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Hebrew: the shame of olim (and 6 easy ways to conquer it).

image from The Monster at the End of This Book, by Jon Stone

Are you ashamed of your Hebrew?

If you live in Israel, you know exactly how good your Hebrew is.  If you’re not sure, Israelis will be quick to set you straight… but they won’t do it directly.

The slippery-slope compliment

Here’s what happens to me these days:

Israeli:  “How long have you been in Israel?” / “When did you make aliyah?”

Me:  “A year and a half.”

Israeli:  “Oh, your Hebrew is good.”

Sound like a compliment???

It isn’t.  At least, not exactly.  In fact, I’ve been demoted. 

Because their reaction all depends on how long you tell them you’ve been in Israel.

Here’s what I got when we first moved here:

“How long have you been in Israel?”

“A week.”

“Wow – your Hebrew is AMAZING.”

Yup, that’s the response I used to get.  I have gradually watched the response decline from AMAZING to GREAT to VERY GOOD to GOOD.  A year from now, I have no doubt that they’ll be saying it’s “okay” or “half-decent.”

The Death Spiral

But it doesn’t stop there.  The descent into shame continues into a Death Spiral of Discouragement - if you let it. 

When I started Ulpan Bet, the second level of ulpan, we had to go around introducing ourselves and saying how long we’d been in Israel.  The person next to me had been here 13 years. 

I can only imagine the reaction in the (Israeli) teacher’s mind as this woman stumbled through her introductory sentences at a level that wasn’t even Ulpan Alef, let alone Bet.  To be in Israel 13 years, and not speak the language at all…?

And yet. 

I can’t help thinking, Okay.  So we each do languages at our own pace, in our own way. 

I’ve seen that well enough in my husband’s tedious and tenuous process through the language.  He’s trying, hard, every day, but it doesn’t come easily. 

And I see that in myself as well.  I’m not 17 or 19 or 22 – ages when picking up a language was an easy thing for me.  And I’m not learning intensively in ulpan these days.  That means that every day I’m not actively out there, talking to Israelis, I’m also slipping backwards a little – from GREAT to GOOD to… if I let it, DOWNRIGHT LOUSY.

We can’t let ourselves feel ashamed.

That’s not an excuse for inaction, you understand.

We still have to do something about it.  Like the way I have to exercise my feet every day for the rest of my life or they will eventually stop working.

Conquering the shame

We have to exercise our Hebrew and, I suppose, never stop as long as we are Israelis (which I hope is forever).

Here are a few ways you can walk right through that shame to get to the happiness on the other side:

  • Grab a free newspaper.  You may not agree with its political bent, but then, that’s not the point.
  • Turn on the radio and try to figure out what the weather will be tomorrow.
  • Ask your kids what a word means.  This is tough, admitting you don’t know everything.  But it will help them handle the language barrier respectfully if you meet them halfway.
  • Strike up a conversation with a bus driver (or at a bus stop, waiting for the bus).
  • Go shopping for something you don’t know the name of.
  • Visit a library and read a children’s book (or a few) all the way through, with a dictionary at your side if you need it.
  • Ask an Israeli for a ride somewhere so you’re stuck having to chat with them for an hour in the car (that’s what I did yesterday, all the way from Yerushalayim to Tel Aviv!)

Yes, Hebrew is the proverbial escalator:  if you’re not continually walking upwards, you are sliding inexorably down. 

But shame won’t help any of us.  Let us yawp our proverbial Hebrew yawp,  and damn the torpedoes, however crude and embarrassing it may be when it reaches the ears of the native Hebrew speaker.

It’s the only way we’ll ever conquer the shame.

How do you get past the shame / fear / embarrassment of speaking Hebrew even when you’re not GREAT at it?  Let me know in the Comments!

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

[photo credit:  Ann Larie Valentine via flickr – image from The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone, one of my all-time favourites, starring the loveable monster Grover]


  1. Great post. I agree with you. I made Aliyah five and half years ago. My Hebrew greatly approved while in the Army, but then when I finished I got stuck. I think the most important thing is to be surrounded by Hebrew all the time. This is what I had in the Army. I've found now that my Hebrew improves also by watching Israeli TV. Arutz 2 has great programs; Master Chef, Israeli Idol, News, Race to a Million, Big Brother... Also Israeli movies. I always keep the Hebrew subtitles on and pause when needed.

    Good luck everyone!

    1. Oh, wow, I totally forgot to mention subtitles. You are so right. I love them in so many ways. You're hearing it, you're reading it. I even read them when we see movies in English these days. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. We are making aliya in a month's time from the UK, but my "street" Hebrew is pretty good. By that I mean everyday conversation, listening to a talk show on the radio, dealing with tradesmen, and shopkeepers, even reading kids' books, no problem. But where I do fall down is the news on the radio, and ploughing my way through a newspaper. I can manage with a tabloid style paper but not a "heavy". I wonder how long it will take me to really understand the radio news. Is the Hebrew really so much "higher" on the news than on a talk show?

    1. Tabloid is what I read, I guess. But then, even in English, I don't love serious news and analysis. However, with the radio, I think you're probably way ahead of me, so kol hakavod. I don't think it's so much higher as just that - as in English - there are set phrases that flow off the newsreaders tongues that you have to know to follow it. Like with the weather, where they say "ייתכן," instead of "יכול להיות". :-)

  3. OMG! Your opening cartoon made me realize I've been saying mitbayeshet wrong for YEARS! I've been saying meh-boo-yeshet. ACHSHAV ani kol kach mitbayeshet. I think what keeps me from holding back is that my desire to connect and communicate is stronger than my desire to not look like an idiot. Some Israelis appreciate this more than others.

    1. I totally look like an idiot all the time now. :-) Anyway, I know this word because my daughter goes around pretending to be her teacher and shouting "titbayesh" and "titbayshi" whenever she wants to shame anyone. I may not agree with the pedigogical methods, but she's got the vocabulary down pat, anyway. :-) Thanks for stopping by!


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