Sometimes Fun, Often Frustrating, Ulpans Unite Multiethnic Immigrants
It is a rite of passage for all new immigrants to Israel. It is perpetually rigorous and only intermittently uplifting. It can make one feel as if he or she has been demoted to kindergarten, where simple nouns like “tomato”? and “toothbrush”? seem elusive and out of reach. It is the Israeli ulpan. Most new Israeli immigrants take part in an ulpan, a government-sponsored Hebrew language seminar that is often a five-month, five-days-a-week, five-hours-a-day experience. The intense immersion-type philosophy utilized in these courses is designed to have students engaging in normal Israeli activities – like debating politics with cab drivers – as quickly as possible.
When I first arrived in Israel, I felt like it took a strong act of faith to pack up my life and start fresh in the Middle East. But I realized very early into my ulpan experience that I needed an even greater faith in order to believe that I could actually become literate in a language that is in every way the opposite of my native tongue. Thankfully, I was not alone in my idealism. More than 200 young adults from 28 different countries – all with our own accents and cultures – came together at the Jewish Agency for Israel-run Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem to express this faith. Inside of all of us was a voice stronger than reason telling us that one day we would explain to our grandchildren, in Hebrew, why we had come to Israel.
My class, which had about 35 students, was particularly eclectic. There was Elchanan from Brazil, Danny from Argentina, Sharon from Iran, Galyia from Russia, Ya’akov from France and Victor from Uruguay. We all brought with us not only our native languages, but our own foreign customs as well. During class time, one might have thought our accents were the only things separating us, but during breaks the differences became much more apparent. As all the classes filed out to the parking lot, everyone separated again into his or her own language and culture.
The Argentines seemed to always be drinking from strange wooden cups with metal straws attached. They would pour hot water over a pile of ground herbs that to me tasted like a hot, canned spinach shake. The French all had different-colored Converse sneakers and cigarettes, which they elegantly waved around in their hands, looking like they were still sitting in Paris cafes. The Russians, especially the women, always seemed to be laughing about one thing or another. After growing up under the eyes of the Communists, I guess one has to develop a good sense of humor.
And of course there were the Americans, who only made up a small percentage of the students. They were mostly ex-yeshiva guys who sat on the benches drinking coffee and studying Talmud with their peyos, or sidelocks, flapping around in the breeze. Just as quickly as we would stream out into the parking lot, we would flow back inside and break off into our classes again. Our teacher was Mazal, an older, sweet-faced woman originally from Morocco who had grown up in Jerusalem. Every day she would welcome us with a warm “boker tov,”? or good morning, and patiently lead us through the curriculum of grammar, vocabulary, newspapers and radio news broadcasts.
But not long after the class began, we started to realize that Mazal’s lesson plan for learning Hebrew included some unique strategies. For one, the constant change in temperature of the political climate served as our daily lesson in Hebrew conversation. When the U.S.-sponsored “road map” fell apart, we learned to yell at each other like real Israelis. By the time Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan was announced, we were fluent enough to really delve into the issues, and really get on each others’ nerves. Meanwhile, Mazal would sit back and orchestrate the symphony of comments, giving more air time to those opinions that reflected her own views.
Another distinctive part of Mazal’s curriculum was her platform of health and personal safety concerns. She used her position to act as a collective Jewish mother for us all, the kind who gave advice that, many times, had no basis either logically or scientifically. In addition to Mazal’s desire to mother us, she was energized with a strong faith in our ability to master Hebrew. She talked often of old students she’d run into the open air Jerusalem market, and how happy she was to see how beautifully they spoke Hebrew.
A few alumnae even came into class to present different projects they were working on since leaving ulpan. The message was clear: Learning Hebrew was possible, we just had to keep the faith. Many days I felt like learning Hebrew could fondly be compared to hitting my head against a rock. I can’t count how many times I referred to Mazal in the masculine, or made embarrassing mistakes – like confusing the word for joke, “bedichah,” with “bidikah,”? the word for a medical checkup.
Still, there were moments during ulpan that kept me going, moments that offered more than simply navigating through the seven different grammatical structures. On many occasions the whole ulpan would get together for a tekes, or a ceremony. For Passover we held a mock seder, where every class had a designated part where they would present and explain different traditions. When it came time for the four questions, the piano started and everyone joined in together in song. In that moment, all 200 people from 28 countries came together as one voice.
Regardless of how far we had traveled to get to Israel, how much or how little Hebrew we knew, or how religious or secular we were, the four questions united us all in one song, once voice, one language that we all knew not only with our minds, but with our hearts. Moments like this expressed the greatest faith of all. After so many years of being scattered around the world, we indeed had come home to Israel. For so long this was the impossible dream, yet our ancestors still kept their faith. And if after all this time we all can now live the dream of life in Israel, then learning Hebrew really only needs a small spoonful of faith.