"Shpichen Sie Hebräisch?" A sticky situation in Ivrit


By Melchett Mike
April 22, 2010
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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 a 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 of mine.

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 of each tedious Hebrew lesson for me and my Aussie classmate Nathan – who sat on the opposite side of the classroom – would be to catch as many pieces of flying chocolate in our mouths as possible while our teacher, Esti, 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 aged 28.

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 (incidentally, that is not 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 other 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 clear 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” (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 realised that I would have to get myself out of this horribly stiff and sticky spot by either continuing the conversation as if nothing had happened or by confronting my malaprojism head on.

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

“Elohim! Ani kol kach mitsta'er . . . hitkavanti shpitz.” (God! I am so sorry . . . I meant shpitz.)

Shlomit giggled, nervously, as I forlornly attempted to regain my composure and to continue our real estate discussion 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 . . . totally inappropriately to a woman with the sense of humour of an abscess. And, naturally, we never let her forget it. (Dalit later had her revenge, though, when another of our group, Andrew – in the elevator after lunch – 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 on 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). Yes, Shlomit will understand.

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

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