These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The Loneliness of Not Knowing

Posted on March 16, 2016 by Celeste Aronoff

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This blog has been cross-posted from the blogs on The Times of Israel.

The hardest part about making aliyah so far (and I know it can get a lot harder) is that I’m used to being a really, really competent adult. And suddenly, I’m not. All the cultural competency I’ve amassed, all the nuances and subtleties that I’ve learned to navigate in my personal and professional life are mostly moot. And it’s evident the minute I open my mouth.

It’s not that I can’t speak Hebrew. I can make it through most conversations pretty adequately. But as a communications person by education and profession, language has always been my best tool. When I speak Hebrew, my giant box of metaphorical tools are reduced to the equivalent of a hammer, a screwdriver, and a few misshapen nails. When I speak English, I can access every tool there is with finesse and grace and eloquence, constructing and creating ideas that influence the world around me. I can express sophisticated, complex, nuanced thoughts with lyrical poetry and compelling prose.

In Hebrew, I’m lucky if I can find the store I’m looking for, get accurate directions (as accurate as any Israeli ever provides), and ask for a menu in English so I at least have a chance of ordering the meal I intended. My fumbling with Hebrew, and the incredibly kind reassurance others give me that I will get better, is sometimes the most meaningful interaction I have in this new language. I have been overwhelmed at the unexpected kindness of Israelis, Jewish and Christian and Arab and Circassian, who offer me the right word, who themselves stumble with English to compensate for my lack, and who tell me not to worry, that I will learn le’at, le’at, slowly, slowly. I would be happier learning slowly if they didn’t speak so quickly!

With Hebrew, even though I feel a mystical connection to thousands of years of history, religion, and identity, I am isolated from the ordinary conversations around me. I’m used to being able to read receipts, signs, bills, notices, newspapers, flyers, blackboards and white boards, bus and train schedules, web pages, nutritional labels, grocery aisle signs, ads, billboards, prescriptions, the sides of trucks and buses, food labels, magazine covers, recipes, synagogue bulletins, Facebook posts, Google results, and on and on. I’m used to being able to read and understand all the little clues in my environment that center me in my world.

Even with all the Hebrew I’ve learned in university, in ulpan, and in life, I walk through the streets of Jerusalem sounding out words phonetically like a first-grader. And then, it’s just a guess if I’ve got the right vocalization or meaning. When a friend tells me that a sign on the back of a truck is a play on words, I miss the playfulness entirely. I don’t get the joke when it’s in Hebrew.

In English, I get the joke before it’s even told because I am fluent the way we understand each other when we share not just the technology of a language, but the culture and feeling and meaning contained in it. I get the text and the subtext and the subtleties and all the nuances that weave connections between the teller and the listener, joining us in a shared understanding that ends with a laugh between us. And nothing makes you feel more like you belong more than getting the joke

The loneliness I feel here in Israel — it isn’t a lack of company or friends or even familiarity; I love the adventure of exploring and discovering this amazing place. But the loneliness I feel every day is the loneliness of not being able to connect through words, to confidently have the most ordinary exchanges with total strangers. These ordinary conversations connect us with life in the smallest and loveliest ways all the time — with the bus driver or grocery store clerk or bank teller or bookseller. I can take a few clumsy steps towards them, but then I reach my own limits, my own inability to keep up with the conversation, to follow their lead, to complete the linguistic transaction.

I’m relieved to be learning Hebrew though. At least Hebrew makes a kind of sense, with its shorashim (roots) that expand and contract in endless conjugations, connected nouns and verbs with shared meaning. Better for sure than to be one of those brave souls learning English, with its incomprehensible mix of linguistic influences offering nothing so eloquent as shorashim dancing with prefixes and suffixes in an ancient rhythm.

I am grateful to all those who have been so kind and patient, for all those who correct me and offer to teach me more, and all those who have welcomed me so warmly to a country I’m not very good at yet. And I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll be the one with the expertise is this holy language to bestow patience and graciousness myself.

Celeste Aronoff