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Although there are many Anglos and English-speaking native Israelis in our Jerusalem neighborhood, Israel’s main language and the 

Jewish native tongue, is Hebrew. 

Like most new immigrants, we have the challenge of acquiring enough conversational Hebrew to understand and be understood – and to be able to read utility bills, navigate our health insurance provider’s website and get through an Israeli telephone menu. It is a daunting task.

As a child, I was taught enough prayer book Hebrew for my bat mitzvah in the Reform synagogue my family attended. Teaching conversation was not yet as important. Years later, following my first trip to Israel and subsequent marriage, I began to study modern conversational Hebrew. 

In 1991, while a student in the Cleveland Fellows Program at the former Siegal College of Jewish Studies, I took a two-day a week Hebrew class. I progressed from using block letters to Hebrew script. My studies continued thereafter, but with limited progress. 

Working at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland with the Beit Shean and Israel Defense Forces partnership projects involved deep ongoing contact with Hebrew-speaking Israeli partners and visitors. Conversational Hebrew took on new relevance. Members of IDF delegations taught me army slang while I tried my best to communicate with those visitors with poor English skills. It was a good trade, and my knowledge increased. But not enough.

Last year, my husband, Irv, and I attended a Hebrew ulpan for new olim, one of several in the city supported by Israel’s absorption ministry. Housed at Beit Ha-Am in the center of the city of Jerusalem, this “house of the nation” annually educates about 500 students from the United States, Australia, France, Austria, Ukraine, Russia, Brazil, Iran, India, Pakistan – everywhere you can imagine. 

For five days a week, 4½ hours a day, an international array of people study together in at least 10 different classes from levels alef to hey. What a difference the day-to-day studying immersive Hebrew made in my comprehension and, at times, my ability to speak Hebrew to bus drivers and Machaneh Yehuda merchants, and even to purchasing online theatre tickets.

Last year, during the all-Ulpan Chanukah assembly, each class gave a holiday presentation. The Chanukah menorah candles were lit by a newly immigrated cantor. Everyone was then invited to come to the stage, one by one, to light a candle and say where he or she was from. A staff member ignited the candle of a Brazilian Jew, who then lit the candle of a Ukrainian Jew, who lit the candle of an Australian Jew, who lit the candle of a French Jew, who lit the candle of a Russian Jew, who lit the candle of an American Jew, who lit the candle of a Jew from India – and on and on until the stage could hold no more. 

At first it seemed like any Chanukah assembly one might see here in the states – until we realized that we were in the very midst of the ingathering of the exiles. Here we were, one oleh lighting the candle of another, learning our modern ancient language together and welcoming each other back home. 

In preparation for our return to Jerusalem at the end of November, Irv and I are taking a one-day-a-week Case Western Reserve University Siegal Lifelong Learning Program class to help us review. We also try to practice conversation with each other, but, at some point, someone drops the ball and we lapse into English. We miss our international classmates with whom Hebrew was the common language. The Hebrew language bonds us as a community as strongly as does our history and the holidays of our Jewish calendar.

Julie Jaslow Auerbach, a Jewish educator who lives part of the year in Jerusalem and part of the year in Shaker Heights, writes regularly about life in Israel for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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