Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Swirling Thoughts #105 - the life of an ulpan dropout

Efrat is a town in Israel, after all
There may be a ton of Anglos here but they try really hard to be Israeli. They are not walking around spitting garaneem (seeds) – that Israeli phenomenon may well be limited to Kings Highway in Brooklyn for all I know – but they are speaking Hebrew. To Israelis and to each other. I sat through a D’var Torah at a seuda shelishit where every person at the table except for one was Anglo. The person giving the D’var Torah was from Brooklyn. He gave it in Hebrew and everyone (except for me, of course) understood and even commented. In Hebrew.

No soap radio
Picture this: someone tells a joke. The punch line has nothing to do with the joke. Everyone starts cracking up. They “get” the joke. You do not get it. But why not? It must be funny if everyone is laughing. You start to laugh just to fit in. Is the joke on you?

Have my American friends in Israel all conspired to play a prank on me? Are they designing exclusive invitations, withholding phone numbers and setting me up for linguistic humiliation as part of some great big gag? I admit it seems far fetched. But how could it be that my friends who are born in America are so fluent in Hebrew they no longer notice if something is in Hebrew or English? I feel like that will never be me.

A friend sends over a bat mitzvah invite. It is in Hebrew. No English. It goes into my ‘mail I need help with’ pile. She asks if I’m coming to her bat mitzvah. What bat mitzvah?

Someone recommends a repair man. They don’t have the phone number handy but “It’s in the GushPhone.” (A phone book with every business and residence in Gush Etzion listed. In Hebrew.) I’m still looking.

I’m planning a Kiddush for Rachel Merav. My neighbors recommend a cholent guy (he makes cholent in a huge pot). They give me his number and tell me all about it (Cholent. Delicious. In a huge pot. Huge as in I’ll need two strong men to lift it). Sounds great! I call him. We get as far as
Uh. Ani sareecha cholent. Uh… Medaber ktzat Anglit? (Uh. I need cholent. Uh…Do you speak a little English?)
Lo. (No.)
And then me, fumbling,
Ba’ali medaber yoter tov aval hu lo po. Uh…Acharei. Beseder? (my husband speaks more good but he’s not here. Uh…After. Okay?

I lament to Bob that if I’d stayed in ulpan maybe I could order cholent by now. He looks at me, holding the baby, and laughs.
Can’t help you there, babe.

Today I ran into a friend. I invite her to my Kiddush. She takes out her yoman (planner). She’s turning the pages backward. It’s an Israeli planner. In Hebrew and backward. I say something about how Israeli she is after 15 years here. She looks at the planner as if for the first time. She never even realized.

She looked pretty sincere for someone who’s pranking me. Ok, I think I believe her.

Eyze Mispar? (which number) – meat jargon
When I ordered meat from the midnight delivery butcher I was lucky to find someone in the store who spoke English and knew her cuts of meat. She took pains to figure out the roast I was seeking was probably the number 6 roast. I pictured a Chinese takeout menu.
Yes, I’ll have the number six.

The roast was delicious and Bob asked me what kind it was.
Number six!
What is that? Dekel? Brisket? French Roast? Brick Roast?
It was a number six!

Last week I was going to be in the neighboring haredi community of Beitar. I asked a friend if there was a good butcher there. She recommended one that boasts the highest level of kosher supervision possible. Meat everyone would eat! I asked her if the store had haredi hours. Haredi hours means there are separate hours for men and women to do their shopping. There are stores in Beitar with such hours. But no, she said. “No haredi hours. They are normal. But they do close in the middle of the day.” That hardly seems normal but okay.

I go and there is a woman seated at a desk. Behind her is a freezer full of meat and behind the freezer is a butcher pounding chicken cutlets. It was not a place to browse – I needed to tell this woman what I wanted.

Sometimes I can start off in Hebrew and then wing it. But my butcher vocabulary is weak. I had no starting words.
Ani sareecha roast. (I need roast).
Ma zeh roast? (What’s this ‘roast’?)
Roast. Uh. Basar. Uh...medaberet ktzat Anglit? (Roast. Uh, meat, uh, do you speak a little English?)
Lo. O Yiddish o Ivrit. (No. Yiddish or Hebrew)
She looks at me and waits for me to order in Yiddish or Hebrew. I open my mouth but all that comes out is another Uh….
She calls to the back and asks the butcher if he speaks English.
Kzat. Oolye. (A little. Maybe.)
Do you have roast?
Ma zeh roast?
Meat for Shabbat. You cook it a long time.
Ani lo yodeah ma zeh roast. (I don’t know what’s this roast.)
He directs me to a poster of a cow divided into cuts of meat. Perhaps I will recognize the roast from the diagram…

As I study the cow the desk lady hands me her cell phone. She really wanted to help me. She had called a friend who speaks English.
I am trying to order a roast.
What number is it?
This store has numbers also? I think about the six roast from the other butcher.
I don’t know what number it is. A brisket. A dekel. A brick roast. Any kind of roast.
You don’t know the number?
Thanks anyway.
I hand back the phone.

Meat by numbers
I go back to the cow poster and really study it now. Wait a minute. It has numbers. Could it be that in Israel cow parts are universally numbered rather than named? Eureka! I ask for the six but they are out. We settle on the four (which is close to the six on the diagram) plus some five for my cholent. Suddenly I feel like I’ve unraveled a mystery – broken a code. I’ve learned a few words in a new language – not Yiddish, not Hebrew – the empowering language of ordering meat.


  1. I will think of you now everytime I'm at the meat counter looking at every package fully labeled and wondering How it would be if I had to do what you do...no one would eat meat !!!
    Welcome to a world of vegetarians!!!!!

  2. Maybe this will help.