How Much Hebrew is Enough?


They say that the only time you hear Ivrit spoken on Derech Beit Lechem, a major street near where I live in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, is when a Russian meets a Frenchman.

That may be an exaggeration, but, as is evident from the accompanying article, most olim want to live in a neighborhood where they will feel comfortable, and that usually means living among others who speak their native language. In many cases, English speakers living in Jerusalem and some other cities can get by very well with little or even no Hebrew, since almost everyone you will interact with in stores, restaurants and museums, for example, will know English. But many other situations, such as talking with a customer service representative on the phone, necessitate at least a basic knowledge of the language.

How much Hebrew you need to know also depends on your stage in life. Soon after making aliyah in January 2013, my wife, Ceil, and I began studying at an ulpan two mornings each week. Our classes consist primarily of people of retirement age whose declared aim is typically “to be able to understand the news on the radio and TV.” (By the way, that’s not such an easy goal; even though most of us can handle the language fairly well, what we lack is the everyday vocabulary.) The five-day-a-week classes, on the other hand, tend to be populated by younger olim who are looking to work in an Israeli environment. For them, fluency in Hebrew is a must.

Anglos who are raising a family in Israel have to decide what language to speak at home. When both parents are native English speakers, it is only natural that they will use that language between them and when speaking to their children. Their kids will certainly become fluent in Hebrew as soon as they begin to attend nursery school. For them, growing up bilingual is a gift from their parents.

Yet some educators have noted that children whose families and social environments are totally Anglo sometimes fail to achieve real sophistication in Hebrew language. Some even have trouble passing their bagrut (high school matriculation) exams because their Ivrit is relatively weak. Culturally too, some Anglo children find it difficult to blend in with Israeli society as adults because the influences in their childhood were overwhelmingly American.

On the whole, though, Western olim—both adults and children—can become as “Israeli” as they want to be. But there are other languages—beyond spoken Hebrew—that olim such as us discover that we share with so many Israelis: the language of shul, the language of Torah study, the language of mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro and the language of kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh. These are the languages that we hear in Jerusalem every day, and these are just some of the languages which make living in Israel an experience beyond words.

David Olivestone, the former senior communications officer of the Orthodox Union, and his wife, Ceil, now live in Jerusalem.

This article was featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Action.
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