Confessions of an Oleh Khadash

One man’s effort to navigate Israel’s Tower of Babel

I’m known around this part of Jerusalem as “that guy who speaks all those languages.”

I’d say it’s a step up from those distant days when the kids on the schoolyard called me “nature boy”. Progress, people, progress.

But let me explain. I grew up in Los Angeles speaking English and Spanish. I took Russian in college (okay, only for a semester, but still), I went to a Hindi language school in India, and my French is passable, if comical. So basically, I’m able to communicate with just about any of the olim here in my ulpan.

It’s a skill I don’t take for granted. I feel compelled to reach out to my fellow students here, to give them advice, to make them smile, to ask how their day was, to help translate phrases and concepts across cultural barriers and, through this, to do my part in bringing about even a hint of unity in this wild microcosm of the Jewish world.

And it’s a world of peculiar juxtapositions. Right now, I’m trying desperately to do my Hebrew homework, but I’m hopelessly distracted by how amusing it is watching a chipper blonde girl from Siberia (yup, that Siberia) lead the weekly ulpan hip-hop dance class.

With this amount of cognitive dissonance, who needs poor-quality arak to make your head spin?

But what she is doing is critical. It is student-initiated activities such as this class that truly break the ice among the various communities contained within these four walls. Gyrating hips, downward-facing dog on the yoga mat, and the “Yemenite step” all allow for the linguistic barriers to melt between the French fashionista, the Venezuelan former soldier, and the South African rugby player, as frustrated laughter takes their place. And it is in these key moments of interpersonal connection that we are able to transcend the frustrations of intensive Hebrew class, and the strain of assimilating into Israeli society, and we can just appreciate and revel in the public humiliation of our not-particularly-flexible bodies.

Spoiler alert: it ain’t exactly a piece of cake being a new Israeli. It’s a wonderful thing, yes, a special privilege and a blessed path that we elected for ourselves, but the paradise you once glimpsed on Birthright is eons away from reality. And gratitude alone isn’t gonna get you ahead, even in the Jewish homeland.

Here are a few fun tidbits for the uninitiated about the culture shocks you may experience in Israel:

-You have never met more cantankerous bus drivers. It’s okay though -- you are fully authorized to snap right back at them. Try it; it’s cathartic.

-You will not be paid well at your newfound job. Sorry.

-“Bless you”? “Excuse me”? “Speak slowly”? “Why are you shouting”? Yeah. We don’t say such things here.

-The customer is not always right. In fact, ask the storekeeper: the customer is never right. And the storekeeper himself just might have a bigger G-d complex than Kanye West.

-You will step in cat******at least once.

Congratulations! It’s a rite of passage into Israeli society. (And you thought your bar/bat mitzvah was fun?) -Speaking of our feral feline friends, that hideous sound that startles you from sleep at 3 AM is not a young child in horrible distress. It’s cats. Just...cats.

When you have two hundred young men and women from all across the world living, eating, and learning together every day, you learn quickly that to get by, we must help one another. We are our own support system.

Over meals in the dining hall, as we pile our plates with malawakh and schnitzel and other hilarious words, we often advise each other on how to best deal with the idiosyncrasies of Israeli public agencies.

For example, we might discuss the joys of Israeli bank hours. Know how in the United States, and in, um, most of the ‘normal’ world, it’s standard that the banks open early in the morning and close in the evening? So, if you arrive there at some point during the day, chances are it’ll be open, right?

Not so here in the land of milk and honey and bureaucracy. Depending on the day, a bank might well close for siesta at 1 PM or 2:30 PM. Will they open again in two hours? Will they not? Who knows! Memorize the schedule! There’s no rhyme and reason! Stay tuned for next week’s exciting episode of “Israel: The Extra-Surreal Life”.

My Jerusalemite fourth cousins, themselves immigrants from Moscow, had a good chuckle at my expense when I first discovered this delightful bit of nonsense. And now, as a ‘veteran’ Israeli, I get to laugh at my friends here when they too dare venture into a bank, their health care provider, or the post office (shudder).

But we do not despair. Perseverance is the name of the game.

For if you casually observe the students of the ulpan for long enough, you’ll be able to witness a beautiful phenomenon. As the semester progresses and each individual’s grasp of the Hebrew language improves, the walls come down. An adopted Israeli identity blossoms. And as if by magic, we come to share the same jokes, the same slang, the same cordial expressions, and we assume the lingua franca that our ancestors spoke millennia ago before they were pushed into diaspora.

It’s nothing short of breathtaking watching the Jewish people renew itself.

So here I sit, poring over verb conjugation tables as my own form of renewal. But this hip-hop dance class is getting fairly rowdy. When asked to participate, I haughtily insist: “No, no. I grew up in the States; I require no such lessons!”

Alright, that latter statement isn’t entirely true.

But I don’t think in my past life I would have been quite so insistent, so bold, so undeniably...Israeli.

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