Monday, September 7, 2009

Ulpan beckons yet again. Five months is not enough.

Yom sheni, 18 Elul 5769.














On Shabbat, I had one of those "wake up call" conversations you can only have with a little kid.

The Dearly Beloved and I take our usual afternoon stroll.  As we pass the beit knesset, he decides to join the line of men for one of the mincha minyanim; so I wait for him in the lovely gazebo outside.  My peaceful reverie is pleasantly interrupted by a small boy of about five or six who joins me.  We exchange Shabbat greetings. While he busies himself with a melting candy for several minutes, I continue to watch a line of very tiny ants making their way across the floor.


After a bit, he comes over and sits next to me.  I ask him to remind me if the ants are called "nemalim" in Hebrew.  I think that he tells me that he isn't sure exactly what they are called, because he is only in kindergarten...  but my Hebrew really is lacking, and he is capable of jamming a lot of words into a sentence.  I know I could get this language, if people would only be kind enough to speak in three- or four-word sentences, enunciating like the Pimsleur lady, and speaking very slowly...

We exchange names.  His is Yeshaya.  I tell him it is a strong name.

When we hit a bump in the conversation, I ask him to repeat, slowly.  "Can't you hear well?"  he asks me politely.

"I can hear okay; but I don't understand Hebrew very well.  I am a new immigrant."  I use this explanation a lot.  It has worked very well as my excuse for not comprehending completely, not being able to make my point clearly.  Not only am I forgiven, but I also get that heartwarming "atta-girl" that makes new olim strong.  You know:  "Way to go!  We're so proud of you!  Thanks for making aliyah!"  That is the response I am used to receiving.

Until now.

"You are a new immigrant?  When did you make aliyah?"  he asks.  Seeing that I am having a bit of trouble understanding -- he lisps, after all! -- he repeats his question, slightly differently.  "How long have you lived in Israel?"

"Almost two years."

"Do you mean 'two weeks'?  Because two weeks is new."

"No, I mean two years," I say, happy to know the difference between "shvu'ayim" and "shnatayim."

He patiently, earnestly explains to me the facts of life.  "Then you're not a new immigrant.  Two years is not new."

Well, I can see that we are talking a third of his lifetime here.  I can see his point.  But I try to explain how much harder it is to learn a language when you are not a little kid.  He accepts this, and changes the subject.

"Do you have a baby?  My baby brother just had his brit."

"Mazal tov!" I say to him, happy to be on more comfortable ground.  "What is the baby's name?"

"D'vir," he responds.

"D'vir?"  I ask, trying to think of its meaning.  I mean, every word in a foreign language has at least five words that sound similar, but can cause major embarrassment if you guess the wrong one.  Dvar?  Dovair?  Diboor...?

"Kdosh ha-kdoshim," he says, patiently.  The Holy of Holies.  Something to do with the Sanctuary in the Holy Temple?  My face clearly registers a question.  "Didn't you learn Torah?" he asks.  "Are you a convert?"

I'm still not trapping all the words.  He uses the verb form of the word "convert," and I have not encountered it before; yet I slowly am getting the root of the word, and therefore the meaning.  But he is six, and is not going to wait for the concept to develop in my mind.

"Was your mother Jewish?"

I am amused by this little tiny man asking me all these intimate questions.  But at the same time, I am enjoying the exercise.  And there is nothing like chatting with a little stranger to elicit honesty.  "Yes, I am a convert,"  I answer him.  By now, I have translated his earlier questions in my mind.  "But I was a convert since I was 32 years old.  I have learned a lot of Torah.  I just learned it in English!"

"How old are you now?"

"I am 51."

"You're older than my parents."

Yes, I have no doubt.  I am older than a sizable chunk of the population of the yishuv.  And most of my peers on the yishuv are the grandparents of six-year-olds and new babies, rather than their parents.

He chats a while longer about the new baby, about ants, and about gan (kindergarten).  He doesn't seem to notice that I am mostly making appreciative noises, rather than fully comprehending.


When the Dearly Beloved approaches the gazebo, I introduce them, and take my leave of my new friend.

"I leave you for ten minutes, and you take up with another man," the Dear One quips.

My answer is incongruous.  "I've gotta get back to ulpan."

No more excuses.  The Yeshayas of the yishuv are not impressed.

Haveil Havalim #233 is up at JoshuaPundit.  Hopefully the smoke damage wasn't too great, Josh, and everybody is back at home, safe and sound.

Glossary:
Beit knesset:  synagogue
Mincha minyan:  quorum of 10 men for afternoon prayers
Pimsleur:  excellent recorded language course
Yeshaya:  G-d is salvation
Olim:  new immigrants to Israel
Brit:  ritual circumcision, performed usually on the eighth day of a newborn boy's life
D'vir:  sanctuary, inner chamber
Yishuv:  small community
Ulpan:  language immersion course
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