Ten days ago on a Tuesday night: our new neighbors invited Philippe and me for coffee with the two other couples on our side of the street. He was going away, but I accepted. After teaching a private class, I waltzed two doors over in my usual yoga attire of black sweats and dark purple fleece and buzzed at the gate. The husband came out to open it and welcome me.
I walked in and immediately spotted everyone sitting at the long dining room table in front of a feast: quiche, salad, wine, drinks. They beckoned me in, and I lamely handed my welcome box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. “Anachna checkino lach ad ahshav, shvi,” they all said in a blur of similar words to mean they had waited until now and sit. The hostess, Elana, was serving a creamy soup with smoked salmon.
“Slicah, lo hevanti az achalti kodem,” I said, apologizing since I had already eaten and thought it was only a coffee klatch. I could tell my new neighbor was offended, but there was no way I could eat a full meal on top of my previous full meal late at night. Someone remarked that that’s why I looked the way I looked and we smiled and left it at that.
I was the youngest in the room and aware of it. I was also the only non-native and acutely aware of that. The hosts are in their late 60s and retired, she from childrearing and he from Israel Aircraft Industries, and they just moved in after two years of intense building. Unlike our house, theirs is spanking new with hardwood floors, built-in wood cabinets, light fixtures installed and all-around impeccable but old fashioned décor. Most new construction in this country is contemporary, so the look and feel surprised the eye.
The other two couples live on either side of us and are in their early to mid 50s, all Israeli born and bred. They all have all also lived in the U.S. with their children for upwards of seven years. When we first arrived last year, the one couple with whom we share a wall couldn’t understand why we had come since they dreamed of living there. Both veterinarians, they have thrived over the years there.
Conversation was interesting: our origins, youth group, what we do, living abroad, travel. And then, at certain points, I was elsewhere, tuning out, unable to ingest that much Hebrew after a long day. Somewhere after salad and before apple tart, I leaned back in the chair and smiled politely every so often. My ability to stay focused had waned and I had soaked in as much as I was capable of for that day.
After dinner, Elana offered us a tour of the house. My neighbors oohed and ahhed while I hung back, eager to escape. Finally, after the second floor home cinema and before the guest bathroom, I apologized—again—saying that I wanted to get home to the girls since Philippe was away. Her husband, whose name I have trouble pronouncing, escorted me out the door and bid me lila tov. Being a guest at an Israeli dinner party was a new experience for me, and it makes me appreciate my English-speaking cocoon even more.
Three days ago on a Wednesday night: I was invited to my yoga teacher friend Shani’s wedding and went alone, knowing I would probably be seated with a few other mutual yoga teacher friends, also coming stag.
On the invitation, the reception was called for 7pm and the chuppah for 8pm. The traffic between Raanana and the hall on the outskirts of a neighboring city called Tel Mond made my seven-minute drive take 60 minutes longer. I walked in alone, steeling myself to feel lost in the crowd and be stuck in my head. First I spotted Lelach, then Ruty and finally Orita, all new friends whom I met through Shani at some point last year when we congregated as teachers on a weekly basis. After lots of hugs and how are yous, we gathered around to watch Shani and her fiancé dance down the aisle to an untraditional pop song. Shortly after the ceremony, we gathered around to watch Shani and her family dance to more traditional Yeminite music. Finally, we gathered around the buffet and took our seats at table number two.
A typical Israeli hall, it was huge, easily able to accommodate a few hundred people. Shani had told me on several occasions that they were keeping it small, around 150 guests, but looking around me, I guessed there were closer to 200.
The music was loud and mostly mizrachi or of the Middle East. I don’t know whether or not it was Yeminite, but it was unfamiliar. Trying to make conversation with the women at my table, I stumbled over my words. We caught up on the past few months since our last teachers’ practice in June, sharing stories of our travels, our injuries, our marital statuses. It was nice but nearing 10pm and I was, yet again, unable to concentrate on the Hebrew after a long day.
At 10:30, I texted Philippe to see if he was up and told him I was ready to leave. My ears were ringing and I could feel my eyes were red with fatigue. I stood up to go, getting ready for the goodbye hugs.
“Kashe im ha musica,” Ruty said, acknowledging that it was difficult to hear over the music.
“Be meyuchad bishvili,” I said, agreeing and adding especially for me. “Lila tov le culam,” I spread good night wishes to one and all.
Shani was dancing and radiant and I didn’t want to interrupt her. I knew that we would speak later, either with a text or a phone call. Maybe even on Facebook, where she had created an event for the wedding.
It was a beautiful evening, and I was honored to be included. Even if I get tired and have to tune out every so often, I fare fine. Despite the slip-ups—grammatical, verb conjugation, misplaced pronouns, empty spaces where words should be—nothing beats learning a language than total immersion.