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Op-Ed: Life in Israel: An Immigrant Learns Hebrew

Their six year old grandchildren can speak Hebrew, and the Hebrew teacher is a Russian immigrant. Kol hakavod (kudos!) to the writer and his wife, who made aliya to Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Published: Saturday, April 21, 2012 9:56 PM


Going back to school was not first on my bucket list as I entered semi retirement.  Certainly not undertaking to learn a foreign language, and to top it off, a language spoken by relatively few people in the modern world: Hebrew.

But here I am in a classroom with fourteen other seniors; at 66 years old I am one of the youngest; “a kid,” as a man from Venezuela put it.  There are determined women from Peru and South Africa, several couples from Russia, two elegant and feisty women from France with beautiful smiles, two working class couples from America, and the doyenne of the class, a slightly hard of hearing Spanish expatriate; she has the most elegant name and is trying hard, so she will be able to speak the language of her great grandchildren.

My wife and I enter a fusty classroom like the one I had in high school fifty years before.  Lunchroom style tables and chairs lined in neat rows facing the blackboard behind the teacher’s desk.  Only now it’s a whiteboard and colored magic markers. It smells like my old homeroom. We take out our notebooks, pens, pencils, extra large erasers, bottles of water, cell phones, and we’re ready to go.

Our teacher is a vivacious, middle-aged Russian woman dressed modestly but stylish with her henna colored hair.  She pops around the room fluently and impressively addresses each of her students with words in our native language including Afrikaans, Spanish, Russian, English, and French.  Most Americans never learn to speak more than English and wonder why the rest of the world just doesn’t know English. 

She had arrived at Ben Gurion Airport with her husband and two young children on one of the many rescue flights out of Russia in 1991. They left Birobidzhan taking only a few small suitcases and the clothes on their backs. Birobidzhan remains the center of the Jewish Autonomous Region, stifling hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter, at the cross of the Bir and Bijan rivers. 

They left behind their parents and siblings and 87,000 other people. At Ben Gurion Airport they were asked where they would be living; she shrugged her shoulders. They were sent to Beit Shemesh where they have lived full and productive lives ever since. My wife and I are struggling to find where to put everything we shipped from America in our 40-foot container.

Class begins with a quick review of the aleph-bet (Hebrew A, B, C’s).  Everybody seems to have this down pretty well, but we will repeatedly review it to learn to recognize script and upper case letters. 

Right away the teacher asks us our names in Hebrew.  In unison we repeat, “my name is….” Then we turn to one another and ask, “What is your name?” and answer in Hebrew, “My name is….”; like first grade all over again.

Our teacher’s Russian name is spelled out on the board phonetically. She asks simple questions in Hebrew expecting the class to answer, though my wife and I have barely spoken three connected Hebrew words in our entire lives. 

“Where are you from?” “I am from Buenos Aires. I live in Beit Shemesh.” “I am from Madrid. I live on Dolev Street.” 

Grown men and women stuffed into chairs behind school desks hoping to learn Hebrew as well as our six year old grandchildren.  Fumbling with vocabulary and grammar, feeling like we may be embarrassing ourselves, we stand in pairs in front of the class urged on by this immigrant who didn’t know three words of Hebrew when she boarded the exodus plane. “Do you want, coffee, chocolate, or tea?”  Cajoling the language partner to answer in Hebrew. “I want coffee.” 


Every student in the class deserves a pat on the back. You have to be self-effacing to repeatedly make mistakes that often result in words not used in proper company.
One-man answers, “I want a scotch,” it’s 11 o’clock in the morning and I tell him I’ll join him.

Our teacher is good and pushes us to our limits. No writing, don’t take notes.  Humans learn to speak long before reading and writing. After a short break class resumes, no one has dropped out yet. Another hour of baby talk flies by with humor, some pathos, and the emotional struggle over verbs and adjectives.

Then we stand. She leads us in a Hebrew song and gestures for us to raise our hands, place them atop our heads and shoulders, bending and standing, turning side to side. It’s movement and a fun break from sitting and speaking to one another. It’s a song our grandchildren sang to us when we returned home from class and tried to sing to them.

Every student in the class deserves a pat on the back. You have to be self-effacing to repeatedly make mistakes that often result in words not used in proper company. This seasoned group, full of life’s experiences, voluntarily flounders and stumbles through four hours of intellectual and emotional trauma twice each week. They are some of the bravest people I have met.

But we are nowhere near as brave as our teacher, who showed up on Israel’s doorstep in the middle of the night.