Okay, so here’s the first of a number of long-overdue posts. Mister B. asked me over email what it’s like to learn in a language not my own, particulary given that the level of discourse has (thankfully) finally transcended discussions about living room furniture and buying vegetables.
It’s okay, actually.
I was pretty panicked last spring at the prospect of having to be here in Hebrew, but it was clear just about from when I got off the plane–literally, my conversation with the cab driver from the Tel Aviv airport to my apartment here in J-town–that I knew more than I thought I did. And the summer helped a lot too–5 horus of ulpan (language intensive) a day plus having some friends with whom I spoke only Hebrew (okay, I was dating somebody–so it was a lot of time logged for a while, there) helped too, both with the vocab/comprehension and with the confidence that I can actually handle this language.
Getting to school here and realizing that re: my language skills, I’m pretty much in the middle of the group helped a lot, too. (I started rab school with close to no Hebrew–big mistake–and did ulpan Alef (basic level) the summer before I started, so I’ve been playing catchup since day one.) It’s cool to feel like I’ve finally gotten to a place where my vocabulary is on closer par to my intellect.
So in terms of sitting in class. I mean, it’s gotten to the point where I can listen and pay attention and sometimes not even notice that we’re discoursing in “a foreign language.” One of the things about which I’ve gotten more aware through this is how language and comprehension works in general. Like, when I zone out in a class that’s taught in Hebrew, I miss stuff. I have no idea what’s been said, and for a bit I assumed it was because of my own language skills. But then recently I realized that this is also the case when the class is taught in English–zone out equals miss stuff. Oh, right. (We have one class–kind of a pratical rabbinics in Israel class–that’s all in English, and there’s been a lot of passive learning the last couple of weeks.) Or, in my practical halakha class a week ago, the first 15ish minutes of the class I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening. I got all worried–oh, shoot! I AM in the wrong level! My Hebrew’s terrible! Panic cycle sets in. Then, after class a friend mentioned that none of the Israelis in the class had a clue what the guy was talking about, either. It was this weird halakha about a sukkah crafted from the slanted roof of your house, and the distance betweeen the roof and the wall, and… yeah, still a little confused. So despite my impulse to blame anything that doesn’t seem clear on my own language skills, that’s not always fair. I’m still sorting out sometimes when it’s a language thing and when the issue at hand just isn’t well-articulated.
It really depends on the teacher. In some classes I can be at about the same level of attentiveness as in English and it’s fine. Other classes require a sharp sharp focus to keep my brain on the conversation so that I can keep up. Then, it becomes a meditation, of sorts–having to be really really present and not letting my mind wander. I’ve gotten better at figuring out, if I don’t know a word that’s being used, when I just sit tight and the meaning reveals itself in further context, and when it’s worthwhile to whip out the dictionary right away. Unless we’re talking about turning a roof into a succah, I pretty much can follow what’s going on. Sometimes I miss minor points. The major stuff I can handle if I pay attention. Some days that “if” is easier than others.
I guess as a rule, the Anglo teachers (the ones who moved to Israel from the States, or Canada, or England, or South Africa) and Anglos in general are easier to understand–they have an accent that I get, and since it’s not their first language, they tend to talk more slowly for their own selves. Native Israelis just talk faster. But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule–there are Israeli teachers with whom I have no problem and I was shocked after hearing one Talmud instructor speak English with an American accent.
None of this addresses the core question, though–hard concepts. What I’m learning now is that once you have a sufficient enough vocabulary to handle basic things, you can use it to discuss all sorts of complex ideas. Hebrew, like English, uses common words in different ways. For a really simple example, there’s the word לקח, to take. And it turns out that it’s used not only to mean, “I take the book from you,” but also, “That will take a long time.” לוקח זמן. So I guess I’ve got enough language to be able to talk about existential issues in midrash or the evoloution of monogamy in halakha or the proposed withdrawl from Gaza in Hebrew, ’cause I’m doing it. My Talmud hevruta (study partner) and I have started preparing the texts in Hebrew–reading the Aramaic and then translating into Hebrew, and it’s actually quite fun. (During seder, aka beit midrash, aka text prep, it’s understood that we can use English b/c it’s important to walk into class being as crystal as possible on the texts at hand.) There have only been a couple of times when we’ve switched into English–of the, “ooh, this is complicated, let’s make sure we’ve got it right,” variety. And generally we do.
There are moments when it’s frustrating to not be able to express myself as well as I’d like because I don’t have enough vocab to do so, but generally I feel that I’m able to. I think. It would probably all sound smarter in English, but then again, maybe not.
I write this, mind you, after my Long Day, eight hours of class time (totalling 11 hours when you add in an hour for lunch and time for morning and afternoon prayer) and I am fried. I would be regardless, but the added effort of paying attention for the language filter is an extra, definitely. And now I have to get to work on the d’var Torah (sermon) I have to give in Hebrew on Sunday. Each of us has to give a d’var during afternoon prayers (Mincha) at some point during the year, and I’m up next week. This is probably the most frustrating thing I’ve done so far–partly because I don’t feel as comfortable speaking extemp. for something like this as I would in English (I probably wouldn’t come with written text in the US) and partly just because my linguistic range is simply not the same. I think it’ll be an OK d’var, but probably not at the level it would be if I got to do it in the mamaloshen (mother tongue), letting new ideas hit me on the spot as they inevitably do, and that’s too bad. Maybe I’ll go off the cuff in delivery anyway, but I suspect that’d be more likely to happen if it was my turn in April, not November, and I had an extra few months of learning under my belt.
B? That answer your question?
You did indeed answer my question. I shall continue trucking on with my studies, hope for the best and try to keep in mind that HUC treats its year in Jerusalem less as a yeshiva and more as a boot camp.
The key is not to learn, but to survive.
Actually, that my first Jewish experience whose primary mission will be survival is my first year at rabbinic school is OK by me. It’s all been learning and exploring so far. I’ve gotten off damn easy, if you ask me. Which you didn’t.
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I didn’t in what sense? That sort of thing is sooo relative, I don’t know how I’ve gotten off, really. And Jewishly? Hmm.
As for new experiences–yeah, you just wait, tootsie pop. Rab school is a trip and a half for anybody who even gets in line for the ride. Wear your sturdy shoes. They do sell cotton candy on the sidelines, but that tilt-a-whirl really knows what it’s doing….
Gee, could I mix any more metaphors in one small graf?
Lord, hold off thy hand of justice and lay your gentle palm of mercy on my soul.