Dispatches from Ulpan: Week 2

I must apologize for my lengthy absence. I’ve wanted to write, but I’ve just started the next leg of my journey and, as I’m sure you know, the reality of what we can accomplish sometimes falls short of our expectations. 

As I write this, I’m climbing into the heart of Haifa on another big, green bus; savoring a free moment after a long day of learning. Focusing on one subject, five hours a day, four hours a week is no small task on its own. After a more than two year absence from formal learning, it is evident that my mind is a little rusty. As I shake off the cobwebs, I am grateful to have an energetic teacher to learn from and intelligent, easy going classmates to learn with. 

The daughter of two Yemenite Jews, Galia, the Morah, is already one of the best teachers I have ever had. Her dark hair and skin are always complimented by tastefully colorful outfits, that, along with her smile, inject joy into every early morning. Her sense of humor, which sometimes comes at the expense of our mistakes, allows her to laugh as we mispronounce the Hebrew word for “education,” as the Hebrew word for “ovary,” or as we confuse the pluralization of Tzitzit, the traditional fringes worn by observant Jewish men, with Tzizim, the word for breasts. I have, without a doubt, never laughed so much while learning.

Boy oh boy do her methods get results. In the past week my pile of flashcards has almost doubled in size and I feel my self-confidence growing with each lesson. The highlight of the class so far came last week when, M, an immigrant from Russia and the darkhorse for the title of  “Class’s best Hebrew-speaker,” thanked Galia. Because of the words she had learned in the first week of the class, she was able to understand her son’s teacher at their parent-teacher conference. Obviously, my heart melted. For someone like me, who has no real responsibilities yet, it is easy to take for granted that I might struggle at times, chalking it up to “The Aliyah Process,” but M’s story reminded me that learning the language is an absolute necessity if we hope to lead normal lives.

It’s funny, over the years, my mom, who made Aliyah as a twenty-something, would tell me stories from her time in Ulpan. I could never figure out how she remembered the details of such a small part of her time in Israel so vividly. After a week, it makes perfect sense, largely because I already have my own stories to share; tea parties in room 21, the Americans who help soothe my homesickness, and of course, the curious case of communicating with my Russian roommate entirely through Google Translate. In the coming weeks, I hope these stories can shed some light onto what life in the Ulpan is like.

Until then, I am happy, healthy, and so excited to be in the place of my dreams, working on something that will help me for the rest of my life.

Learn more about Ulpan in Israel here.

The Art of Talking to Yourself on Public Transportation

Shortly after arrival, I was in dire need of a haircut. After having the unruly mop on my head immortalized in my 10-year Israeli I.D, I quickly made my way to the nearest barbershop. As I waited for the bus to pick me up, I came to the anxiety-inducing realization that my vocabulary would limit my ability to be specific about my hair, a subject I tend to be specific about.

My Hebrew, in most commonplace circumstances, suffices. I can order food, ask for directions, make small talk, and swear proficiently. I’m proudest of the swearing. Even when it comes to hair, I know the near-complete lexicon of men’s haircut words; short, sides, long, top. But how do I say fade? Or taper? As I boarded the bus, my anxiety was quickly overpowered by my sheer (pun intended) determination not to sound like an idiot. 

“I’ll be damned if I let, ‘Can you taper the back?’ be my downfall,” I thought to myself, and quickly began cross-referencing various hair-related words with the Morphix dictionary app and Google Translate (I know, a surefire path to success).

As the number 4 bus began its convoluted route through the neighborhoods of this old city on a hill, I began practicing the pronunciation of these new words over and over again. Once I felt comfortable with the words I tried to translate past conversations with barbers so that I might be ready for any scenario.

It was at about this point that I paused and stepped outside of myself. I thought about what my co-passengers must have seen as they watched a grown man whisper and mumble to himself in public. I was embarrassed by the thought that someone on the bus might be judging me, either because they thought I was a crazy person who was talking to himself, or, worse yet, that I was some silly immigrant who didn’t know how to ask for a haircut.

I stopped for a second and looked around to see if anyone had noticed my strange behavior. Not only was no one paying me any mind, but as I started listening to the conversations on the bus, I noticed Hebrew being spoken with Russian, Amharic, and Mizrahi accents. I was on a bus full of immigrants, all of whom needed to, at one point or another, get their first haircut in their new country. Suddenly, struggling to get my haircut became a weird, minor rite of passage that all new Olim had to endure. In hindsight, I do wish I had brought a notebook and a pen so as to seem more like a diligent student or inspired, albeit eccentric artist, rather than the resident oddball who whispers to himself about haircuts.

The great irony of this story is, of course, after briefly being asked about what I wanted, the barber began bragging to the customers in line about how quickly he cuts hair, so as to service as many customers as possible throughout the day. The haircut, unsurprisingly, was bad, and no amount of explaining in any language would have changed that fact. I went over to my cousin’s house the next day, and he fixed me up as best he could. 

It’s odd. One rarely thinks about–or at least, I didn’t think about–all of the really simple things that you have to relearn in a new place. To put it in different terms, it’s incredible to realize all of the things we take for granted in our daily lives, in a place where we are totally comfortable. It also makes me realize how fortunate I am to have the task of finding a decent barber my most significant struggle to date.