Sweating Hebrew in Israel

If you’re keeping up with this blog, you’re joining me in the latter half of my second year as a medical student in Israel. But there was a whole other year before this one that I muddled through. And if you’re getting interested in this journey, I should catch you up a little. The following will take you back to the halcyon days of my first few weeks here almost two years ago. (I’ll do these catch-up style posts now and then, so don’t think this is a defining moment of my first year!)

Shortly after we arrived, as part of our orientation, my classmates and I were split into different skill levels of Hebrew. All of our class instruction is done in English, but the idea of teaching us Hebrew is that we will need to communicate in Hebrew as part of our clinical education in the third and fourth year. As I did not heed repeated advice to get familiar with the Hebrew alphabet before I left the USA, I wound up in the basic beginner class.

The class started slowly, just learning “hello,” “how are you,” “I’m OK” — that sort of thing. But things ramped up, or at least they felt like they did, rather quickly. Since the medical courses wouldn’t start for another few weeks, we spent four hours studying Hebrew every weekday morning.

My initial feelings, which I recorded optimistically in a mass email to my family and friends, were positive. I was (according to the email) “pretty excited” and thought it would be “fun being able to communicate in another language.” By the second week I was not “pretty excited” anymore. And since I could say little more than, “Hello! How are you? My name is John. I love you,” I was not finding it fun trying to communicate.

One afternoon during these first days of my Hebrew classes, I was leaving a friend’s apartment. An elderly woman opened her door and smiled. Then she started speaking to me in Hebrew.

It sounded fast. I was immediately flustered. I wanted to ask her to slow down, but then I realized she could go as slowly as she liked, I would still have no idea what she was saying. I also didn’t know how to say “slow down.”

The intonations of her words told me she was asking questions. She wanted answers. I nervously stared at her and tried to remember how to tell her I didn’t speak Hebrew. I knew the words but they would not come to me.

Sweating ensued.

Then her husband appeared. More sweating. I finally remembered something. In my relief, and to my horror, I nearly yelled, “Angleet (English)!” at the poor woman. She recoiled slightly, but then smiled and said “no.” Her husband shook his head, telling me he also could not speak English. We exchanged some noises and smiles, and in my newfound calm, I remembered how to introduce myself, which I did slowly. The three of us, we clung to the introduction and we shook hands and made more noises indicating positive feelings.

The next day I got on the elevator at the hospital, where our Hebrew class was held, to ride it to the ground floor. A hospital worker got on the elevator with me and said something to me. I gave a noncommittal nod. He seemed to accept the gesture, relaxing against the back wall of the elevator next to me.

Before we go any further, I should say that the elevators in the hospital are unique. The doors open slowly, but close aggressively. They have a total lack of respect for authority and prefer to do their own thing. Go ahead and push a button for the fourth floor. You will certainly get to a floor, but it may not be the one you asked for. They’re like Christine in elevator form.

So, there we were in the elevator, this hospital worker and me. The elevator decided it wasn’t our day and took us past our destination and down to a basement floor. The man looked at me and made some frustrated sounding comments to me. I shrugged and gave him a look that was supposed to communicate, “Hey pal, what do I know about this crazy elevator? I’m just some guy.” He seemed to understand what I was offering him and turned to the call buttons, pressing the ground floor button several times. He said something else over his shoulder to me and I grunted.

When the elevator continued to arrive on floors that neither of us were interested in, he turned to me again and, with animated gesticulations, he started to speak quickly in Hebrew. It seemed as though he expected more from me than just a shrug.

I started sweating.

My nerves went south and my brain refused to give me that one phrase, “I do not speak Hebrew.” Not only that, but I’d led this guy to believe I understood him. I grunted to him, after all. I’d let him believe we were in this together; that I was feeling his frustration. And there he was in front of me — the man was asking questions. Like the old woman before him, he wanted answers. I had none. Like a computer gone haywire, giving out the wrong information, my brain spit out some words and, (again) nearly yelling, I spat out, “Ani lo Ivrit!” That is, I yelled at him, “I am no Hebrew!”

He stared at me for a moment then went back to lounging against the wall of the elevator. The silence that was left in the wake of my “Hebrew” speaking was icy. The man looked disgusted. Why not? I’d been lying to him for most of our mad trip on the elevator. Maybe he thought we were bonding over the experience. Maybe he’d been saying, “Hey man, this elevator? It’s crazy. But we’re here together. A coupla dudes just trying to get to the right floor.” But then, with my verbal vomit, I destroyed the bond. Yes, I told him all he needed to know about me.

I should have taken the stairs.