Tuesday, December 26, 2006


My favorite Hebrew word

"Yesh" (pronounced "yaysh") is my favorite Hebrew word. It means "there is," but with a simple question-mark inflection, it means "is there?" So that, by simply adding a noun, you can make a sentence -- "is there breakfast?" -- to help make simple commercial transactions. Not always elegant or fluent, but it gets the job done.

You may be thinking, hey, this is just like "hay" in Spanish. But, wait, there's more (regah, yesh od.) The whole declension of the basic expression of possession -- I have, you have, etc. -- is made by adding a simple declined preposition to "yesh." Thus, "I have " is "yesh li," "he has" "yesh lo," (literally, "there is to me," "there is to him"), etc.

Finally, "yesh" said as an exclamation is a slang term expressing the sort of pleased excitement you feel on winning a prize, scoring a goal, and the like. In this sense, it's just the same as "yes" -- more accurately, "yesssss!" -- in American slang.

On my El Al flight to Tel Aviv, I watched an Israeli TV melodrama in which one of the main characters, on learning she has been selected as a contestant to an Israeli reality-TV "who will marry the batchelor" show, exlaims "yesh!" while making the (apparently universal) downward fist-pump. (It was the only complete sentence I understood without subtitles in the whole show.)

"Yesh" will only get you so far in Israel, however, and I now wish I'd be more diligent with, and spent more time on, my Hebrew studies. I learned enough Hebrew in the six months prior to my trip to be able to read street signs and slowly work my way through portions of a menu. I can say "please," "thank you," and "excuse me," get out the odd sentence here and say numbers (though I'm often slow to translate them in my head).

But beyond those things, my pronunciation must be really poor because I've found repeatedly that Israelis respond with incomprehension (there version of "huh?" or sometimes "mah zeh?", meaning "what's that?") when I try to say no brainers as "coffee with milk" or "Jerusalem."

Even worse, I can understand very little of what is said to me in Hebrew, even words and phrases I know. Of the four language skills of reading, writing, speaking and hearing, it's always been hardest for me to hear a language. This shortcoming checkmates any serious effort to say something, because if I were to produce a good Hebrew sentence, then naturally my Israeli interlocutor will produce one in return.

This isn't a major problem for getting around. A lot of menus, signs and things like ATM instructions provide English translations. And it seems as though about two thirds of the Israeli's I've encountered speak English ranging from workable to fluent, and most of the rest speak enough to get you through most of your interactions with them. Oddly, it was only the few times when I had to ask directions that my Israeli interlocutors professed to be unable to speak English.

Every now and then a transaction I expect would be manageable seems exceedingly with my extremely limited Hebrew. Buying gas was perhaps the most difficult thing I've done on this trip -- the pay at the pump system required inputting about five successive pieces of information onto a touchpad, which gave instructions only in Hebrew.

But the bigger issue has been more interpersonal. To generalize grossly, Israeli's seem to be rather aloof with strangers, though I get the impression from watching others interact that they are not unreceptive to persistent friendliness expressed in fluent Hebrew.

The trick is to have an encounter with a person who speaks little or no English and who has an incentive to take the time to understand and be understood by you. There have been a couple of times where this has happened and I more or less succeeded in communicating. Yesh!


Not that this will help you on this trip, but perhaps supplementing your classroom studies with Israeli films and/or TV shows may have helped you with the hearing part.

One of the problems, I think, is that the Hebrew we learn here at Temple has a very "American" accent associated with it, which makes it difficult for native speakers to understand you and vice-versa.

I had a bit of this problem myself in Ireland - one Gaelic-speaker's accent was so thick, we didn't recognize her speech as English, and thought she was still speaking in Gaelic.
I'm impressed that you learned so much Hebrew for your trip when English is so prevalent in Israel. My one word from my travels was "Eifoh" (where is?) which I would then blend with the name of my destination. I heard it snowed in Jerusalem. Awaiting your weather report.
Elizabeth: viola!
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