Friday, March 29, 2013

Letter From Israel

                                      elinor        אלינור   


You'll never find work if you don’t speak Hebrew (1)
[Yes, I speak French]

In the late ‘80s, those who made aliyah under the auspices of the Jewish Agency were assigned a madricha, someone who interviewed (and ostensibly followed the early path of) the oleh hadash or in my case, ola hadasha, the new immigrant. In the only interview I ever had with her, my case manager fretted over my future and coined the title of this piece for me. She was kindness personified, just out of school and wearing one colour from her hair ribbon to her socks. Somehow I felt I would survive without her.

Two things became obvious as I stumbled through ulpan, the internationally acknowledged total-immersion system which Israel created for teaching Hebrew: (1) I was not learning up to my own expectations and (2) I wanted to work only in English, since I had become something of a mumkhit(specialist) over the years.

Gradually I recognized that learning Hebrew was influencing my English, which was not a good thing. So I stopped trying to perfect my Hebrew and started looking for work, which was forbidden to state-sponsored ulpan students. We were granted a small monthly stipend on the assumption that we’d study all day and be fluent, if starving, Hebrew speakers at the end of the course. Didn’t work that way at all; at least half the class had surreptitious employment. They were the ones who bolted immediately after hours saying 'I have an appointment' and not hanging around to smoke, drink diet drinks and bitch about Israeli bureaucracy.

It’s funny how law-abiding citizens will adjust to atypical circumstances. I hove up to the offices of Manpower and asked if they had work for an English/French-speaker who could—Yes. They did.

Bituach Leumi, the National Insurance Institute, was looking for someone who could type in French and yes, I was available in the afternoons, since my mornings were occupied with my becoming another North American with a bad accent.

The offices of the NII were a bus ride away from ulpan but that was the only easy bit. The building, just at the entrance to Jerusalem, was a nightmare for someone on a moderate learning curve. And like many institutional buildings in this country, it had signs and rumours of signs. And arrows. Lots of arrows.

My job was to answer requests—sometimes demands— for possible pension rights from Holocaust survivors who had lived in Israel at some point but who had subsequently moved to other (presumably French-speaking) countries. Not just type the answers, mind you, but create them in French, a language I hadn't used for decades. I was reminded of the Hollywood saying: If they ask if you can tap-dance, say Yes and go out and learn.

The requests that were accepted had been shifted to another department. The ones I had to deal with bore an enthusiastic No scrawled at the top of the page and many of those heart-breaking notes were fast becoming antiques.

I sorted through the letters to find the eldest request that was considered illegitimate by NII. A quick calculation showed that the writer was probably deceased by now, so here goes nothing: Cher monsieur… Regret flowed from my keyboard. A tear struck the back of my hand. Imagine having to reject financial assistance to a Holocaust survivor.

Proudly showing my first draft to my boss, I was hit with rejection as stunning as that which I was writing: Don’t write a damned manuscript, woman—just say No! When I had emptied the basket of sadness he said, Good work, get lost, we'll call you if we need you.

As is thought in so many situations here, Never again. 

cross posted Israel Thrives


  1. Keep the stories coming!

    I'm sorry I don't really have too many deep thoughts to add to these, but I do enjoy reading them.

    I can relate to at least one aspect of one part of this one. I've taught myself to speak a few words of Philadelphian over the past year, since I finally made it back here to my favorite American city one year and nine days ago, after the better part of a decade wandering lost on the West Coast of the US. Namely Portland, Oregon and (briefly) Oakland, California.

    I have 'wooder' (water) and 'hoagie' (hero / sub sandwich) down pat. Two iconic markers of Philadelphia English.

    (PM Netanyahu spent many of his childhood and adolescent years here, and still speaks English with a Philadelphia accent, as youze may know)

    My long-e's at the beginning of words are actually, involuntarily, starting to shorten. Fascinatingly enough. I do not call our professional (American) football team the "Iggles" yet, but it's rather startling how close I sometimes come to doing so.

    I've ultimately decided against adopting 'pavement' in lieu of 'sidewalk,' though. That's just too odd, even for me.

    1. I had no idea that Bibi's English had a Philadelphian tinge. Thank you for that.

      Do they really call the footpath the "pavement" around your parts? The Brits do that. In Australia the pavement usually means the laid surface of any road or path although I have heard it used as a synonym for footpath. I agree "sidewalk" is better than both.

      The differences between American English spelling and British spelling BTW is almost entirely due to one man. Noah Webster. Naturally I was schooled in British spelling and was taught that American spelling was "wrong". In fact more than wrong. Because of the volumes of American pop culture we consumed these errors were common. Teachers were told to stamp it out and some were ruthless.

      These days American spelling and British spelling are treated as optional. A much better arrangement so I pick and choose. I haven't spelt "program" as "programme" in any context for many years. At school "program" would have earned a violent red cross out.

    2. Yeah. What is known as 'the sidewalk' everywhere else in the US, is called 'the pavement' here. This seems to be limited only to Philadelphia and its immediate surrounding vicinity, alone amongst the entire country.

      Just like they say it in London, as you note. Though of course, here we also add our own touch and sorta drop the 'v' to pronounce it more like 'payment.'

      We sweep the payment, then have a wooder ice on our stoop.

      Also, to an American, 'spelt' is that hardy wheat you find in health food stores. ;)

      Our language certainly is a fascinating one...

  2. Touching article.

    Thank you for writing about your experiences in Israel, Elinor.