Passion for Hebrew

by Brian on July 21, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

I have long had a love hate relationship with Hebrew. I first arrived in Israel in 1984 as a backpacker with no plans and lots of time to indulge in the fine art of bumming around. I did a few Jewish learning programs, wrote scripts for videos, worked in a deli and, somewhere in the midst of being a slacker, found time to learn a little Hebrew in a summer ulpan (Hebrew class).

The ulpan was located at the settlement of Ofra. I dropped out when my roommates started throwing knives at the back of the door to our shared bedroom (I wish I was kidding).

Somehow, though, with my rudimentary Hebrew, I got by. I was able to order falafel and ask for directions (even if I didn’t always understand the answers). I did a lot of pointing. I also met Jody, my then wife-to-be, who had taken a six-month ulpan and spoke much more fluently than me. She did all the translating and dealing with bureaucracy.

In the spring of 1987, Jody and I headed back to the U.S. with plans of eventually making aliyah. 7 years later, we were back in Israel, my Hebrew no better for the time spent abroad.

Over the course of the next 14 years, I attended two 5-month ulpans. I progressed to a fairly high class – level heh – the highest you can go. But then I didn’t use it. There was just no opportunity.

I worked for companies where 90% of the staff spoke English. All our friends were English-speakers. If I tried to speak Hebrew to Israelis, they would quickly switch to English rather than suffer through my stuttering slaughter of their mother tongue.

For the last five years I’ve been writing for AIM Group, a U.S.-based consulting group. I conduct interviews over the phone and publish regular articles – you guessed it, all in English. I work at home so, other than the occasional meeting at Café Aroma (where the menu is in Hebrew and English), I’ve been living in a little English-speaking bubble.

All that would be fine except that I’ve been totally non-functional when it comes to dealing with the outside world. If a water pipe burst and we needed to call the plumber, I’d have the hardest time making myself understood. When the bank called, I’d immediately run for Jody. At my kids’ parent teacher meetings, I did a lot of nodding. Attending a play or watching an Israeli program on TV (other than “Srugim,” which we stopped and started repeatedly) was out of the question.

And that’s gotten me quite down. A friend asked me recently if I was happy with my life. I said I love my wife, my kids, living in Israel. But the Hebrew – not being able to participate in society – was an ongoing sore spot. I joked that, because of my lack of linguistic proficiency when the kids were out of the house, my plan was to retire to South Florida (mind you, I’ve never actually been to South Florida, but I’ve heard there are a lot of Jews there).

When I realized that the one thing standing between Israel and my satisfaction was my lack of Hebrew, I finally decided to do something about it. I enrolled in Ulpan Or, an immersive Hebrew-learning program that promises to jump you up an entire level in just two weeks.

Ulpan Or is different than any other ulpan I’ve attended. You don’t sit in a class with 20 other students going around the room reading a sentence or two about what you did last summer. Instead, you work one-on-one with a teacher who customizes the program based on your specific skills and needs. The sessions consist of 30 minutes with the teacher followed by 30 minutes working with a set of special self-study workbooks. There are three hours a day of class followed by another three hours of homework.

Each book contains situations from the news or general media in both Hebrew and English. A listen-along CD accompanies the program. You first learn the vocabulary, then follow the CD and write down what you hear, check your text with the book, and finally translate the English back into Hebrew.

There is a separate book and CD for dikduk (Hebrew grammar) and a weekly “e-Tone” (a play on the Hebrew word for newspaper) that’s sent out every Thursday by email with stories recorded straight from the nightly Israeli news. For students who have the time, there are tiyulim (trips) and coffee house discussion groups. If you’re overseas, the ulpan even offers “guided distance learning” by Skype.

Ulpan Or was founded ten years ago by Orly Ganor, a Hebrew teacher who became frustrated with the way Hebrew is usually taught in Israel. By her calculations, in an average ulpan, the student gets to speak no more than 8 minutes a day. Over the course of the 5 months these programs usually run, that’s under 15 hours total.

In Ulpan Or, by contrast, the student is speaking for at least an hour and a half a day. Multiply that by the 10 days of the course and you get to the same amount in a much shorter time frame.

The program was catalyzed in the 1990s when the Russian aliyah to Israel began in earnest. Co-director Yoel Ganor explains that “there many intellectuals who needed to learn Hebrew quickly and they didn’t want to waste time.” The ulpan has now graduated some 6,000 students.

Ulpan Or is not cheap – it costs close to $1,000 for the quick course. But in those two weeks, I must have covered about 200 pages of material. I was pretty much not available to my family. The dishes piled up. The kids had to wash their own clothes.

Now on the other side of the ulpan, how do I feel? My vocabulary has certainly increased. So has my overall comfort and confidence in speaking. I find myself with a new passion to speak Hebrew whenever I can.

I’m certainly not catching all the nuances. Jody and I attended an evening featuring comedian Jacky Levy performed. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying. Apparently, understanding Hebrew humor should be last on the list.

The key now, says Orly Ganor, is to practice, practice, practice. That’s not going to be so easy. My work is still in English; my friends haven’t suddenly switched languages. I tried to converse with my kids in Hebrew. They refused.

But when the phone rings and it’s a telemarketer trying to sell me something I don’t need, I now listen patiently and engage in a tad of Hebrew small talk…before brusquely slamming down the phone.


Ulpan Or is located at 1 Mendely St.  (Corner of 24 Keren Hayessod St.) in Jerusalem.

Tel: +972-2-561-1132
Fax: +972-2-561-1314

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