A story of words

 a.  Agrof: fist

“Taaso cacha im hayadayim,” I use the command tense to tell my Israeli students to imitate my hands. I show them fists and stack them one on top of the other.

“Agrof, ze agrof!” one shouts out at me. It’s not a mean or annoyed shout, but a friendly one, to help me fill in my blank. Where my vocabulary is limited and yearning for expansion.

“Ken, taaso agrofim,” I tell them to make fists, immediately understanding how to make the noun plural. One technique I’ve learned to help with retention is to repeat the word as soon as it lands on my tongue. If I repeat it at least once, preferably twice, shortly after hearing it, it usually sticks.

My Israeli student nods her head, happy to be able to help me. I laugh at myself, another technique I’ve learned not so much to survive as much as to humor myself and let go of my linguistic shortcomings. When I laugh, they laugh, and when I teach, I like that. Humor not only helps us stay out of our heads but also not take the practice too seriously.

I replay the word agrof over in my mind and realize that my greatest obstacle is not to mix it up with a program one of my students leads at the IDC in Herzilia called the Argov Fellows Program in Leadership and Diplomacy. I repeat the word a few more times to absorb the letters aleph, gimel, resh, vav and peh, all in the hopes that I will be able to remember it correctly until next time.

g. Gapayim = limbs

“Extend out through your gapayim,” Nancy says in her seamless Hebrew-English-ese. An American yoga instructor who has been in Israel over 30 years, she’s comfortable teaching in both languages. I love when she marries the two in her Iyengar class and credit her for my newfound ease at translating and inserting Hebrew into my mostly English teaching.

The only problem is when I don’t know the words.

Nancy on chair demo-ing a pose

Ma ze gapayim?” I quietly ask one of the students what the word starting with g means. If I don’t ask immediately it’ll vanish.

“Yadaim, reglayim,” she says, pointing to her extremities. In Hebrew, they use the same word for both hands and arms, and legs and feet.


She nods her head yes, and I beam. Little compares to conquering a new language, absorbing and understanding one word at a time.

k. kulpan: peeler

Thursday afternoon, Simone and I gather around a huge concrete table at a park in south Tel Aviv. When someone from Leket had asked if we wanted to be on TV, I said yes. Since Simone is really into cooking, even attending a cooking camp in France this summer, and since she and I volunteer to help make sandwiches before school every other Sunday morning with Israel’s largest food bank, I thought we’d enjoy the event.

It’s 4:30 and the sun is slowly fading. I wrap my arms around my body, cursing myself that I left home without a sweater or scarf. Mostly that I misunderstood the email. I thought we’d be inside, a TV filming studio, warm.

A young woman approaches us asking me to sign a form, one for me and one for Simone, giving permission to be filmed. I do as she says, even though I don’t have any idea what’s written on the page.

Another young woman with a nose ring and baggy pants clears her voice to get our attention. We’re a few dozen volunteers of all ages milling about, ogling the misshapen eggplants and oversized onions. She introduces herself and then the chef, who owns a restaurant called Tayim or delicious, and thanks us for participating. We’re there to help prepare a meal with the less than perfect produce, to show people that it’s possible to make food out of almost anything, for a TV personality on Channel 2. An Israeli woman I’ve never heard of and whose name I cannot pronounce. The coordinator turns over the event to the chef. He is also young, probably in his early thirties, dark skinned, with a mustache and a nicely trimmed beard. His unkempt look of jeans that look like they could use a wash and an untucked, loose fitting button-down are standard Israeli male attire.

“Misho rotse lachtock kruv le salat?” the chef calls out asking for volunteers to help cut cabbage. There must be 20 heads of green cabbage perched on the picnic table. In addition there are dozens of beets, fennel, oranges and grapefruits, carrots, red pepper, garlic and potatoes. Nothing is washed or in bags. One at a time, the chef assigns people to wash, peel and cut the vegetables as he dictates; sliced, diced, thick, thin. Simone and I are on carrot duty for soup.

I ask her to wash them while I get up to find knives and a peeler. “Slicha, anachnu srichim peeler, kadey lehorid et…” I ask someone who looks like she’s in charge and insert the English word while mimicking the movement of peeling with my hands. When in doubt, use gestures–and fake it.

“Kulpan? At rotsa kulpan?” I nod my head eagerly, sure that’s it even though I’ve never heard or used or learned the word before. She digs into a box under the table and hands me the most basic peeler, apologizing that it’s all she has.

I delegate peeling to Simone and begin cutting. We work side by side in the fading sunlight. Every once in a while, I glance up at the scene around me: participants from different food-based organizations, even passers-by, all pitching in to make a meal. A community event at the day’s end. Best of all, I snap a picture of Simone, in her florescent green sunglasses and muscle shirt, smiling as she focuses on food, one of her favorite things in life.

Simone in her element

l. Linhor: To snore

Sunday noon I waltz into my weekly Ashtanga yoga class at Ella Yoga. Orita, my friend and teacher, hugs me. “Ma nishma?” she asks how I am.

I tell her mostly I’m good but exhausted. When she asks why, I imitate the noise that’s been keeping me up at night: “nnnhh, nnnhh” I snort through my nose like a pig.

“Ma? Nocher? Linhor?” The only word she says that I understand is ma or what. I ask her what linhor means.  She imitates the sound of snoring and together we laugh.

“Ken, baali!” I tell her, making it clear that Philippe is the culprit.

Sometimes I sleep fitfully. Up in my head, having endless conversations in my brain and making lists of everything I didn’t do the day before and must do as soon as a new one starts.

Sometimes I hear everything around me: cars rumbling by on the main road behind the empty lot behind our house or street cats screeching with one another as they stake out their territory. Occasionally people party outside on their balconies or in their backyards. On summer nights some kids jump on a trampoline that needs a strong dose of WD-40.

And then there’s Philippe. Next to me, where he’s been for the past 25 years. Snoring. Louder and louder, more and more often as each year passes. Despite my earplugs, I hear the oxygen trying to enter his body.

I repeat linhor to myself a few more times and even conjugate it to make sure I understand it correctly. Orita and another student tell me I’m right.

“Kol hakavod!” one of them says, an expression that literally means all respect but really means you got it, you did it, you’re great, go for it.

I’ve acquired another new verb and although I might never use it in any other reference aside from my bedmate, I am proud.

m. masah lepolin: journey to Poland

When the emails from school started to flood my inbox last fall the subject line was always the same: masah lepolin. We knew Daniella’s 11th grade class was joining the 12th grade on the Poland trip in the spring but I didn’t put the words together.

I know how to say France, Spain, England, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Germany and Russia in Hebrew; they’re commonly referred to or sound similar to the English. And while Polin is obviously Poland to me—now—I didn’t know it before.

As for the word masah, it’s just not in my vocabulary. I know the words for trip, ride, voyage, even expedition; journey never made it onto the shortlist.

Until Daniella came home from school excitedly telling me that their trip to Poland was indeed taking place. “It’ll be sometime in March, but the Ministry of Education hasn’t given us the final date yet. First we need to find another school to go with us since our group’s too small.” I tried to follow everything she was telling me but it was quick and sometimes half swallowed. “Just so you know, though, school is starting to send home permission slips for the masah lepolin. So look for the emails, okay?” I don’t think she realized that she casually sprinkled in the Hebrew expression that filled in my personal hole in Hebrew.

In Poland

I told her that at least two, possibly three, had already been sent without confessing the whole truth. That until that moment, I had no idea what the subject line was. And now, thanks to my daughter, who is immersed in army and Poland preparation, along with driving lessons and school exams, has clearly surpassed me in fluency.

y. yom ha meah: an army acronym

After Daniella’s tsav rishon or first call, she receives yet another piece of mail from the IDF.

“I got my yom ha meah date,” she screams from her attic bedroom. “Put it on your calendar please!” I do as I’m told even though I have no idea what it is. When I ask Daniella to define it, she stumbles, unsure of it herself. “It’s for girls only. After tsav rishon. They do public speaking—in Hebrew—and I’m going to fail that part.” I mark her date on my Google calendar and store the words, which sound literally to me like the 100th day, in my long-term memory.

While Daniella is in Poland, we’re invited to dinner at our friends’ house. They have three girls, the oldest of whom, Talia, is entering the army this summer.

“Can someone please explain what yom ha meah means? Daniella’s is right after she gets back from Poland and I just don’t get it.” I turn to Talia since her parents are American and, like us, never served in the army.

“I don’t know what it means but it’s for girls only. It’s super fun actually. Like a day of tests but to see how people act alone and in groups. They give you all these tasks and you have to work together in a group. Some of the girls don’t do or say anything and they’re watching.” I assume they refers to female soldiers, maybe one or two or three years older than the participants. “They want to see who speaks up and takes control. Who follows and who leads. You’d be surprised how many just sit back and don’t participate. I was in Scouts and did tons of stuff like that so for me it was tons of fun.” Plus she grew up here and is well versed in Israeli culture.

“Got it. Thanks,” I say as I try to picture Daniella with a room full of girls whom she’s never met before, speaking fast and fluently, in Hebrew. As much as she speaks up and takes charge in her school setting and with her friends, I cannot image her playing that same role in the IDF.  Something I will never know, I think to myself. A part of her life, and then Simone’s, that I’ll never fully comprehend. As much as I try to learn new words and expressions, I’ll never know them all.

Leave a Comment

10 Responses to “A story of words”

  1. Lauren March 31, 2014 at 4:55 am #

    Dear J,

    Was wondering when we’d all get another taste of OPEN TO ISRAEL.

    It’s been a while.

    Worth the wait.

    After two decades here, I relate viscerally to your language experience.

    Unfortunately, though I tried your trick of repeating them, I’ve already forgotten your vocab words. Wah!

    xo – L.

    • Jennifer Lang April 13, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      It really is a visceral experience, to experience language immersion, overwhelmingness, lack of understanding. Akin to being alone in a crowd.

  2. zelda harris March 31, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    Jennifer in your “next” life you will be a “stand upist” good english? I think not but that that’s what they call them here!!!
    Your portrayal of Israeli life warts and all, is superb. One has a sense of being there with you,maybe because many of the experiences you describe, are familiar.

    • Jennifer Lang April 13, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      Life warts–hysterical word choice. Love it! Thanks for reading.

  3. Nicki Gilbert April 1, 2014 at 4:14 am #

    I just learnt a few new words myself – thank you!
    So love your vivid illustrations of your life in Israel. Thank you for sharing!

    • Jennifer Lang April 13, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

      Thanks for reading on the other end… keep on writing!

  4. ruth feiglin April 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    It is all so real because you are so genuine. Loved it.

    Pesach Kasher vesameach.

    • Jennifer Lang April 13, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

      Once an editor told me my voice was raw and honest. I like genuine better. Thank you for that. Chag sameach to you and yours.

  5. ErrisSpeaks.com April 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    As Israeli-American, or perhaps more accurately after all these years, an American-Israeli, your writing truly makes me smile and laugh out loud. Not in the teen LOL kind-of way, but in the most personal way. Although we are probably around the same age, you remind me of my mother, an American in Israel — except that she raised children born in Israel so we were fluent from birth. The fact that you live in the city I was raised in still blows me away. Keep sending your wisdom, honesty and openness our way… Chag Sameach!

    • Jennifer Lang April 13, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

      Love the synchronicity between us and our lives and that we’re traveling the same paths. Thanks for sharing!

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