I am More than the Sum of my Hebrew Mistakes
BY KALLY KISLOWICZ
I’ll always be an immigrant, but as long as I keep talking, even telling jokes, I can hope for the day I stop confusing the words for ‘snack’ and ‘kidnapping.’
I started a new position at work a few months ago. In addition to my old responsibilities, I now have another job in a different office where I must interact with a brand new set of Israeli coworkers. And if all this newness wasn’t enough to send an under-confident, change averse, native English speaker back under her bed (and it most certainly was!), I took the opportunity to issue myself the following challenge:
I will engage in spontaneous conversation with this new group of colleagues. I will speak even when the situation does not require it. I will ask questions when I don’t understand, instead of using my well practiced smile-and-nod. I will not be shy. I will demonstrate once and for all that I am more than the sum of my grammar mistakes.
I bravely accepted the challenge. Or rather, after trying to weasel out of the challenge, I promised myself sushi should I honestly attempt this daunting task. This was a boss move, as I know full well that I never back down when sushi is on the line.
And so began the great experiment. It started slowly with ‘How was your weekend?’ and ‘That’s a beautiful picture of your family.’ And over time it has evolved into ‘Want to hear about the crazy thing that happened to me over Shabbat?’ And, ‘Look at this new shirt I bought for 15 shekels at that cute second hand store!’
And while I have clearly made progress, it hasn’t been easy.
The phrase ‘marbles in my mouth’ most accurately describes how I feel as I try to think of and articulate words on the spot. My anecdotes are often clumsy, but my coworkers are patient and kind. They laugh in the right places so I know they understand me… though it’s also possible that they too have perfected the smile-and-nod. They gently correct me, and they ask me to clarify when I tell them a whole story about being annoying (מְעַצְבֶּנֶת) when I was actually describing an interaction I had with an interior designer (מְעַצֶּבֶת). They encourage me not to get frustrated because my mistakes are adorable. I was already adorable in my second hand shirt.
Being even more adorable is exhausting.
I mentioned my failures and successes to a friend of mine who was visiting from the States. ‘You’ve been here for years now, do you really still feel like an immigrant?’, she asked. Another visitor asked me, ‘Why are you trying so hard? Why is it so important to you to be more Israeli?’
The first question is easy – yes, I still feel like an immigrant when I have to work harder than everyone else in the room to simply follow a conversation, when it takes several moments of heart palpitations and cold sweat for me to discern if an unidentified caller is a telemarketer or an actual representative from my bank with important information, and most acutely when, despite having rehearsed the correct word numerous times, I inevitably ask the optometrist to refill my order of lentils (עֲדָשִׁים) instead of contact lenses (עֲדָשׁוֹת).
The second question is more difficult. Why am I trying so hard? I will never be a native, so why not just set the bar lower and aim to simply get by? And then I remember that once upon a time I was an expert in my own life. I knew how to navigate unexpected situations, how to explain what I needed, and how not to unfortunately mistake the word snack (חֲטִיף) with the word for kidnapping (חֲטִיפָה). Increasing my fluency and becoming more Israeli will help me to feel more confident and less anxious. It will allow me to remember that random conversations are not (only) minefields of potential embarrassments, but opportunities for friendship and connection.
I am trying because that’s what immigrants do. We work hard. We allow our children to see us struggle, fall, and get back up. They watch as we try to keep our sense of humor when simple interactions take so much more effort than they should. And they notice when we slowly overcome the obstacles one by one. While they are rewriting the note I wrote to their teacher to make it sound like it was written by a grown up human and not an undereducated piece of lettuce, they are also noticing and internalizing my resilience and can-do spirit. Right?
I try so hard because as the years go by and the marbles in my mouth become fewer, I feel unparalleled satisfaction. Words that once eluded me now sit on the tip of my tongue, patiently waiting their turn to be adorably misconjugated.
There will always be marbles. I will always be an immigrant. But I am closer than I was last year to once again being an expert in my own life. I know how far I’ve come. My coworkers are starting to see it, and my kids do too, though making them say it would make me as annoying as that interior designer.
And while I have not yet mastered fluid conversation, I do recognize that I have successfully completed this challenge. Excuse me while I spit out these marbles for a bit, I’m off to kidnap some sushi and lentils.
Kally Kislowicz made Aliyah from Cleveland, Ohio, to Efrat in 2016.