Listen to this article
“Ma ze?” (What’s this?), Ruti, my Hebrew teacher, was asking the class – 14 other mute, nervous foreigners and me.
She was holding up a map of Israel and the West Bank – the trapezoidal shape of historic Palestine, but with the jagged, fought-over, wept-over Green Line neatly erased. This is how most weather maps look in Israel these days, with the big West Bank settlements that the outside world deems illegal marked alongside inarguably Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Haifa.
The classroom was silent. I resisted saying something catty in English. (“Palestine during the British Mandate” came to mind.) “Zot Yisrael,” Ruti answered on behalf of our tongue-tied elementary class. (“This is Israel.”)
The exchange happened shortly after I moved to Jerusalem to cover Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan for the FT. I enrolled in an intensive evening class at an ulpan, the boot camp-like schools where new immigrants and assorted foreigners learn Hebrew at double speed.
Ulpanim typically offer evening classes to accommodate people with day jobs. Without any previous knowledge, I started, literally, at the beginning of the alphabet: level Alef (minus).
Colleagues had warned me in various ways about my quest to learn Hebrew. One said it was pointless because of the abundance of news outlets published in English – and the fact that I would never use the language on another posting.
Another recommended this particular ulpan in downtown Jerusalem, having studied there herself. But she also warned me that I would be imbibing a specific world view with my Alef-Bet. “You’ll get a handle of how Israelis see themselves and Zionism, which is really important to grasp part of the story.” I ended up getting a bit of that – but also some insights into language teaching and the shifting demographics of Jerusalem these days.
Israel is a very strange country to arrive in – oddly familiar and odd too, not least for a non-Jewish temporary resident. On the one hand, it is comfortably cosmopolitan: in the German Colony, the upscale Jerusalem neighbourhood where the FT has its office, you will hear American English or French as often as Hebrew. Some never learn it properly: I found my flat with the help of an estate agent who has been here for years, but struggles with the language. At the same time, Israel – a hybrid culture founded primarily by refugees from eastern Europe and the Arab world – is an isolated pressure cooker of a place.
I learnt to drive alongside Jerusalem’s poorly trained, ill-mannered drivers, which involves ample use of the horn and hand gestures. My favourite is an upheld hand with the fingers joined, as if plucking grapes: it means, “Just wait!” (Rak rega!) Just wait, that is, while I drive badly, or force you to wait for service, or do something else annoying.
To my surprise, at the ulpan, only a few of the students in my class were new immigrants. After absorbing a million newcomers in the 1990s, mostly from the former Soviet Union, Israel now only has about 20,000 people immigrating a year.
In my class there was Shimon, a shy maintenance worker from north London, and Stephanie, a chic photographer from Paris, both making aliyah (“going up”), as Israelis describe immigration to Israel. But there was also Bruno, a jovial Italian archaeologist digging on the West Bank; Samir, a bald Lebanese priest with an impish sense of humour; and Jackie, a Briton working for a Christian charity whom I teamed up with for pairwork in class. There were Ted and Suzanne, a middle-aged Evangelical Christian couple from Louisiana, who were uniquely resistant to Ruti’s commands in Hebrew. (“What did she just say?” Ted drawled anxiously to his wife when his turn came to speak.)
To my surprise, the biggest cohort of students were Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who have the right to work in Israel, but need Hebrew for most jobs. On the first day, Ruti went around the room, asking what country we were from. I feared (or perhaps relished) a tense exchange with the Palestinians, but each said: “I am from Jerusalem” – an inarguable assertion, albeit with its own political pungency.
In a neat upturning of their underdog status in the region, the Palestinians were star pupils in the class because of Arabic’s proximity to Hebrew – and the fact that they had heard it spoken around them for years. On days where I felt myself slipping behind on work, I sat next to Nuha, a university student who breezed through the texts.
“Naim meod, Alef,” Ruti said cheerily on the first day, holding up a large image of the letter and affixing it to the board. Naim meod? I wondered before realising – after hearing it repeated often enough – that the phrase means “pleased to meet you”. Ruti then pasted up other letters: Yud (y), Nun (n), Mem (m), showing us how to recognise them, then write them in script. By the end of the very first class, we were writing Hebrew words, right to left: mayim (water), yam (sea), yayin (wine). Without using a word in any language other than Hebrew, Ruti drew a picture of the sea, and produced bottles of wine and water from her handbag.
She made rudimentary jokes, of the kind that are only “funny” in the anxious environment of elementary language classes. “Ani lo Picasso,” she declared as she drew a stick-figure drawing of a mother (iyma); or “Ivrit lo piknik” (Hebrew is no picnic). We all laughed uproariously, delighted at our comprehension.
As the semester progressed, Ruti told us more about herself. She comes from Hadera, a provincial town in northern Israel. In her telling, it was a mildly embarrassing place to come from and she encouraged us to poke fun at it. “At eight o’clock,” she said, “at Ruti’s house, everything stops so that Ruti’s father can watch the evening news.”
Ruti taught us to tell the time, with the aid of an alarm clock produced from her large handbag. There was intensive drilling. To learn the numbers, she brought in a beach ball, which we threw to each other in class, as we counted “achat, shtayim, shalosh, arba”, and upward.
We read texts about Jewish and Israeli culture, including a nuanced take on kibbutzim, the socialist collectives that since Israel’s founding have gone capitalist, like the rest of society.
Modern Hebrew was born largely out of the stubbornness of one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the eccentric, obsessed Lithuanian-born scholar. According to one story – possibly myth – the first sentence to be uttered by a native speaker occurred during an argument. Ben-Yehuda revived the language from scripture, using his family as guinea pigs in speaking it. One day, the story goes, he was enraged to hear his wife singing in French to his son and raised his hand to strike her. “Abba, lo!” the child said – “Father, no!”
Ben-Yehuda also pioneered the “Hebrew in Hebrew” philosophy of learning the language, still used today in the ulpanim. One day I looked up Sarah Israeli, one of the co-authors of my textbook. Over coffee in the German Colony, she explained how it all works. Sarah said the curriculum was carefully designed to teach essential words from the start. The teachers’ ample use of props – like Ruti’s clock and beach ball – were meant to keep students from being bored with rote tasks like learning the numbers.
“There has been psychological research that if I tell you something and translate it, you won’t remember it,” she told me. “But if you just use the language, you get into another way of thinking.”
Sure enough, soon I was able to carry out basic conversations at shops and with people who knew no English. In my hubris, I made a few errors, buying a box of what I thought was salt – because I recognised the word on the box – then discovering it was citric acid after cooking a few sour-tasting meals.
Ted and Joanne, who insisted on translating each of Ruti’s words into English, dropped out. I graduated with a final grade of 95 – not through any native talent, but hard work: long hours spent scrawling out words in Hebrew on my dining table. I fancied I was channelling the bloody-minded spirit of Ben-Yehuda. I signed up for Alef (plus) – I’m afraid to say I still have to get through Bet, Gimel and Dalet levels too.
But I really realised I was thinking in Hebrew one day when parking (incompetently, as it happens) outside my house. When a motorist behind me honked, I rolled down the window, made a pained expression and raised my fingers in the bunch-of-grapes salute. “Rak rega!” I shouted through the window.
The names in this article have been changed.
John Reed is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief.