“Shpichen Sie Hebräisch?” A sticky situation in Ivrit

Ivrit, or Hebrew, can be a surprisingly dangerous weapon. And, following some tips on how to handle the natives, the best advice that I could give to the new immigrant to this country would be to make the most of his or her introductory ulpan (Hebrew school) . . . and not in the manner in which I made the most – or, at least, continually attempted to! – of mine.    

Ulpan Etzion front gate (former, original Baka campus)

Following my aliyah (immigration to Israel) in January 1996, I spent five months at the Jewish Agency’s Ulpan Etzion, in Jerusalem. This residential school, Israel’s first ulpan (in 1949), was the modern-day embodiment of Moses’ promise, in the Book of Deuteronomy, regarding the “Ingathering of the Exiles”.      

And, for your average twentysomething male (I was a considerably more virile 28 at the time), Ulpan Etzion was also the heavenly fulfilment of his fantasy, in no particular book whatsoever, about the ingathering of exiled Jewish totty from all five continents. Indeed, it was very much a case of take your pick (which all three of my first cousins who preceded me at Etzion obviously couldn’t wait to, marrying women – from three of those continents – whom they met within hours of touching down at Ben Gurion).      

Even if the “knocking shop” run from her room by a Russian resident of Etzion catered to non-residents only, the atmosphere during my time at the Ulpan – also known as a merkaz klita, or absorption centre – was certainly conducive to “absorptions” other than the purely linguistic. In my defence, my aliyah coincided with a sickening spate of suicide bombings, forcing me to swiftly adopt the Israeli practice at such times of finding solace wherever I could. What choice did I have?!      

None of this, of course, excuses the fact that the ultimate goal for me and Aussie Nathan – who sat on the opposite side of the classroom – in each tedious Hebrew lesson would be to catch as many pieces of flying chocolate in our mouths as possible while Esti, our teacher, was writing on the board. And she never did discover why seemingly spontaneous applause would break out during her lessons (i.e., whenever Nathan or I had been successful). After years of dreary employment, it was like being back at Hasmonean . . . only with girls to show off to.      

This honeymoon period in Israel, however, followed by continual employment in the English language ever since (my current boss refers to me only as “Shakespeare”), has left me with my own peculiar dialect of Hebrew – Hebrish – that constitutes a continuing source of embarrassment and frustration to me. Most humiliating of all (especially when I am only trying to buy a carton of milk), I speak it with an accent that causes most listeners to take pity and to respond in English.      

To me, Israel’s adoption of our ancient tongue rather than English – the international lingua franca since the early 20th century – makes its 1967 occupation of the Territories, with no apparent exit strategy, appear relatively sensible in comparison. Indeed, rather than naming major streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem after him, I would instead have ‘rewarded’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda with a couple of grubby newspaper stands in the Ashkelon and Dimona bus stations.      

But I digress . . .      

On Sunday morning, I met up for coffee with my architect on Levontin Street, in the up-and-coming Gan Ha’Chashmal neighbourhood of Tel Aviv.  

Now, Shlomit is quite atypical of T.A. Woman. In fact, Shlomit is the very antithesis of her. She is refined and ladylike (that should not be taken as an insult, bra-burners!), and the very last person at whom one would want to direct a filthy utterance. 

Discussing plans for a new, Toblerone-shaped building to be erected on the opposite side of Levontin Street, I resolved to be clever and to show off my new Hebrew word – shpitz, or apex, recently taught to me by my friend Yuval (probably with the intention that I would, later, inadvertently misuse it to great comic effect) – to delineate that side of the building of most interest to me.

Ani ma’adif et ha’shpich,” or “I prefer the cum,” I informed Shlomit boldly.

Shlomit stared down into her creamy hafuch (latte). 

When, some seconds later, the realisation of what I had said shot through me, I resolved that I would have to get myself out of the horribly stiff, sticky spot by either continuing the conversation as if nothing had happened or by confronting my malaprojism (beat that, Kopaloff!) head on.

My cheeks, however, were already throbbing crimson, meaning that the former approach was lost.      

Oy! Ani kol kach mitsta’er . . . hitkavanti shpitz!” (Oh! I am so sorry . . . I meant apex!)      

Shlomit giggled, nervously, as I forlornly attempted to regain my composure and to continue our discussion about real estate as if I had not just ejaculated about semen.      

Had my faux pas – a fadicha rather than a fashla, it would seem – outdone even the (apocryphal?) group email sent out by the secretary of the large London law firm, requesting assistance after she had dropped a “clit” into the photocopying machine?!  

I was also reminded of the time that a former Canadian colleague at Amdocs – that most hierarchical and regimented of high-tech companies – mistook an instruction from our Israeli boss regarding an “otek” (copy) for a call of “motek” (sweetness).     

B’seder (okay), motek” Dalit replied in kind . . . totally inappropriately to a woman with the sense of humour of an abscess. And, naturally, we never let her forget it. (Dalit laughed last, however, when another of our technical writers’ group, Andrew – in the elevator after lunch, one day – dripped ice cream onto the club foot of one of the Amdocs Vice-Presidents [most of whom appeared to consider themselves only a notch below Head of State].)      

Having made aliyah over 14 years ago, I can no longer call upon the pitiful excuse – as I did so shamelessly for so long – that “I am an oleh chadash” (new immigrant).

As they say in these parts, however, and usually in the face of far greater adversity, yih’yeh tov (it will be okay). And Shlomit, no doubt, now understands that she is dealing with a complete dimwit.      

To all readers of melchett mike, a slightly belated – though grammatically correct, this time – Chag Atzmaut Sameyach (Happy Independence).

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18 responses to ““Shpichen Sie Hebräisch?” A sticky situation in Ivrit

  1. Ah Mike, I’m chortling into my Friday morning coffee, recalling my own early-days-in-Israel ‘faux-pas’ of asking a woman to take her clothes off (lehitpashet) instead of compromising about a certain situation (lehitpasher).

  2. when my sister started her first job here in israel – they had someone check all her typed work before it went “public” which was lucky on the one occasion when she used the word lehashtin (to pee) instead of the word lehamtin (to wait) – everyone in the office had a good laugh, and she never made that mistake again! (maybe others! but not that one!!)

  3. Stevie Boy, taking her clothes off would surely have been her “compromise”!

    Which reminds me that, nearly every Purim here, I manage to ask some female or other about how she intends to get undressed (lehitpashet, as you correctly point out) instead of how she will dress up (lehitchapess . . . I think!)

  4. . . . and just got back from the alterations woman, whom I asked to “shorten my shoes” (na’alayim instead of michnasayim [trousers]).

    Why do all Hebrew words have to share the same endings?!

  5. Have you ever thought how much more you could have gained by cleaning up the ice cream from the VP’s foot rather than mocking me?

  6. How about my job interview where I told her that the team had faced the issue “bli limtzotz” (without sucking) rather than “bli lematzmetz” (without blinking). She in turn indeed did not “suck”, but blink she did many times…

  7. Daniel Marks

    There is, of course, the other side of the coin, namely mistakes that Israelis make in what they consider to be English.

    Here I choose not to mock my beloved countrymen as I know of no logical reason why they should be more fluent in English than most Englishmen are. However, I do have some scorn for those who claim to be English experts and are handsomely paid their linguistic prowess – only to make the most frightful boo-boos.

    Anyone watching Israeli TV and reading the Hebrew subtitles will doubtlessly have many amusing examples to relate. The first that sticks in my mind, I noticed back in the early 1980s when serving in the army somewhere in the Negev. It was a period of Dallas Fever and once a week we were allowed to have our late night inspection significantly earlier so that we, young Lions of Judah, might have time to take off our uniforms and in the customary shorts, vests and kaf-kafim (very cheap plastic sandals) watch this brand new and thoroughly intoxicating soap opera.

    There was, for me, an unforgettable moment when young Lucy Ewing entered a surprise party and, when seeing the great variety of foodstuffs, exclaimed, “Wow what a great spread!” This was translated into the holy tongue as:

    איזה ממרח משגע

    . . . translating “spread” into the kind one puts on bread.

    The other one that rarely fails to amuse is the strong men who are:

    עם רגליים כמו שלוש מסעיות

    . . . where the linguist in question regularly mistakes “Legs like tree trunks” for “Legs like three trucks”, a simile that is not easy to picture.

    Finally, how could I forget the glorious day when visitors from abroad had been invited to my place of work and our in house English virtuoso thoughtfully posted a notice saying “Toilet Man” on the gents.

    Our guests fully expecting to see a superhero emerge, our answer to Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc, were quite dismayed to discover that the room would turn out to be but a wholly unremarkable, very run-of-the-mill WC.

  8. Indeed, Stefan! When Ben Yehuda (or whoever) created the word for “suck” (מציצה) – and naturally, therefore, “blow job” – I am absolutely convinced that he deliberately chose one as closely resembling as many other, innocuous Hebrew words as possible. As a result, I have often requested oral sex rather than a lighter (מצית) or a bargain (מציאה) . . . though, tragically, the error has never paid dividends!

    On a slight tangent to Daniel’s point re the Israeli bastardisation of English, the predilection of Israeli football commentators to refer to British footballers by their nicknames (which even British commentators don’t) – most commonly, “Stevie G” (Steven Gerrard) and “Giggsy” (Ryan Giggs) – drives me to absolute f*cking distraction. What gives them the right . . . ?!

    And, Andrew, no . . . I have not!

  9. Not long in Israel, my wife is having a discussion with two work mates (good frum sherut leumi girls) about the lack of recent opportunities to work out: rather than saying ‘lo hitamanti harbeh zman’ (I haven’t worked out for a long time), she says ‘lo hitonanti harbeh zman’ (I haven’t masturbated for a long time)…

  10. Daniel Marks

    Balancing that one out, my son was a short-term shaliach in an Australian school. One of the Israeli teachers had an infection and couldn’t make class one day. His well-meaning friend explained to his class that he couldn’t teach that day because he had “an erection”.

    The pupils roared with laughter and the teacher was quite shocked:

    “Your teacher is lying in bed with an erection and you’re laughing about it! Do you know how much pain he’s in?!”

  11. Another slight linguistic faux pas in the Carmel Market, this morning . . .

    Wanting to ask my fruit and veg man whether he had found a bag of agassim (pears) that I accidentally left there yesterday afternoon, I instead asked him if he had come across a bag of rapists (anassim).

  12. A colleague posted this & I figured if anyone would enjoy it, it has to be your devoted readers … Netanyahu’s speech translated by a sub-par Ulpan student.

  13. Daniel Marks

    I thought the first few minutes were okay, then I got a little bored.

    In my opinion it might have been funnier if the speaker being translated wasn’t a fluent English speaker himself, and if the guy “impersonating:” him could speak proper Hebrew.

    It’s probably the kind of thing I’d have enjoyed 30 years ago when on ulpan, and at the risk of sounding patrionizing I wonder if some of the hysterical laughter wasn’t caused by a subconcious wish to show others that, “I know Hebrew too.”

    It was, however, well worth posting and I’m sure that others will disagree and say it was brilliant etc. My taste is strange and non-representative.

  14. And woe betide* anyone who dares call Daniel Marks “self-obsessed”!

    *remember Mrs. Fisher, anyone?

  15. Claudio Schamis

    I was at Ulpan Etzion at the same year, 1996. I was one of the guys from Brazil.

    Do you have any contact with anybody from that time?

  16. Which intake were you, Claudio: January-June (I was on that one), or July-December? There was a doctor from Sao Paolo called Leo on our ulpan. I can’t recall any other Brazilians, though there were quite a number of other South Americans . . .

  17. Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent forever gives tips on how to get the natives keeping to their native language. His advice is to learn pronunciation first, don’t translate and used spaced repetition systems.

    Also, there’s no exit strategy because you can’t occupy your home.

  18. Which begs the question, Dovid: Why are you still living in Salford 7?

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