Published on Haaretz
Americans living in Israel are well-placed to celebrate this year’s Thanksgiving-meets-Hanukkah. For us, everyday life is an encounter between these two languages and cultures.
Every immigrant experiences the same communication disorder; at first you can’t say what you want to say, then, for what-seems-like-forever, you can approximate what you intend but never say precisely what you mean.
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If your Hebrew, like mine, was cultivated in Jewish summer camps where American Jews speak Hebrew primarily to other American Jews, English syntax becomes embedded, like reporters riding along with the invading forces.
You learn a single way to express any particular idea, the closest sounding to its English equivalent, and then you are married to this first phrasing for decades, even if it is not the way an Israeli would ever express the same thought.
And when you do speak with an Israeli, you know she hears the stretched American diphthongs of your Hebrew vowels and thinks of cows chewing grass. Any accent, you are told by a casting director, will be tolerated on the Hebrew stage, except yours.
Yiddishisms, as perfect and long-established in general New York parlance as they may be, don’t function as the universal Jewish language, because these same terms have evolved into different creatures in Israel.
Comedy antennas too are broken by translation. You will laugh at dumb jokes because you recognize the humorous intention, not because they are funny. Forget about being comedy central. By the time you find the words for your comic riposte, the moment has passed. But when you deign to make people laugh on purpose, they will not be certain if you meant to be funny or if they are misreading your intentions.
Writing is a particular embarrassment. Elegance, nuance, subtlety are sacrificed for a fourth grade functionality. Even spelling is a burden, despite the claim that Hebrew is spelled like it sounds – except when it’s not – and former spelling champions make errors in every e-mail.
Your Israeli wife, who speaks perfect English, will abandon your pact to speak only Hebrew together 15 minutes into the experiment because she has gotten too used to you “sounding intelligent.”
Balancing the scales, however, are the joys of English mastery in Israel 2013, for yourself, and on that legacy front, for your children.
It means for years that you have an excuse to space out because the conversation is moving too fast for you to follow. (This excuse loses validity after a decade, except for army talk, made up largely of incomprehensible acronyms.)
You can participate in English-language media around the world, but your work would still be invisible to most Israelis. You are entertained by the hilarious English mistranslations of menu items, although your all-time favorite, Turkey Testicles, is not actually a mistake.
You and your wife have your private language, although, as the lingua franca of the era, it’s not as useful as your grandparents’ Yiddish. Overhearing an American speaking English invites a landsmen reunion, and the old perennial, Jewish Geography. Were you to bump into the very same stranger in the U.S., you would speak to him only if you caught him speaking Hebrew. But you can also hang with Anglos – Brits, South Africans, Aussies – and deride the mono-lingual parochialism of most Americans.
Knowing English means that your sons were the first of their friends who could understand the instructions and mind-numbingly detailed character profiles on Yuh-Gi-Oh or Pokémon cards, making them extremely desirable teammates and very popular in school. They were the stars of the English language debating team, (and would probably be the stars of the Hebrew language debating team, if there was one.)
They learn Tim Minchin songs, Tomska and Tobuscus videos by heart from You-Tube the way you memorized Bill Cosby and Robert Klein records. Your kids know all the words to Poogy but also the lyrics to “Yesterday” and “Safe and Sound.”
Your children can read not only Harry Potter, but also Terry Pratchett and John Green and Grace Lin and Gary Schmidt and Sharon Creech, who have not been translated. You get to enjoy your son’s original pronunciation of words that he has read in books but has never heard spoken. You can all enjoy the perfect delivery of the cast of “Modern Family,” instead of reading the sub-titles, so we all react at the same time, in real time, and not two seconds later. And you can act out our favorite imaginary series, “Downtown Abbey Z,” in its rotting and decaying mother tongue.
And it means your kids can yell “Home Run!” and “Touchdown!” and “Dee-fense!” and not just “Goaaal!”
English provides us access to the variety and gradations of a language which has been thickening for the past thousand years. Hebrew has been unfolding for single century, after a 2,000 year time-out, but is transforming before your ears.
And if you feel at a disadvantage in almost all Hebrew settings, you are always two steps ahead in English.
The once-in-75,000 years meeting-up of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah – two holidays of cultural encounter – is a rare chance to embrace both languages of cultural tradition at once. There are trade-offs for sure, real losses, genuine gains, but we should take them all in the holiday spirit of this exceptional convergence. Happy Thanksgivukkah.