store, movie, theater

7.  Living in a country that is not someone else's
I know, I've said this before.  But having been born and raised in America, it really is weird to be in your own country, where everything that happens is somehow related to your Judaism.  Even the fights in the Knesset, the current battle over army service for hareidim - when you look at the big, big picture, it's kind of cool that it is all about the Jewish people. 

That's it for now - I'm awaiting my American-born "shiputznik" (handyman) to come do some work in the apartment.  I use him because his business card promised (I am not making this up) "clean, American style service."  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

5 Months! - Some Thoughts

I know I talk / write a lot about Ulpan, but for an olah chadasha that is pretty much the center of your life for the first few months (5 months to be exact - as of yesterday). 

Your Ulpan friends become your family - you grow very close because you end up talking about your family history, your feelings, and your personal story during the conversations you have in class.  You become a very tight group and grow to really love and care for each other.  We are all going through the same issues - learning the language, navigating the bureaucracy, finding work, creating a brand new life - so we lean on each other for support. 

When one of our class found an apartment in Tel Aviv that he'd been looking for since the beginning, we almost felt like giving him a party.  The sad part for us (and him, I think) was that he left us for an Ulpan class in TA.

So today we talked aobut war. Today is June 5, the first day of the Six Day War, and June 6 was the first day of first Lebanon War in 1982.

Our teacher, a wonderful and sweet woman, very religious, who was born in Nahariya, told us that she remembers that there were no defense shelters in 1967, and that her father dug trenches for the family behind their house, where they hid when there was a siren.  I thought of myself as a 13 year old at the time, I remember my father crying and telling us how he wanted us to move to Israel (he had also told us that if Kennedy didn't win the election in 1960, we were going the next day!)

Our teacher then told us about the 1982 war in which her brother fought.  He was badly burned and when she went with her mother to see him for the first time in the hospital, her mother kept asking "Where is my son??" becasue she did not recognize him with all of his burns.  As she told this, she began crying.  We all became very quiet and sad.  She then spoke more about the wars, and was clearly extremely emotional and tearful.

We then got into a discussion about the wars, the territorial fights, peace, etc. 

At the end of the discussion, as she often does when we "argue" these types of points, she stated, "Hashem yaazor" [God will help.]

Now sometimes when people say that I feel a little angry - I mean (in my mind) God wants us to help ourselves and show Him how brave we are, how committed we are.  But this is coming from someone who has suffered through many wars and lost family in them.  She and all her family, and all of the families here who have been through these wars, have indeed shown God how brave they are.  And, in the end, they know that we look to Hashem for the ultimate help. 

All I could think of was, "THIS is living in Israel. The incredible mixture, each and every day, of the spiritual with the reality of everyday life. I am so incredibly lucky to have been able to move here.  What a bracha.  I wish more people would come and experience this."

I'm not one for telling people what to do - you do your thing, I'll do mine.  But I will say that I compare living here to many other mitzvos - with the approach of na'aseh v'nishma - you DO it, then you understand.

I'm just beginning to understand.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Standoff at the Ulpan Corral

Well, it had to happen. 

You see, it seems in many Ulpan classes there are those who just want to learn as much useable Hebrew as they can and those who want to become Hebrew linguists and know every possible conjugation of every possible verb, why it is used, when, and what the exceptions are.

Me - useable Hebrew.

In the past week or so the teaches have begun talking about the test at the end of Ulpan, near the end of July.  They gave us a link to the past tests and suggested we practice with them.  We even distributed one test to the class and we had to take it at home and then come in to see how we did.  Let's not discuss how we did, ok? 

So slowly, as the test nears, the teachers seem focused on us doing well on the test.  I am sure it reflects well on them and the entire Israeli government if we perform well.  It means their Knesset decision to keep funding Ulpan is worthwhile, blah blah blah.

Some of us have gotten a little frustrated with the focus on the test.  Now, to be fair, if you are going to apply for a job which requires that you have taken Ulpan, you do need an Ulpan certificate.

None of us in the class is in that situation.  Not that we'd mind taking the test, mind you, but all in the name of a good laugh.  Like, "Did you see question 10?  I didn't understand the directions, let alone the sentences."  or "If you thought you felt stupid before, wait until you take the test."  That kind of good natured ribbing which makes everyone feel so accomplished.

However, there are those in the class who feel differently - they are very serious about learning the exact grammar rules and knowing when they apply, etc.  They want to know every single instance where there is an exception to the rule.  They want to know ALL the rules.

And then there are the rest of us, whose thoughts are more like this during the 4 hours of Ulpan:

  • "I wonder what I should eat during the break?"
  • "I think my nails are too long."
  • "He needs to iron his shirts."
  • "What is that climbing on the wall?"
  • "Sheesh, it's hot in here, why doesn't someone turn on the a/c?"
  • "Oh, is the teacher talking to me?  I'd better pay attention."
  • "Hah, he didn't do his homework last night. I did."
  • "I got every answer wrong on last night's homework."

You know, things like that. Mind you, we do take Ulpan seriously, but in the end most of us realize that after this basic instruction, only time will really improve our Hebrew.  Forcing words into our brain cells which are already crammed with trying to convert miles to grams or fahrenheit to meters is just not going to work..

So today we had a "discussion" about how to move forward.  To the credit of the Ulpan teachers, they are more than happy to teach us in any way we feel wlll be most useful - they are terrific.  It's the students that become the problems.

The decision was to move forward with a conscious mix of test-prep and regular stuff, like how to negotiate the grocery store and doctor's office. useful stuff.

I mean, to give an example, today we learned the words for things relating to color - like if the grass gets green in the winter and yellow in the summer.  It's a fancy shmancy way of saying "the grass was green in the winter and now it is summer and it is yellow" which is the way I would say it, and will say it forevermore.

Like I've said before, I've given up on the idea of sounding like an intelligent person for many years to come.

Test or not test, I plan to (sing it with me, everyone) sound like an idiot for years to come.