Hebrew is a hard language to learn as an adult. Just this morning on Facebook, Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt confessed to having fits trying to write cheques to his landlord in Hebrew, and he has been living in Israel for eight years. Many of his commenters expressed similar frustrations, and speculated on a mass suicide by ulpan teachers in response. I know I’m struggling with it.
This is one area where the born-and-raised religious (called in slang “FFBs” or “Frum From Birth”) have an advantage over the newly-religious (ba’alei teshuva, “BTs”) or (would-be) converts is that they often have a much better grip on Hebrew and if they should move to Israel as many of my Jewish friends have done, don’t find making the transition to living in it full-time as difficult. I mentioned struggling with Hebrew to my boss, who, unlike many of my coworkers who are BTs, is a FFB oleh (immigrant to Israel), and he said he didn’t find it all that hard, because he’d been exposed to Hebrew pretty much since birth. (Lucky bastard!)
When I was in Israel last, I got to spend Shabbat lunch with a friend from work, who has been an invaluable source of help and moral support both in my career and my pursuit of Judaism. (This was before I decided for sure I was going to try to convert, although it did happen on the same trip.) That Shabbat was the first time I’d ever actually really gotten to participate in anything uniquely and religiously Jewish, and I enjoyed it immensely.
My friend has three sons, in the young teens to tweens age range. All of them were born in Israel, and are essentially native Hebrew speakers being raised to speak English as a second language, despite having native English-speaking parents. While I was there, one of their sons said something to his mom in Hebrew, and she said, “Since we have a guest here, and she doesn’t speak much Hebrew, I’d appreciate it if you’d be polite to our guest and speak English. Besides, sometimes when you get going, I can’t really understand you.”
I’m not sure what it must feel like to have a language barrier with your own children, but it hurt my heart in a small way when she said that.