Speak Hebrew

In honor of sixty years, this week, of the founding of the state of Israel, I will post a couple of my shorter Israel stories. I have written many stories about Israel, placed in Israel, most of them are quite lengthy. When I first started writing them all my stories were one page, two pages. I remember thinking, why so short? My stories became longer. Now they are starting to shrink. I hope you enjoy these, some of the shorter, pieces. jsg

In Israel They Speak Hebrew

We moved into what was formerly an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem. It has a Hebrew name now, but everyone calls it by its old Arabic name Baka. The streets are narrow and even the new building and renovations preserve the style, square houses, decorated with blue ceramic, the courtyards and small gardens of an Arab house. There was a perfect example of one such house at the end of our street. When we first moved in, I noticed an old man sitting on the balcony of the second floor of the house. He sat in the sun, with his hands folded over a cane. He wore a large black hat in the North African style, a long beard on a beautiful dark Mediterranean face.

The next day, I watched him slowly walk up the street to the synagogue in time for the afternoon and evening prayers. And the next day, and the next.

A few days later, we were walking our daughter D to school early in the morning. We met him in the street. He stopped and took D’s little face in his wrinkled hands, he smiled and repeated one word, laughing as he said it, mal-kush, or something like it. I didn’t know the word mal-kush but he stood there in the Jerusalem sun holding D’s face in his wrinkled hands, the perfect symmetry of his wrinkled hands and D’s peanut face, giggling and saying mal-kush, mal-kush.

A few days after that, I ran into him again on our street. This time he was with a younger man, who introduced himself to me as his son. I told his son the story of the encounter of his father and my daughter, and I asked him,
in Hebrew, what language was your father speaking? What was he saying?

His son laughed, much like his father, and said to me, probably Arabic, he was born in Algiers but he has been in the Land for a long time. My father has seen many things in his life, his son said to me, he speaks many languages, and sometimes even I don’t understand him, and he laughed again.

Two weeks after I arrived in Jerusalem, I went into the post office to retrieve a package sent to us from a friend from home. In the post office, an old Russian man was standing at the window next to me trying to mail a large box to the States. An Israeli (a former Russian, I assume) was helping him fill out the form, they came to the part where they have to declare what is in the box and the Russian was explaining to the Israeli who was trying to translate it into English for the form to accompany the package to America. Finally, the post office clerk became frustrated and asked the room, in Hebrew, was there anyone here who could write good English? I said yes, and the Russian told the Israeli who told me that there was a tik g’veret inside, at which time a whole post office full of people announced their interpretation of this Hebrew phrase.

The guy behind me was yelling handbag for ladies! handbag for ladies! and I shouted, with revenge in my voice for all the Israelis who corrected my Hebrew on much subtler points of style, purse! I wrote purse, then chocolate, then coffee, then book, and the last entry stumped everybody in the post office until I realized that the Russian was saying the brand name of a dog food. Dog food! I hollered and inscribed dog food on the form. Everybody in the post office, except ladies handbag, thanked me for the help and I started to leave. Hey — professor, the clerk behind the post office window yelled at me, in Hebrew, you forgot your package and the whole place erupted. I had left the package I came in for at the window.

I was walking away from the post office and a block away a young Russian man with a Solzhenitsyn beard stopped me and said, in English, I eat all morning. . . give me three shekels for food? I said, I haven’t eaten all day myself. Yes, said the Russian, as if to say that’s what I meant. I gave him three shekels (about one dollar then) and he looked at me, touched his chest, touched my chest and said, from my life to yours, from my life to yours and thanked me to which I replied, in Russian, you’re welcome.

Two weeks earlier, I had just arrived in the Land. I hadn’t lived there in eighteen years but I remembered my Hebrew well enough, I thought, to jump in right away. I went shopping at the Hypercol, the local supermarket. Everything was copacetic until check-out. The check-out woman asked me something and I answered her without hesitation. I wasn’t quite sure what she said, but she responded immediately with a little piece of paper and pointed me toward the supermarket office. I took the paper to the office, the clerks behind the counter began to discuss me in an animated fashion, then they shrugged their shoulders, fished into a box and gave me a pair of panty hose.

What question did I answer? Maybe it was whether I preferred men’s or women’s clothes, perhaps if I was married or not, maybe it was if they gave me a pair of panty hose, would I wear them? The fact is, I didn’t know. But I wanted to, I wanted to so badly that every day I was in Israel, I suffered a similar indignity.

About a month later, I was shopping at the Hypercol again. This time the check out person said something to me that I understood perfectly, because my Hebrew had improved, and because I had had this experience before. You’ve won a prize, she said to me in Hebrew, and gave me a slip of paper. I gestured to the office, over there — right? Nachon, she said (right). I went to the office and told the woman behind the counter, in Hebrew, the last time I won a pair of dark panty hose. Ahhh, she said and took the slip and disappeared into the store.

She came back a few minutes later and tossed my prize to me over the counter. It was another pair of panty hose, these are very sheer, she said in Hebrew.

After I was there a while, when Israelis tried to speak to me in English, I told them that I speak no English. What language do you speak? they always asked me — French, Russian, Spanish? Samoan, I said, and we continued in Hebrew.