Tackling Hebrew

2nd January 2016

When I moved to France in 1989, I lived a simple life, and was always in the present. That is to say, I could not conjugate verbs in the past or the future, so everything was necessarily in the present. Back then, I didn’t realise how avant garde my life had become, living exclusively in the now. I was a paragon of mindfulness, goddamnit.

I am interested in the idea, from linguistic psychology, that language encodes our understanding of human experience. It does not just describe our thoughts, it actually forms our thoughts.

This, broadly, is the deep context of those semi-interesting buzzfeed lists, enumerating words in other languages which have no literal translation in ours. Schadenfreude isn’t quite what I’m talking about here, as the concept definitely resonates with English speakers – it’s just that the Germans were clever enough to name it. Nor do I mean that old chestnut about Inuits having forty words for snow. Not least because Wikipedia calls it ‘the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax’ – and who am I to argue with the reigning W of our era?

No. Kintsukuroi is my example of choice. This Japanese word captures the idea that something which has needed repair is ennobled by the act of restoration. The fact of a flaw, and the scar of repair make things more beautiful still, according to Kintsukuroi. This word tells me something I did not fully know about the Japanese, and the discovery is made through language.

I’m riffing on the meaning of language at the moment, as I am currently learning Hebrew. ‘Learning‘ is a big word. Maybe ‘exposing myself to Hebrew‘ is more like it. I’m signed up to five mornings of tuition in a place called Ulpanor in Tel Aviv. I’ve no expectation of reading the Torah any time soon. But I am interested to see what light Hebrew sheds on these people of the Land of Israel – a tribe which seems quite proud of under-utilising the word ‘sleekhah’ (pardon / excuse me) to an alarming degree.

I described to my teacher, Ran, that a man had actually said ‘sleekhah’ to me, just this morning. I was walking in the centre of Tel Aviv, about to overtake the old gent, when he turned and spat. He missed me by inches, seeing me only after the phlegm had left his lips. ‘Sleekhah’ was well in order, we both agreed. And it was said. Having made his excuses, I could only smile back at him, as I have not yet learnt how to say ‘no worries’.

Anyway, back to the lesson. So, it transpires that the verb ‘to be’ does not exist in the present tense in Hebrew. It’s there in the past and the future, but not the present. There is no is. Rather, it is simply the default, assumed by its absence. There is something very utilitarian in this absence of the verb to be, and I spoke to my friend, Thierry, about it. We met by chance in the Carmel market, as I trundled home after class.

‘The elders who revived Hebrew wanted to create a language that was simple and efficient’, he said. I will reserve judgment on whether they achieved their goals. All things considered, I personally don’t consider simplicity Hebrew’s strongest suit. For example, I am not impressed that everything is backwards. There’s a fail right there. But I remain open-minded. I’ve only had two classes.

It is a productive and surprisingly enjoyable thing, to learn a language through music. I wish the Irish eduction system had thought of this in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than tedious books on the intricacies of grammar. We learn better when learning is attached to something joyful. I think the Dutch and the Swedes have this figured this out long ago. They know rather random words and phrases in English which only pop music can teach you. Words such as fuckery (thanks Amy), phrases such as eight days a week, or pressing questions such as Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?

Today, Ran taught me basic words and their opposites using a well-known Israeli nursery rhyme. It was a fun, and fascinating way to learn. What we teach and sing to our children reflects something of the society we wish to build, and the things we most value. I am somewhat primed on the meanings behind what we teach our kids, having recently viewed a sex education video used in 1980s Ireland to prepare teenage schoolgirls for an upstanding life of servitude. Ahem, I mean….womanhood.

This video, let me tell you, is simultaneously alarming, hilarious, patronising and pathetic. It shows a compromised education system, twisted by the Catholic church, explaining sex (aka ‘love making’) in the most obtuse and ridiculous manner, framed as a moral choice rather than a natural human phenomenon. When I think of the waffle my generation had to endure, I feel quite moved. And when I consider how many of our Irish leaders wallowed in thuggery, corruption and sexual violence whilst feeding this tripe to their kids, I feel just a little angry.

Yes, what we tell our children is loaded with cultural meaning.

My Israeli nursery rhyme is called ‘Sometimes‘. It’s a jaunty little tune, pairing ‘sometimes I feel happy’ with ‘sometimes I feel sad’ etc., and continuing down through several emotions. The word ‘love’ is paired not with ‘hate’, but with ‘anger’. I am tempted to psychoanalyse this choice, but I have to admit that these paired words rhyme in Hebrew, and this may be all there is to it.

The chorus, repeated over and over, offers me something more. It goes,

‘However I feel, I always remain myself’.

Yes. That’s it. I always remain myself.

I think a defining feature on the streets of this complicated, passionate city is that people tend to remain true to their feelings, and to name them. They assert the right to be as they are, feel as they feel. It may in part be this quality which gives Tel Aviv the vital energy which so excites me. It is a quality that is gruff, strong, clear, but passionate and soulful too.

‘However I feel, I always remain myself’.

In such a world, there is less need for ‘excuse me’ (or sleekhah). There is less interest in covering up the flaws. ‘Pardon’, that bridge-building, beautiful repairer of things à la japonese, is not the Israeli way.

But I must hold myself back from declaring great universal truths about a people I hardly know. It is early days. I am, after all, only one nursery rhyme better informed than when I first began.




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