“Look at the sign,” Guy says at our first stop. “Who can read it?” He assumes nothing. We are nine people: five Americans, two Canadians, one Berliner and one Israeli, founder of another tour-based start-up called mekomy.com
I do my best to sound out the letters: “mirpadiya”. Even if I can sometimes read, it doesn’t mean I understand. I look beyond the dingy storefront in search of a clue and still have no idea.
This young Israeli man dressed in a t-shirt and jeans with a messenger bag slung across his shoulder lifts up his mini whiteboard to write the word in Hebrew. “What happens when we put the letter mem in front of a profession and a hey at the end?” He circles the letters in question. I’m lost. Last time I formally learned the language was over two decades ago, sometime in 1989-90-91. Maybe I’d learned some funky clue about these two letters but if so had no recollection.
“Is this from ripood?” I ask. That word I recognized, from yoga, when you need to put a blanket or bolster under your seat the teacher tells you to get ripod in order to draw in the lower back and sit tall. I wasn’t sure if it meant support or cushion but something along those lines.
“Nachon,” Guy says. “It’s from ripood. Leraped, the verb, means to upholster; the root is resh, peh, daled.” Every word in this language has three letters that form its root from which a sometimes dizzying array of verbs and nouns and adjectives form more related ones. “From that root we get meraped or the person who upholsters. So a mirpadiya is an upholstery store.” One of my friends shakes her head in acknowledgement. She, apparently, had learned this trick and remembered.
Led by an Israeli named Guy Sharett, a linguist who has found and filled a niche in teaching Hebrew lessons around different parts of the city, the tours vary: the Jaffa port to learn words relating to boats, water and fishing; the Carmel Shuk to learn about food and then prepare and eat the food at someone’s apartment; and finally urban culture in south Tel Aviv.
When my friend first suggested celebrating another friend’s birthday by taking this tour together, I thought it was a brilliant idea. It wasn’t a typical walk-a-few-steps-stand-look-and-listen passive experience, but rather an engaging one that demands participation.
“Okay, who knows what this kind of a road is called?” Guy asks. We’re still standing in front of the upholsterer. Someone shouts out tayelet, which means promenade.
“Midrehov?” I say only semi-sure of myself. My knowledge of Hebrew is more from the gut, based on my ancient ulpan mixed with my year here in 2007 and countless summer visits. Guy smiles. He erases mirpadiya and writes the new word on his whiteboard.
“What do these words mean?” He scrawls two more, one I don’t know and have trouble sounding out and the other rehov, which means street. From the root resh, chet and bet, he explains, we make the word midracha or sidewalk and rehov. When combined to make midrehov we end up with a pedestrian only, paved street.
From there we continue around the corner to analyze street art on the wall, the sign in a café window and the sewer cover under our feet. Each time Guy uses his whiteboard and words to dissect and open up the dialogue with us, to help us understand what words and expressions mean as well as the history behind them.
Throughout our 90-minute stroll in his neighborhood, he uses Arabic, Greek and Spanish to educate us. He explains that the area is changing on a daily basis so we should bear witness to the street corner where an old Greek bakery once made the best burekas, a synagogue no longer in use stands alone and locked and the first chain pharmacy is infiltrating. Old buildings are being destroyed and new, pricey apartments and trendy stores and hip restaurants are opening in their place on every block. On one corner, he points out a newly dismantled mikvah or ritual bath house, which will now become home to a community garden. We discuss how an increasing number of businesses are using English signage but, he explains, the law dictates that they must be written at least half in Hebrew or risk being fined.
We cross into the workshop area where welders and builders and other manual laborers set up shop what feels like centuries ago. Graffiti and street art fill almost every surface. Some sparkle with color while others are black-and-white; some are light and fun, most likely meaningless, others political and thought-provoking. One is in Braille, the first of its kind in Tel Aviv. Most of the creators, Guy explains, are anonymous and sign their work with initials or symbols, whereas one woman, a poet, is bold enough to write her first and last name.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a sign on a store, in front of a building or on a sewer cover in the same way again. The language begs us to pay attention. As always, to be more mindful. Even when we’re just walking the streets of Tel Aviv.