with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Languages Smanguages – Shopping in Israel

In consulting with friends about going to Israel, we heard a lot of commentary. I wish I had a dime for everyone who assured me everyone in Israel spoke English and that every THING was in English. I’d be really rich right now.

Many speak English, enough to help them get by with whatever they are doing. A bus driver knows words like pass, ticket, bus, stop, wait, and things appropriate for riding on the bus. Well, most things. It took me four tries on four different buses to finally get it across to a bus driver that I wanted an all-day pass. Now that I have one, I hold it up and point to a new one, no words being spoken other than thank you (“toe-dah”). At McDonalds, most of them know McChicken, McBurger and other Mcs they have on their menu. In shops, they know most of the words for the most popular things shopped for, but then there is a more serious problem I face almost every day. This is the problem of looking for something we take for granted but they’ve never heard of.

One such problem was our search for a top sheet. Our landlords bought new sheets, towels and tons of things we needed. In European style, the sheet set consists of a bottom fitted sheet and a duvet cover. No top sheet. The duvet cover (quilt/comforter cover) is really two flat sheets sewn together to form an envelope into which you slide a duvet/quilt. Now, it is VERY hot here. At night it is 90F and this is only fall. It’s too hot for more than a sheet. The duvet cover consisting of two sheets is too warm for us. We wanted a single, flat top sheet, just something light to cover us enough, but not to make us sweat.

They don’t have them here. No where. Well, almost no where. I hunted everywhere. I tried explaining this concept over and over, even talking to people who speak beautiful and fluent English only to be told, “Why do you need that? We don’t have that. No one would use it.”

Undaunted, the hunt begins. So commences one more time in my life when I wish for the millionth time, “Why can’t things be simple!!!” Yes, I explain for the hundredth time, I need a flat sheet. Not a duvet or fitted sheet – yes, I know they come as a set. I just want a top sheet.

“Top shit? Vhat is top shit?”

“Not shit, SHEEET. I need a SHEEEEET, top SHEEET.”

“Vhat I seed. Top shit. Vhat iz top shit?”

“It is a flat sheet, like the fitted sheet without elastic.” I even learned the Hebrew word for elastic: goomy. “Lo goomy.” (No elastic.)

“Why you need some think like dat? We have no think like dat.”

“Can you tell me where to find flat sheets? Yes, I understand that you don’t know about such things. How do you sleep in this heat? Yes, I understand you are wearing a sweater right now while I have sweat pouring down my face. You sleep in your night clothes. Well, we don’t. We sleep nude and I want a sheet. Yes, I understand. You don’t have a sheet.”

After all this interrogation, I start to not give a sheet that they don’t have a sheet.

I finally asked about waterbed sheets. Bingo! The lady rushed over to a shelf WAY DOWN IN THE BACK CORNER, brought up a package, wiped the inch of dust off, and handed it to me.

“Flat sheet,” she explained. “Waterbed.”

Cool. It’s not a “top sheet” but a “flat sheet”. This she understands. Go figure. But it finally worked. So I bought the largest one I could find. Brent likes King Size sheets even on a double bed, but again, their sizes are different here and even though it was the largest, it barely covers the bed. Brent’s feet stick out if we pull the sheet up to our chests. Until we can find something else, we will live with it.

In much of the world, like Italy, Spain, France, Africa, and even Canada, when you read the signs, menus, and even the phone book, you can at least recognize the words, and with a dictionary, you can figure it out pretty well. Let me describe Hebrew this way. Hebrew, I believe, is really a secret code for spies. I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no connection between Hebrew letters and Latin. Zip. Zero.

Now, there are other languages in the world with a non-Latin based lettering system, and I’m in no position of expertise to condemn or even praise the language. As a foreigner unprepared for the language, I am going bonkers trying to shop and replace the things we had to leave behind without being able to recognize ANYTHING. To me, it is a secret code.

I spent hours looking for a store that had been referred to me. I had the name written in English and in Hebrew. I wandered around trying to find something in the letters familiar and failed. I’ve only been here a few weeks, so forgive me, oh, citizens of Israel. I’m just a lame tourist come to stay for a while. Luckily, most of the people here are former immigrants themselves and understand the struggle to learn the language. A few inquiries leads me to the store, only to find out that is isn’t what I wanted in the first place. Obviously my communications skills need more work than just with the language barrier.

Hebrew sounds horrible. There is a lot of spitting, throat clearing, and grinding of the vocal cords. I recently found out that many of the sounds we hear are actually based on accents. The huge number of immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Russia brought with them their accents with these sounds. Those people with a few generations of speaking Hebrew have a much softer speech, though there are a few gagging cat sounds that are in the language on purpose. Like other ancient languages, Hebrew may be millenniums old, having died many times over, but it is now a living, shifting, and evolving language. Though revived as a language not even 100 years ago, it still continues to be threatened. One of my new friend’s college-aged daughters told me, enviously, that I was so lucky to have English as my first language. She told me all the young people struggle desperately to read, write and speak English in order to get ahead in the business world. It also makes it easier for many of them to leave Israel. What young teenager doesn’t want to have adventures out in the world. I could teach them a few things about life on the road and adventure…but I digress.

Luckily, the street names are in Hebrew with English written underneath, but no one has yet decided upon a kind of universal policy on the translation of Hebrew into English. The main street near our apartment is Ibn Gabriol, Iben Gavrol, Ivn Gvirol, and other concoctions, and they change from block to block. Part of this problem comes from the fact that the Hebrew alphabet has no vowels. It is all consonants. For example if I was to write my name it would be “lrl vnfsn”. Brent becomes “brnt vnfsn”. They also don’t have double letters. I kind of like my name in Hebrew. Lorelle VanFossen is pretty long. Writing it “lrl vnfsn” might actually qualify me for a vanity license plate in the states. Something to remember.

There are some serious assumptions in the language which makes it even more interesting. Brent came back to the hotel after his second day at work really frustrated. His personal studies into Hebrew have put him WAY ahead f me. But he ran across something that day that had him stymied. In Hebrew, the following words are spelled EXACTLY the same but pronounced differently. In Hebrew, they would be spelled “MLN”. I will include their definitions and you will see wherein some of the confusion lies:

Ma’lon – Hotel
Mi’lon – Dictionary
Meh’lon – Melon

It is up to readers to comprehend the context in which the story is being told. If they are discussing fruit, the odds of the “mln” being a dictionary or hotel are slim. But dictionary and hotel MIGHT be used in the same paragraph. Okay, so you might want to go to the store in the hotel to buy a dictionary and melon. What are the odds? Some great leaps of assumption must be taken in reading the language.

The evening the job offer came in, we were at the local bookstore to buy a book on learning to speak Hebrew. While I was negotiating the contract, buying power converters, organizing the trailer for storage, packing necessities to bring to Israel, Brent was learning Hebrew with a vengeance, ready to impress everyone there and here. Already getting into simple conversations after a couple of weeks in the country, he is frequently complimented on his wonderful accent. Me? I’m up to numbers and starting to turn to the alphabet. I learned numbers by getting the basics and then practicing by reading license plates (which are all numbers in Israel) out loud. I am now almost fluent with my extensive use of only six words.

We’ve had problems lately finding a parking place. They are doing road construction, tearing up the streets around our apartment for some purpose we’re not sure of, closing our apartment parking lot. Brent comes home late and has to find parking on the street, no easy feat. It can take 10 minutes to an hour to get a spot. When it opens you have to wedge yourself into these skinny streets and even skinnier parking spots.

The street signs, of course, are all in Hebrew, or featuring some kind of symbols, some recognizable, some not even close. Parking signs aren’t the nice circle with a slash through a “P”, they are spelled out in Hebrew. One of our favorite signs is a big bright yellow sign in the park outside our apartment, about 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide, with a lot of rules in Hebrew. We can’t understand it, but we get the point as it also includes a three foot high silhouette of a dog squatting, with a little poop below him in the appropriate position, and a big red X over the poop, which actually makes it look like a cockroach. It’s just one of the many signs in the city that delight and confuse us.

One night Brent came home really frustrated, raging on about finding a parking spot. He finally admitted he found a spot but it was under “a sign that said shit in Hebrew.” I asked if he had parked under a sign in the park below USA, the one with the dog. He laughed and laughed, and it lightened the moment, until the next night and the next and the next.

One of his buddies at work lived in the states for several years, and speaks fairly good English. During lunch, his friend asked Brent, “What kind of beer is that?”
Thinking the man was talking about his drink, Brent told him it wasn’t beer but soda. He thought it would be odd to sell beer in the employees’ lunch room, but what did he know.

“No! Beerd. Beerd. What kind of beer-dah is that?”

Brent recently grew his beard back (YEAHHHHH!!) and so he stroked his chin and asked, “Beard? Hair on my face?” Like Brent would have to explain what kind of beard he was growing…the hairy kind? The kind on his face and not his legs? This wasn’t making any sense.

Frustrated, his friend started flapping his arms and shouting, “No! Beer-dah! Beer-dah. Like goes through sky!”

“Oh, BIRD!!”

They laughed and laughed and the friend admitted that in English, the biggest trouble he has is with the “r” sound. Bird, beer, beard, these vowel sounds are really hard for him. Brent spent time with him practicing the difference between car and care. Brent’s friends at work all tell him to slow down on learning Hebrew as they want to practice their English. Brent has started rewriting most of their paperwork sent to the states, returning the favor of learning Hebrew from them.

Me, I’m still struggling, being busy with getting us to Israel, finding an apartment, getting groceries, buying rugs, top sheets, and other goodies to replace what was left behind (like my underwear!!!!) and adding what we need now. So I have only learned what I need to, and what I learn by watching the children’s shows on television.

Yes, you read that right. I was watching children’s shows on the local televison. We only got two channels in the hotel. I think Israel has three national channels, but we got only two of them. And nothing else. Waiting for Brent to come back from work, I turned on the television to find something inane called “Teletubbies”. Adults dressed up in soft padded body suits, heads round like an astronaut’s helmet, dance around and say little one or two word phrases, squealing and burbling all over verdant hills. Everything looks artificial except for a rabbit or two that pops up occasionally. The single colored inhabitants of this child-like world are giggling little goof balls, but I thought that I would have a good chance to learn Hebrew by watching. After all, I’m just a baby in the language, too.

I found out that the show aired daily, in the half hour before Brent arrived. So I timed my day to watch the show while waiting for him. The first day, the little purple, blue, and whatever colored creatures jumped up and down and said a word every time they jumped up. Brent came home, I hugged him, and announced that I had learned a new word in Hebrew. Trying to encourage me as much as possible, he listened carefully as I jumped and said the word.

“And the word means…”

“It means JUMP!”

His face wrinkled up with a confused smirk. “It means ‘friends’.”

Now I was confused. “But they said the word when they jumped.”

“Who jumped?”

“The teletubbies.”

“The who?”

“On the television. It’s a children’s show. I thought I could learn Hebrew that way.”

He smiled, a little condescending but lovingly, and admitted that I might just learn some words that way.

The next day, I told him that I had learned the word for “hug”. He told me it was the word for “jump”. Screw the teletubbies.

Hitting his “learn to speak Hebrew” books, I practiced some basic words, getting the numbers and a few things down. A few days later, I ordered my first meal in Hebrew. Boy, I was proud of myself…for about 3 minutes.

Coming home late one night after a visit up north, we stopped for dinner at a McDonalds. Brent actually hates McDonalds in the states, but says they aren’t that bad here. Go figure. While standing in line, I checked with Brent that the number six was “sheesh” so that I could order the McMeal number “sheesh”. I got to the counter, looked up at the sign and told the girl “sheesh”. She said something in Hebrew, which I thought was asking for my drink order, since it normally progresses in that order. I informed her that I wanted a “Fanta” which is orange soda. Brent ordered his McMeal flawlessly and we waited. She brought out Brent’s burger, drink and fries, then my drink. Then another orange drink, which I thought went to someone else, so I put it on the tray next to ours. Then another orange and I put that on the other tray. And another, and another. Finally she looked at us and said in English, “That’s all.” I told her, in English, that we were still waiting for my McChicken and fries. She looked startled and said in perfect English, “I didn’t hear you order that. You ordered six Fantas.” So much for my first try at ordering food in Hebrew. Hey, I live and learn and try not to repeat these things. At least not too often. They must keep their amusement value, you know. Have to keep you, oh dear friend, amused by our sufferings.

Two more language stories, but these are not about our experiences here in Israel, but language agonies suffered by two of Brent’s new co-workers.

The first man arrived in Israel over thirty years ago, among a wave of Russian immigrants consisting of mostly intellectuals and professionals. He learned basic Hebrew for six months and then was conscripted into the army, as is every man and woman between 18 and 45 years of age. A year later, he spotted a fellow boot camp buddy across a crowded bus. They yelled hellos to each other and the other asked Boris where he ended up after boot camp. Boris shouted across the crowd that he had been put in the “takh-to-nim” group. The whole bus giggled, some actually guffawing. Boris was stunned, and then realized that he had told the friend, and the bus, that instead of being in the infantry, he was in the “ladies’ underwear”. “Toe-takh-nim” means “infantry”, “takh-to-nim” means “underwear”. A slip of the enunciation and there you go.

The other, younger man, had worked on airplanes in the US for several years, bringing his family with him from Israel. He got a call one day from his son’s teacher requesting a conference. She explained that his eight year old son may have to be removed from the school as he had been repeatedly punished for foul language. Shocked, as he and his family are very religious, he asked for more specifics. Humming and hawing, the teacher finally admitted that the boy was swearing, saying “oh, shit” all the time. The father laughed and did the best job he could explaining that the English slang had come into Hebrew a long time ago and, well, basically since that was what English speakers said when they stubbed their toes or dropped something, it came to be known in Hebrew as “oops” with no relationship or awareness of its original “vulgar” context. The boy was only saying “oops” as he had always done, and his family and friends had always done, for many generations. See what a lovely influence our language has on other languages?

Our “okays”, derogatory terms, and other technological terms have come right into the language, with some changes. Digital is known as diggy-tal but we get the idea. Think of how other languages have blended into ours, including Hebrew and Yiddish! Many of us “schlep” things around (carry/drag) and Bette Midler and Sophie Tucker helped the phrase, “kiss my mezzuzah” become something slang when it really represents the kissing of the mezzuzah, a small glass, wood, or metal “tube” attached to outside door frame of a home or business in Israel. Inside the tube is a blessing of the home and by kissing your fingers and touching the mezzuzah and then touching your mouth again, you are blessing the home and the people inside of it, as well as confirming your belief that your religious values do not come and go as you enter or leave but stay with you always. It’s more complex, but that’s the idea. And we make the phrase something nasty. So it goes both ways.

Not that it still doesn’t confuse the heck out of us a lot of the time. I’m sure we’ll have more language smanguage stories as we go on living in this very strange and distant land.

In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French;
I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
Mark Twain

Tel Aviv, Israel

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