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Random notes from Hebrew Boot Camp


Know what really gets old fast?  Having everybody in your low-level ulpan [a term I’m translating for blog purposes as “Hebrew-language boot camp”] act as if you are the saviour of the world just because you know a little Hebrew.

What about having the teacher literally mime a little jump for joy (there were two in the room; I think they were BOTH jumping) when she found a word I didn’t know?  Ugh.  And believe it or not, in real life, I am NOT a person who enjoys having attention paid to herself.

Every time they praise me, I blush and try to sink lower and lower into the floor.  Sadly, it’s made of stone and willpower alone has not allowed me to penetrate it so far.

This is just one of the unhappy “perks” of making aliyah to a place where few Jewishly-educated North American olim choose to live.

Since most olim here in our ulpan classes are from the former Soviet Union and presumably received little or no Jewish education – indeed, may not even be Jewish at all since Israel uses the same “one grandparent” rule as Hitler did – the fact that I know any Hebrew at all seems to be the exception.   No, not the exception – it’s like a revelation to them; bizarre, enlightening, extraordinary.

Sure, there are many Ethiopians here as well, but somehow, I doubt their parents carpooled them to Hebrew school three times a week until they did.

“Where did you learn Hebrew in Canada?” everybody keeps asking (in Hebrew).  As if we were so far in exile that we must have been beyond the reach of rabbis and expat Israelis looking for a nifty teaching income on the side.  Sure, everybody here knows somebody Israeli (or knows somebody who knows somebody Israeli) in Canada, but still – how the heck did Hebrew get so far from its native habitat?

I switched ulpan classes this week when I finally got up the nerve to ask for something a little more challenging.  (No, I did not say “a little more challenging” – if I could have, I probably wouldn’t need ulpan in the first place.)  They put me in a class about two months ahead of the one (pictured at the top), where we were placed initially, without any kind of interview or checking process or asking if we’d ever seen or heard of Hebrew before in our lives.

So now I’ve been fast-tracked, which is great, but because my language-acquisition has been patchy and independent, I don’t exactly fit at this level either. 

Random example:  my first day in the new class and she asked somebody to read the “story” she’d just given out.  I thought, “cool – at least I don’t have to sit learning letters anymore.”  Excitedly, I stuck up my hand to read – dumb.  Apparently, given 20 years of siddur, Tanach and stumbling through Hebrew kids’ books, not to mention 2 years of Jerusalem Post Ivrit Kal, I read like some sort of prodigy.

When I finished scraping everybody’s jaws off the floor at the bottom of the page, I did my best to shut up and never speak again for the duration, but it was too late:  I’d already been dubbed “class whiz kid everybody hates.”

Yet when it came to naming the binyanim (conjugation-groups) to which certain verbs belonged, something they covered almost from the beginning, I was like, “duh – binyanim?” 

I had never even HEARD of binyanim and their conjugations until I took a 3rd-year Biblical Hebrew course at U of T (I chose 3rd year because there was no prerequisite and I thought first year would be too easy), and then I was plunged right into them and had to fake my way to a good solid B, figuring out the rules as I went in what has turned out – on the street in Israel – to be a lousy, haphazard fashion.  A Tanach (Hebrew Bible) has patience to lie there while you translate it into an approximation of legibility; turns out actual Israelis don’t.nosmoking (2)

The problem is that my learning isn’t mesuderet – organized.

I know 800,000 nouns and verbs, or so it seems.  I know every Israeli folk song – okay, not all, but many.  I have stumbled through Hebrew picture books with my kids for over a decade and can read without stumbling.  I have been davening in Hebrew for two decades and can follow and parse most important prayers easily.  I know every shoresh (root) under the sun, which is useful for figuring out words I’ve never heard before.

But all of this is like knowing what soy sauce is and knowing what honey is and knowing what garlic is, but being unable to come up with any ideas for making teriyaki sauce:  how do you put all of this together?  Indeed, it’s almost like never having tasted teriyaki sauce – what is the end result supposed to be, anyway?

So we have a new plan:  Ulpan Alef, the current, fast-tracked class I’m in, which will resume after Sukkos (they call it Sukkot, but they cannot break me!)… plus, two evenings a week, Ulpan Bet, the smarty-pants ulpan for people who know where they’re at a little more than I do.   (Never mind, someone took my ego down a notch this week by saying that when she finished, she was in Ulpan Gimmel.)

The mesuderet part, my new teacher assures me, will come in her class.  And the evening class will help me progress to the next level.  More work, yes, but hopefully, in a couple of months, actual fluency.

Meanwhile, she has embarked on a program of humiliation, which seems designed, in a cruel way, to improve my language skills, somehow. 

It’s actually kind of clever:  instead of translating every new word into Russian or English or whatever, she just explains the word well ONCE, then gets the brightest Russian- or English- or Spanish-speaker to say the word in that language to anyone else in the class who might not have caught on so fast.

Guess who is her new favourite “English translator”???  Yup.

Which would be fine, well, no, but anyway.  Except that after she handed out a bunch of homework for our Sukkos vacation today and I needed to translate the instructions for each exercise, one at a time.  A few minutes passed smoothly, until she decided she didn’t like my English.

השלם את החסר, said the exercise.  “Fill in the blanks,” I said.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I have to stop you.  It says, [in her decent English] ‘complete the missing.’”  Okay, I said, and went on.

לכתוב את הצורה הנכונה – “Write the correct form [of the verb],” I said, only to be corrected:  “it is, ‘write the form correct.’”

This happened a few more times, but I have decided to forgive her since a) it’s erev Yom Kippur and she asked, and b) she is such a grammar stickler (like me!) that she must have a point even if I don’t get what the point is.

postofficeWe had a visiting dignitary from the Ministry of Absorption visit our classroom to say hello and after he left, she said, “he said  ?מאיפה באתם [may-ayfo batem, where are you from], but you all know this is incorrect – on the street, they say it, but it is only correct to say מאין באתם? [may-ayin batem, where are you from].”

This is the English equivalent of insisting on asking immigrants, “From where have you come?” or whooshing the little “h” hiding in the words “whale” “white” and “whac-a-mole.”  In other words, I can relate.

I guess if the worst I can say about my ulpan teacher is that she loves Hebrew, and enjoys helping newcomers learn to speak it correctly – albeit geekily, in a way that will have street Israelis pointing and laughing – well, I’m probably on the right track.


  1. Very much enjoying your and yours' posts, especially about Ulpan aleph at the Sapir Ctr. (I have signed up to start there on the 29th although there is some sort of uncertainty about the class happening.)

    Your notebook photos are very helpful as I can find no published syllabus.

    Please post about the homework - time it took you, time for other students?

    Did you need to go buy notebooks or did they supply?

    Do the classes start promptly?

    If someone needs to miss a day or part of a class what do they do? (Is the homework a review of the day's subject or new ground? Are the assignments printed or verbal? )

    Starving for details, hoping for an organized, formal approach - not interested in trips and babysitting people that are not foaming at the mouth to learn. (Please excuse the run-on fragment; Blogspot lost my three prior attempts to comment so I'm starting to cheat.)

  2. Alan, sorry I didn't see your comments sooner, but thanks for stopping by! I assume you're already here in the Krayot? If so, welcome! The ulpan here uses the text Ivrit Mibereishit, which I believe are pretty standard. The teachers also use "loose" hole-punched handouts whenever they need to use something that's not in the book. The homework can be gruelling, but it depends on your Hebrew background, obviously. I have a stronger background than my husband, so (so far) less homework, though that will change. You will need to supply a binder, loose blank writing paper, pens, pencils etc. Whatever you need to learn best. I'm not sure what you mean by promptly - our class started on August 27th, which is when they said it would. Each day starts right at 8 am; the teachers are very punctual; in return, they give you your breaks right on time. :-)
    If you need to miss part of a class, it's no problem as long as it's not a regular habit. But there is a good chance you will miss something important, especially if you're a brand-new beginner, so discuss it with the teacher as soon as possible. There is a LOT of review built in, so as long as it's not a regular issue, you will figure out all the material eventually.
    It's my understanding (just overheard this weekend from other olim) that this ulpan takes only one "field trip," to Jerusalem. I was also told that the tour is conducted all in Russian - we shall see.
    In any event, not all the learners here are "foaming" exactly and some are very poorly motivated. Generally, I suspect they drop out as it becomes clear that they're way over their head, and then only the eager learners are left.
    There is no point in anyone continuing if they're not paying attention and doing well; without those things, nobody can pass the test at the end, which is how you get the certificate of completion.
    Hope these answers are helpful - feel free to email me directly, too! :-)


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