Hebrew

So now that I'm done with my program, I'm spending the vast majority of my time studying Hebrew. It's pretty intense: class is 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, and I probably spend a similar amount of time doing homework and drilling at home.

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty silly thing to do. To understand why it may seem that way, just take a look at the demographics of my Hebrew class of about 10. About half are studying Hebrew because they made aliyah, i.e. immigrated to Israel, or are seriously considering it. I'm not moving here, or at least I'm not planning on it. If we end up with President Trump, all bets are off.

The other members of the class seem to be studying Hebrew for romantic reasons: i.e., they fell in love with an Israeli and now need to ingratiate themselves with said Israeli's judgmental Jewish mother and the rest of the family. When my mother was here last week, she aggressively questioned me if that was my reason for staying to study Hebrew: a secret girlfriend. Well, I swear that's not the case. My Hebrew study is motivated solely by personal interest.

Without one of those reasons, the study of Hebrew seems pretty pointless. You can certainly live here without Hebrew: this land has spent the past century in the sphere of influence of one English-speaking superpower or another (first Britain, and then the US), so English is ubiquitously spoken here. It's actually hard to learn Hebrew here because people switch into English by default if you give even the slightest indication that you're not a fluent/native Hebrew speaker, making it very difficult to practice outside of the classroom. Public accommodations, public services, etc. are easily accessed in English (more easily accessed in English than in Arabic, actually, even though Arabic is an official national language and the native language of a large indigenous minority. But that's another story). So yes. No girlfriend, I'm not moving here, and I don't need it to get by. So why am I doing this again, instead of, say, spending a few hours a day at an internship and the rest of my time on the Tel Aviv beaches?

The initial push, I think, was my guilt at being monolingual. I think of myself as being an intelligent and educated person (perhaps misguidedly), and I'm not sure if being monolingual is compatible with those traits. It certainly isn't outside of the United States, or even in the United States historically, where you couldn't call yourself educated if you couldn't speak French, Greek, and Latin. I also feel guilty as a monolingual traveler, going into other peoples' homelands and expecting that they speak my language. This still begs the question, though-why Hebrew? I can go to precisely one place to speak it. Why not, say, Spanish, or Chinese, or French? Other than default-this is my last chance to learn a language before law school and my real career, I'm spending this last chance period in Israel, therefore I should learn Hebrew. This doesn't seem like a good line of reasoning.

A funny thing happened when I started learning Hebrew during Achvat Amim, though. I discovered that I really liked it as a language. The first reason, obviously, is its directness. The stereotype of the direct, blunt, Israeli is notorious. I'm not sure if Israelis tend to be direct and blunt and modern Hebrew has come to reflect that, or if modern Hebrew is direct and blunt in a way that shapes the norms of communication for Israelis, even when they're communicating in other languages (i.e. the largely debunked Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), but there certainly seems to be overlap. I really like that. I'm not known as, say, the most diplomatic person in the world, and I like speaking and writing in a language that seems compatible with my personality. Perhaps this is a silly reason to want to learn a language, but so be it.

The second reason why I've come to like Hebrew is its structure. Hebrew is built on a system of roots consisting of 2-4 consonants. By adding vowels, prefixes, and suffixes, you can create a variety of nouns and verbs relating to the concept or idea defined by the root. Given this root system, Hebrew's a language that seems very amenable to subtext and allusion. Let me give you an example.

If you've participated in a debate about Israel/Palestine, you may have come across the word hasbara (הסברה). In the United States, it's usually used in a derogatory context to refer to what left-wingers see as right-wing pro-Israel propaganda. (http://www.standwithus.com/ has some good examples of hasbara if you're unfamiliar with the genre). But what does this actually mean? Well, the word hasbara is based on the root סבר, which is the root for words relating to the concept of "explaining". For instance, the infinitive verb "to explain" is lehasbir (להסביר). So hasbara, a noun, is something like an explanation. This makes sense-if an entity (whether a state, a company, a political candidate, etc) explains its behavior, critics will call it propaganda and its allies will accept it as that, an explanation. And, in fact, the word hasbara has a similar connotation in Hebrew as the English term "public relations"-the same idea as propaganda, but without the negative connotations.

So I'm basically committing a significant amount of time to the study of a language because I find its structure somewhat interesting and because I superficially think it's compatible with my personality. Perhaps this seems like a waste of time. I find it challenging and thrilling.