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Telling the boys from the girls… and other delights of learning Hebrew.


Know what I haven’t seen a lot of here? Posts, books, anything, really, talking about the tremendously tough transition from a lazy-tongue language like English to a precisely-gendered language like Hebrew.

Am I the only one having problems?

Teaching English in Israel (even in the amateurish, bad way that I do it!) has sensitized me to many nuances of this language, and the differences and difficulties both ways.

Like gender – a pleasure when I’m teaching English (no problem, just do NOTHING!). And a royal pain to absorb when I’m learning Hebrew.

Separating the boys from the girls

My sister, who’s very familiar with French, another gendered language, was surprised when she was here at how very gender-oriented this language is. In French, there are masculine and feminine, but verbs conjugate the same for both of them.   No such luck in Hebrew.

In Hebrew, nothing is the same if you’re a boy or a girl. All verbs, past, present and future shift when you’re talking about girls or boys.

If you went to Hebrew school, you probably know the rule: the default gender is masculine, always. Feminine verbs are used only if the group you’re talking about is exclusively female. If there’s a male – a single boy in a bunch of seventy girls – you use the masculine form.

In Israel, this takes on a weird physical reality: the ulpan teacher looks around before speaking, unconsciously, I’m sure, to see if the one man remaining in our class has bothered to show up. He hasn’t: she switches to all-feminine without a second thought. If he’s there, all her verbs are masculine.

Imagine living in a country where buses were masculine and trains were feminine, with a totally separate set of verbs for each. Oh, yeah, I don’t have to imagine it: I’m living it every single day. The bus (male) yotzei (leaves), while the train (feminine) yotzeit (leaves). More importantly, the train “titakeiv” (will be late) while the bus “yitakeiv” (will be late). Or – even better – tagia/yagia (will arrive) on time.

(If there’s more than one of each, all is good again – the plurals are the same; they all “yagi’u” (will arrive) on time.)

In the early days of ulpan, the teachers manage to get the message across slowly, going around the classroom, singling out the men to repeat: “ani yoshev” (I’m sitting), ani yoshev, ani yoshev. Then she goes around again for the girls: “ani yoshevet” (I’m sitting), ani yoshevet, ani yoshevet.

Our teacher also used hand puppets: “Zot sara. Sara gara b’kiryat yam.” (This is Sara. Sara lives in Kiryat Yam.) “Ze Dani. Dani gar b’Haifa.” (This is Danny. Danny lives in Haifa.)

(One fun thing about teaching English to kids here: they have no cultural referents for English names. If they read a sentence about “Harold,” they have no idea whether Harold is a boy or girl, and often guess wrong – “This is Harold. She lives in the United States.” I don’t laugh, but I do snicker a bit inwardly.)

Eventually, through clever tricks, the message gets through: boys and girls have different verbs. Each ulpan student hopefully becomes familiar with his or her own gender enough to talk about their own activities without making too many mistakes in this area. And hopefully also comfortable enough with the other one to ask questions and speak semi-intelligently.

But long after ulpan it is still hard… so hard.

I consider myself on the “pretty good” side of switching genders now when I speak, but one of the toughest things remains the supremely basic “to you” – which comes out either as “lecha” and “lach,” depending on if you’re speaking to a boy or a girl. I always have to hesitate and ponder the gender of the person I’m talking to, in a way I know even Hebrew-speaking toddlers don’t have to. To them, it comes intuitively… to me, not so much.

(Israeli adults DO make mistakes or just get lazy with their Hebrew – very often, in fact, and much to my ulpan teacher’s chagrin…)

How do you get to… ?

Still, knowing that the default is masculine can be helpful. For instance, when it comes to “generic” verbs.

What do I mean by generic?

This is something we don’t do so gracefully in English, but I’ve encountered before in French, in the form of the weird neutral “on” form.   “Ici on parle français!” – “here, we/one/everybody/you/they speak(s) French!”

In English, it used to be okay to say: “one always eats lunch at noon.” Nowadays, we don’t speak this way because it sounds like something the queen would say, not an ordinary person.

In modern English, we say things like “we eat lunch at noon,” or “we pay our bills at the post office,” implying that the “we” is part of a generic whole-of-society.

Or you use a generic “you” – “you press the button, like this.” Sometimes, you also refer to “people,” “people love to dance at a wedding.” Finally, there’s the pathetic alternative of using the passive voice: “it’s just not done.” By whom? No clue.

I spent a long time trying to recreate this form somehow in Hebrew. “In Canada, people don’t get married so young?” (“anashim lo…”) “We celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut?” (“anachnu chog’gim…”) “When you travel, it’s important to…” (“k’she ata noseya…”)  “How do you get to Sesame Street?” (“eych ata magia l’Rechov Sumsum?”)

But all these still use the English forms. They’re correct, but to Israelis they sound… weird.  Like a translation by somebody who doesn’t really know the language (hey, that’s me!).

In Hebrew, it’s actually simpler than in English (for a change!).

You accomplish this generic form of speech with the “unspecified” masculine plural. Pretend you’re talking about some mythical “they,” but leave out the actual pronoun, and you’re there. “(They) love (masculine, plural) dancing at a wedding.” “(They) pay bills at the post office.” “(They) use the Internet to find love.” “How do (they) get to Sesame Street?”

Yes, there is a passive voice, and I’m learning that too (“Where is Sesame Street found?”). But it’s far less used than these mythical-male forms, which crop up everywhere.

Yesh!  Another Big Lie of Hebrew school…

Another thing that confused me a LOT at first is the terms “yesh” and “ayn.” I consider these words one of the Big Lies of Hebrew school.

It’s simple, they tell you: “yesh” means “there is,” and “ayn” means there isn’t. “Yesh chatul al ha-gag.” (there’s a cat on the roof) “Ayn kesef ba-bank.” (there’s no money in the bank)

In learning halacha (Jewish law) from books in Hebrew, I encountered another form, slightly more subtle: “Yesh,” meaning “there are those who.” For example, “there are those who end Shabbat after 72 minutes.” (or however-long) It’s optional, or at least, some do it and others don’t.

So it took a while to figure out that that’s not what “yesh” means when you see it on packages here. When it’s on a package, or on a list of rules… it means you MUST.

This confused me because I had already learned the words for “you must” in ulpan. There are even varying degrees of “mustishness”: ani tzarich (I need), ani muchrach (I must), ani chayav (I am obligated) (all male forms, by the way; don’t try saying these if you’re a girl!).

Note to anglos: avoid “muchrach” unless your accent is 100% native. I cannot get out the two guttural R’s with a CH in the middle without sounding like a cat with a hairball, so I stick with the other two.

But back to “yesh.” When it’s on a package, it means you MUST. As in “keep in a cold place.” In English, we drop the pronoun and just refer to nobody in particular keeping the cream in the fridge. Here, it comes out more like “yesh lishmor bimkom kar.” Do, please, O consumer, keep this beverage chilled.

I didn’t know this. Having come from Hebrew school (“there is to keep it in a cold place?”) and from learning halacha, with its optional use of yesh (“some people keep it in a cold place?”), I assumed the latter: keeping the drink cold was something you could do if you felt like it. Or as in, “there are those who sift this flour before using it.” Ah, how lovely for them, I would think.

It wasn’t until the cream went off from being left on the shelf (it was in the same tetra pack that the long-life “standing” milk comes in) that I started to realize that “yesh” wasn’t optional here (though I always sifted the flour; that much I knew before we came!). If the package says “yesh,” you’d better listen, or whatever’s inside won’t be as good when it gets out.

(The opposite is a little clearer - “ayn,” if you think about it, is more obviously an imperative NOT to do something.)

Another use of “yesh” is much more fun. Perhaps because of the sound, it’s been universally adopted here as the equivalent of the English “yessss!” (you say it like “yay-shhhh”, not “yesh” like you’re drunk and slurring the S)

When something works out just right, when life is good, when you win a prize: “yesh!” – sometimes with a fist-pump in the air. Kids use it, but adults do, too. And no wonder: such a clean, simple, gender-free word. Men use it, women use it... and there’s never any need to stress over whether you’re saying it right.

What can I say? Sometimes, despite the difficulties, Hebrew really is easier than English. Yesh!


  1. If a Rabbinic statement uses yesh, it is more like yesh SHEnoahagim kacha, (there are those who act this way )
    whereas if the package says yesh lishmor , there is no "she", (who), so would be literally "there is to keep it", which already sounds less individual, if that makes sense?
    lizabennett aht yahoo

    1. That does make sense, in fact. Thank you so much for the explanation. It's tough having to figure out all this stuff from scratch on my own. This is why I sent my kids to day schools - they will never struggle with my degree of ignorance (though they have their own issues to contend with). Thanks for stopping by!


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