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Amharic class: An immersion in ignorance

Do you ever overhear people talking in another language and wonder what they were saying?

When I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago I was looking around at all the happy Dutch people, eavesdropping on all their conversations I couldn't understand and I was thinking exactly that. What are they talking about?

But in fact I know exactly what they were talking about. The exact same things we do: “Drat, I forgot to buy milk,” “What are you doing Thursday?” and “This new boss is driving me crazy.” Or whatever.

The point is, it’s probably much more mundane than we think it will be. And it’s not at all exotic or foreign, because nobody is once you get to know them close up. They’re not sitting across from me on the tram thinking, “As a Dutch person, I would love to go home and eat… well, maybe pancakes. Because that’s what we Dutch people enjoy.”

Dutch people, mostly, don’t think or talk about being Dutch because being Dutch is for the most part invisible to them. That doesn’t mean they’re not proud, just that on a daily basis, in ordinary conversations, it factors in very little. They think and talk about mundane things because they’re just people. Just like us.

There are two kinds of people I meet when I say I'm learning Amharic. The first kind of people ask me why. The second kind of people are my family. They don’t ask me why because they know I’m always learning something, and very often, that something is irrelevant languages. There doesn’t have to be a reason.

But then, I don’t usually tell people, because the next thing that happens after they ask why is expect me to say something in Amharic. They expect that you’ll be reasonably fluent, but the truth is that after almost 6 months of learning Amharic, I still don't really know very many words.

A friend from the States, just a regular Ashkenazi Jewish guy living here in our neighbourhood, once mentioned that he spoke Chinese (I forget which language). I was like, “Hmm, that’s nice.” Figuring it was a few words or whatever. But then one day I came out of shul and saw him standing off to the side chatting with a young woman who moved here from Macao. In Chinese.

Now, he may not have been 100% fluent, but he seemed to be light years beyond the standard things I expect to learn in a language class: “I am a student, I am learning Amharic, I am a good student, this is a good class, I am going to the doctor.” Those are the things you learn to say in any language. But no, this friend was really speaking.

That’s how some people learn languages.  And just so you know, if you haven’t already guessed, I’m not those people.


The anti-Rosetta stone – huge bilingual sign spotted in a light rail station in Jerusalem in two languages I don’t understand.

When we first moved to Israel and studied in ulpan, things were very systematic. The system has been worked out very carefully over the last 70 years and the teachers know basically exactly what they're going to teach and when. They walk in and say, “My name is Teelee,” and then you go around the room saying “My name is…” And then you learn how to ask someone their name and go around the room doing that. And then “How are you?” And so on, working your way up to proficiency through predetermined and highly useful dialogues centred around topics of daily life: going to the post office, banking, grocery store, transportation.

But that's not at all how this Amharic class has gone. Oh, sure, it started predictably enough, saying, “My name is,” and we went around the room for one round of that, nice and relaxed. And then the teacher began a conversation in fluent Amharic with most of the class, leaving NR and I in the dust. We have remained in the dust for the last six months or so.

I can blame my failure in part on the fact that the Amharic alphabet has 276 letters. Experts will tell you that even if you learn all 276, letters there are still a few more that they've thrown in just for fun. In case you weren't paying attention, that’s almost 300 letters. So maybe that goes a long way to explaining why I'm not quite fluent yet.


Just a small slice of the ABC’s.  Yes, there is order to each row of letters.  No, that doesn’t make it particularly easy!  Each “letter” is actually an entire syllable. 

I know enough Amharic at this point to almost decipher a store sign, painstakingly (one in Toronto and one in Jerusalem), only to discover that the sign is also printed in another language and that I could have just read it in the other language that I know better.


Store signs I can kinda read – Jerusalem (L) and Toronto (R).

Mostly, I remember the dumb things like the word for glass is thermos; the word for water bottle is highland (because apparently that’s the brand); the word for good is true, which sets me off on a tangent wondering if the reverse is also true.

The teacher did spend some time at the beginning of the class teaching us useful words for things around the classroom, so I know that a desk is terapeza, and chair is womber. It fascinates me that one has such a European-sounding name, while the other sounds, to my ears, pure African.

One time when I couldn’t see the board because the sun was in my eyes, I wanted to ask the teacher if he could close the curtain. He’d taught us the word for curtain, megaredja, which sounds a little like the Hebrew word for itchy. So I put up my hand and said the word over and over as he went and touched all the curtains until I could nod to let him know that was the right one and he closed it.

That’s the level my Amharic is on.

Early on the end of a class, I asked the teacher, Mesfin, how you say thank you in Amharic. I like to say thank you at the end of a class, so I figured it was the least I could do. He told me, and it was very long and very difficult, and I nodded, said it one time, and then immediately forgot and have never said it since. In case you’re wondering, it’s amasaginalu. Nothing about this language can just be easy, it seems.

I do know the word for hello is salam, mostly because it's the same as the Arabic word (another language I don’t speak!), but I feel really cheesy using it, so I usually just say hi when I walk into class, like Israelis do.

These days, his teaching method seems to involve alternating between hard subjects and easy subjects. So he’ll say, “Domestic animals!” and everybody will shout out: rooster, chicken, dog. Then he’ll say “Wild animals!” and and we’ll shout them out. I do okay with those parts. Then he'll say “Government offices!” and people sit there while he writes on the board: ministry of defense, ministry of agriculture, ministry of finance, ministry of whatever. These are words and concepts we're not going to really ever use.

Yesterday, we spent a good long time learning arithmetic operations: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Plus the equal sign. Semi interesting and semi understandable for a change but often it's something far more obscure.

One reason the classes are so strange is that I’m not really the target demographic. About 2/3 of the class right now are adults who came from Ethiopia, either them or their parents. They’re relatively fluent but never learned to read and write. So their primary interest in the class is reading and writing words they already know.

Some of them also bring along their kids, which I think is wonderful, just really, really sweet. I picture myself as a little kid, if I’d been in a Yiddish class, sitting next to my father. That would have been wonderful (Yiddish was his first language but his reading and writing was pretty bad until he studied the language properly later in life).  And I, too, knew a lot of loose words in Yiddish, even if I couldn't put together a complete sentence.

The kids in the class are less fluent than the adults, but certainly know the names of farm animals, the names of food, they count to 10, and so on, even if they can’t really carry on a conversation in Amharic.

And then there’s, depending on the week, 3 or 4 of us white Israelis, doing our best to keep up, except that one is actually quite fluent. She’s a social worker in a residential school and from what it sounds like, some of the kids and some of the families have only recently arrived from Ethiopia. The other white person there seems to have taken a class before somewhere, so she’s also reasonably proficient. And then there’s me and NR, and we are reasonably idiotic in Amharic.

All of which means that sometimes the conversation leaves us behind altogether. At one point, the teacher asked people to name foods and everybody in the room started shouting out lists of food I’d never even heard of. He wrote them all down on the board in small, messy letters, read them all out at one more time, then erased the board. That was our “lesson” on Ethiopian foods.

It has not been easy going.

I can understand why people are asking why I’m learning Amharic. This is one of Israel's most deprecated languages – I remember hearing years ago, maybe even the Persian Gulf War, that nobody thought to issue emergency shelter information in Amharic, leaving recently-arrived Ethiopian immigrants high and dry.

It’s true that I don't need to speak Amharic, like, ever. And I'm not planning a trip to Ethiopia, which is really the only place in the world that Amharic is spoken.

Not only that, but even people who come here from Ethiopia mostly speak pretty good Hebrew. Hebrew that’s getting better and better with every passing year as generations grow up here. In our neighbourhood, there are still some people who are either just coming in or have been here for just a few years, and there are some older people who speak Amharic as their first language. But generally, for people under the age of 30 and maybe even 40, Hebrew is the go-to language for most people from Ethiopia backgrounds, even at home.

And yet there's so much we don't know about Ethiopian Jews. And really, the first question that sentence should raise is what do I mean by “we.” What I mean is, first of all, white Israelis, and second of all, me personally as a North American Jew.

There's so much we don't know about the lives of Ethiopian Jews – here in Israel and before. Not long ago, one of NR’s friends from school went to Ethiopia during summer vacation. And the only question I could ask is, “Why?” From everything I’ve learned about Ethiopian history, there was nothing good there for the Jews. Why in the world would they want to go back?

I say this only to reveal how very ignorant I am. Because of course, Ethiopia is beautiful and I’m sure many Jews grew up and were educated and had nice lives there, even if circumstances did eventually make it better for them to leave. Why wouldn’t they want to go back?

A while ago I interviewed Israel's first-ever chair of Ethiopian Jewish studies (because there was a Canadian angle!) and he said people learning the story of Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews, say it's so cute:  “They’re black, the story is cute about how they came to Israel.”

We like the cuteness and the closure and the fact that we’re reuniting with these lost brothers and sisters after thousands of years. We don’t necessarily want to know anything about them beyond the colour of their skin and the cuteness.

Two years ago, an Ethiopian woman a couple of blocks away was murdered by her husband. Just a few months ago, a young man, 17 or 18 years old, unarmed, was shot to death by a white Israeli police officer. In fact, the day he was killed, we were supposed to have Amharic class. They announced in the group WhatsApp that class was cancelled because of the situation, and I was the white dummy who said, “What situation?” Nobody answered, but I Googled it and it was on the news and I was ashamed not to have known. These communities are so interwoven that he had to have been related to some of the people in the class.

That incident led to rioting and demonstrations by the Ethiopian community, and in some cases, brought out a lot of racism – other Israelis saying they didn’t understand “those people.” The story ceases to be cute when the community in question takes to the highway, blocking your way to where you want to go.

The story is not just cute. It’s a complex, richly layered, ongoing narrative, and it’s important that it be told and retold for generations, just like all of our stories.

I'm not going to pretend I'm learning a ton of history taking this class, because I'm not, though sometimes there are tidbits, and it’s fascinating. I'm not going to pretend that I'm getting to know an entire culture through the language, because I'm not. But I do feel as though I'm getting close in a way that many Israelis really hesitate to do, and certainly in a way few North American Ashkenazi white Jews like me do. I feel like this class is a wonderful opportunity to see more, to see deeper.

To learn – for a change – from Ethiopian Jews, not about them.

But maybe I’m wrong. There’s a lot I don’t understand these days. And maybe that, too, is exactly the point that professor was trying to make as well. We claim to understand their situation, but we don’t; we can’t. It’s too complex, too different from our own. Sure, there’s lots we have in common, and commonalities are hugely important. But sometimes, as with heritage languages that might otherwise be lost, it’s important to preserve our differences as well.

Amharic class has so far been one long lesson in not understanding. An immersion in ignorance. If, as kabbalah teaches us, an empty vessel is one which is being prepared to contain wisdom, then I figure I’m pretty much ready.

I think that may be exactly the point.

Ethiopian-Israeli protest photo above (from protests in 2015, not the recent ones) © Lilach Daniel via Wikimedia.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. Two of my daughters picked up spoken Amharit when they worked with olim. One became fluent enough to give lectures on Jewish subjects. Too bad there isn't a basic spoken class for you.

    1. Wow, kol hakavod! I guess working with people on a daily basis would make it easier to learn, but still. They're probably bright women. :-)
      A spoken class would be great, but I do enjoy learning the script as well. It's just HARD. If he started at the beginner level, it would all have been easier, but like I said, I'm not the target demographic.
      I definitely think this is a wonderful model for heritage language programs that parents and kids can do together. I'd love to have had something like this with my kids for Yiddish. In terms of useful languages, while we have lots of Ethiopian olim here, Russian would be more useful in a "tachlis" way. I'm too shy to walk up to people at random -- or even Ethiopian olim I'm acquainted with -- and say "Salam." :-)


I'd love to hear what you have to say.