BY KALLY RUBIN KISLOWICZ
When my kids were younger they made up a brilliant game called The Floor is Lava. The carpet in our family room was the lava, and the kids had to jump on furniture and toys to get around the room without touching it, lest they spontaneously combust on impact. Perhaps you think your kids made up this game, and you can go on living this lie. It makes no difference to me, as last year Netflix stole our idea and turned it into a (terrible) television show called The Floor is Lava. My children received no royalties for their brainchild.
They moved past this, however. They now play a much more sophisticated game, where they wrestle with the goal of pulling off the other’s socks, and then using those socks to beat each other into submission. To my disgust, Netflix has once again stolen our idea and turned it into a (fabulous) television show called The Crown.
Now watch as I weave these two seemingly unrelated shows into one horrifying tale.
I was recently invited to attend a small birthday party for a coworker. While in theory this sounds like an innocuous way to break up the workday, fellow immigrants might relate to the panic attack that is my brain’s primary response to those three most dreaded words – Hebrew small talk.
Let’s back up and say that after a year of mostly working at home, social distancing, and rarely interacting face to face with people whose last name does not rhyme with Fislowicz, even my English small talk is a bit rusty. I know how to ask my neighbors if they have any ripe bananas to lend, but beyond that, I find myself saying things like, “When did you get vaccinated? How many antibodies do you think you have? I think I have 12, but maybe I’ll grow more tomorrow. Yay, science!” Since it didn’t seem appropriate to ask my coworkers for ripe bananas in the middle of a birthday party, and since I don’t know the Hebrew word for antibodies, I was really in a bind. What could I possibly talk about in Hebrew with my Israeli coworkers who already think I am a shy introvert with zero personality?
After a few awkward moments of standing around and trying to look like I was growing antibodies at a very impressive rate, someone turned to me and said, “So, have you seen The Crown?”
And by the grace of Netflix, I have seen The Crown! And I love it so much that I will gladly talk about it in Hebrew! All I had to say was, “אוֹי, לֵיידִי דַּי… מִסְכֵּנָה” (Poor Lady Di…), and I was suddenly a conversational wit! It didn’t matter that they very quickly moved on to other topics, I had delivered my line with poise, and now all I had to do was sit back, laugh when appropriate (or more precisely, 1.5 seconds after it would have been appropriate, because that is roughly the time it takes me to either get the joke or pretend that I did), and fake it through the rest of the affair.
So things were going swimmingly. And then it came time to play a game. You know what they say, you can take my Israeli coworkers out of the third grade, but you can’t take the third grade out of my Israeli coworkers! The game was a version of scattergories, in which the moderator says a letter and then gives a category, and everyone has to name something in the category that begins with that letter (for example, if the letter is T and the category is animal, you might yell out ‘tiger’!). And this was fine, because even though I was too shy and slow in Hebrew to do any guessing, I was nailing an overall look that said ‘I am happy and comfortable, and no part of me is dying from awkwardness.’
And then the well-meaning moderator stopped the game, looked at me, and said, “I see that this is really hard for you, this next clue will be just for Kally.” And she asked me to name something in the sky that starts with the letter lamed. Given the fortune my parents spent on Jewish day school, you might think that I would be able to produce just one sky-related lamed word on demand. But alas, with all eyes on me, blood pounding through my skull, and sweat pouring out of my skin, I could only shake my head and mumble something about how back in the motherland I am considered to possess many wisdoms. They looked at me pityingly and continued their cruel game, while I took a page from The Floor is Lava and spontaneously combusted in shame.
When you first move to a new country, all you have to do is try to speak the language and people fall all over themselves to help you and tell you that you could not be more adorable with your reishes that don’t roll, and your use of ancient words that have not been spoken since people named their children Jehosephat. So you work, and you try, and you make mistakes, and you laugh, and you cry, and you learn. But a few years in, you hit a wall, and you don’t improve as steadily as before, and even your husband and children think that you could at least try to be a bit more adorable as they correct your texts and roll their reishes and their eyes at your elementary mistakes.
In Hebrew, in in-person conversations I operate at about 80%. I understand approximately ⅘ of the conversation and I can often figure out the rest through context and, in hardware store scenarios, elaborate pantomime. (If any of my coworkers are reading this, you are misunderstanding me. What I said was, I understand everything that goes on all the time, and you did not make a galactic mistake by hiring me.) 80% is ok. You can get by with 80%. But that remaining 20% is where all the humiliation happens. 80% means that you arrive at the doctor’s appointment at the right place and time, but without the necessary referral. It means that instead of asking for a slice of pizza (מְשֻׁלָּשׁ), you order a sexy piece of pizza (חָתִיךְ) and both your son and the adolescent behind the counter spontaneously combust. It means that every time your phone rings with an unknown number, you brace yourself for the indignities that surely await you on the other end.
80% is not enough to be confident at office parties. It is not enough to convince your coworkers that you are a beast at English scattergories and that you have a sparkling personality. But as it turns out, it is enough to raise children who, upon hearing this story, immediately point out that לְבָנָה is a Hebrew word for moon which starts with lamed. And 80% is most certainly enough to throw those smug children into the lava and beat them with their own socks.
Kally Rubin Kislowicz made Aliyah from Cleveland, Ohio, to Efrat in 2016.