Making Peace with My Hebrew

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Hey everyone!

I hope your summers are already off to a truly fabulous start. I’m about to go on a pretty incredible, hard-earned journey to Israel for the next couple months for my thesis research and to brush up on my Arabic… and my Hebrew.

I was thinking of calling this post something along the lines of “when the hell am I ever going to be fluent??!?!” (in linguist lingo- this plateau is really getting to me. jaɪks.). But to be clear, I know that my Hebrew isn’t too shabby, and that I’ve had ample opportunities to both learn it formally, and expose myself to it in informal contexts. But the issue here is not that I don’t speak the language, or that I “sound too American,” rather it’s that I’m caught in what some people like to call the (all-too-awkward) “borderlands” between American and Israeli Hebrew. Just a couple months back, I sent out a survey about “what kind of Hebrew you speak”, and got responses from over 170 (mostly American) Hebrew speakers. I never published the results, but essentially my thesis was that there are really two separate dialects, which are often mistaken for just “accents”. That’s not wrong at all- but it’s missing part of the picture.

What is American Hebrew? It’s Hebrew that is phonologically in-sync with Standard American English. Now that’s the accent part. If you want an idea of what each sounds like, watch this adorable video (background: the mom sends her daughter to an Israeli pre-school).

However, aside from that (the more expected differences), American Hebrew doesn’t really venture into syntactic forms that don’t appear in Standard American English. That might be a result of not-exactly-proficient speech, unfamiliarity, or uneasiness using forms that are marked “Israeli” (not for political as much as social reasons). For instance, it’s really common to hear non-native Hebrew speakers add an unnecessary pronoun, or answer in full sentences in a way they would never dare while speaking English informally. Also, since many people who learn Hebrew as a second (plus?) language outside of Israel don’t have access to the rapid nature by which the language evolves.

My mom takes the cake for this one. As a Hebrew School student in the late fifties/early sixties, she was taught the following dialogue:

מה שלומך?ה

Mah shlomekh?

How are you? (lit.- “How are your faring?”)

שלומי טוב, תודה. מה שלומך?ה

Shlomi tov, todah. Mah shlomkha?

My welfare (lit.) is good, thank you. How are you?

The initial greeting is still in vogue, but if you told someone with any significant background in modern Israeli Hebrew that your “welfare is good, thank you,” the most feasible image for that person to conjure up is of a nice bloomer-clad pioneer in the late 40s.

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Maybe that’s an extreme example, but a better one may be the concept of learning “slang”. The only trouble with slang is that if it’s only produced in native-speaking environments, so by the time that non-native speakers get their hands on it, particularly in a diasporic situation, there’s no chance it isn’t at least a bit outdated. People who want to index authentic Israeli-ness via their Hebrew might use forms that are either really new and popular, or might overuse slang they were taught previously (overshooting, or hyper-accommodating). 

It’s hard to say where I fit into this glorious mess. I grew up around many native Hebrew speakers, but since I was (fourth-gen.) American (as opposed to Israeli-American), I did not have ownership over the language. I was automatically relegated to the “American Hebrew”-speaking category. I’m far from the only person who has shared that kind of sentiment.

About 76% percent of the participants in my study claimed to be at least proficient in Hebrew, but only 10% have used an “Israeli accent” consistently in their lifetimes. One participant noted:

“ I was taught Hebrew while surrounded by other American children and therefore never learned to speak properly. If I am thinking about it, I can sometimes do it, but I generally speak in a very American way.”

Another participant said the following:

“I’ve learned most of my Hebrew in Day school, where I had Israeli teachers, and Israel where…well, where there are Israelis, so my ‘model’ for how words are pronounced has always been with an Israeli accent. Plus it sounds better.”

A third participant echoed a manner of social distance between those in their classroom and social environment between native and non-native speakers.

“My mother tells me that I had an Israeli accent in Kindergarten, picked up from Israeli hebrew teachers, but I was embarrassed to use it and lost it quickly.”

I can resonate with each of these points in different ways. Since my last trip to Israel, I probably have been exposed to a disproportionate amount of Hebrew considering the relatively small amount of time I spend speaking to native speakers. In an interview recently, I phrased it as “false native bilingualism,” in that I spend so much time engaging with it, that it doesn’t seem like it is a language that I had to spend years learning in a formal setting. A better way to look at this breakdown is perhaps that I see my American and Israeli Hebrew (respectively) as two separate but fully competent entities (or registers). One of them indexes an American Jewish day school student, gap year kid, or a Ramah camper, while the other indexes someone who wants to integrate into Israeli society. A huge part of my summer will (hopefully) be the interviews I’m conducting as part of my thesis research. Aside from the new, somewhat esoteric research-related terms I just learned, this will give me a new sense of ownership of the language, and will offer me the opportunity to finally make peace with my Hebrew.

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At any rate, I’m really excited to put all of this theory into practice and actually just speak for once, instead of having the thoughts I just shared with you run through my head on repeat. I’m ready to call it quits on the constant fluency debate, and just assume the best. I’m of course also looking forward to working out a lot of my thoughts about being in Israel and what sort of role I would like for Israel to play in my life. I hope to share more with you all soon, and that you have incredibly restful and wonderful summers!

Yours truly,

Hannah Z. Kober

P.S.- Feel free to contact me if you want more information of the study I referenced above, or want to learn more about my thesis project. I’d love to share, and am always looking for suggestions.

P.P.S.- You win serious QWERTY bonus points if you got what was going on in the picture up top. I’m shepping.

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