Twenty-four students shuffled into a room with barren walls, a single Bauhaus cabinet and a clock showing eight thirty-seven. “Shalom. Manishma?”, teacher Rachel started. Ulpan Neve Tsedek is an immersive language school in Tel Aviv, where Hebrew is taught in Hebrew. I learnt more about Israel from that first lesson than from being married to an Israeli for twenty years.
30,000 New Jews moved to Israel in 2015, up from 26,500 last year, the largest influx in 15 years, driven largely by the flow of emigrants from France and Ukraine. Olim or recent immigrants have a mythical status, receiving a free one-way ticket to Israel, a six-months stipend, rent subsidy, health coverage, university and customs benefits, in addition to free language classes at an Ulpan.
My class was not for immigrants, but for tourists. Many classmates were millennials from Europe: Greece, France, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, and Norway. Some came here for work or followed an Israeli partner. Other tourists in the class were immigrants in disguise. Some had in fact been in Israel for many years.
Ten o’ clock. I stood clutching a steaming cup from the discount coffee joint Cofix in the doorway to the Ulpan. “Lo russit”, I said in very primitive Hebrew.
“Lo anglit – no English”, George (not his real name) from Russia said as he straightened his black, leather jacket.
Primitive or not, Hebrew truly was the only language we could communicate in. This is what the Ulpan is all about, for tourists and immigrants alike. Without a common language, the melting pot of Israel does not work. Spending several months in close proximity with other students from around the world also forces bonds.
Ten thirty and a little bit. The teacher clearly believed in the Israeli tradition of taking punctuality as a mere guideline. Our first lesson resumed. It was entirely dedicated to perfecting the art of asking somebody “What’s going on?”. Eskimos have many words for snow, but Israelis have many ways to ask “What’s happening?”. Teaching us all these phrases was clearly a priority for Rachel. She called it ping-pong. We had to ask our neighbor “How are you going?” at least three different ways in rapid succession.
“Ma slomech?”, I started which is probably the most formal of the greetings and literally means “How is your peace?”
“Tov, Manishma?”, George replied, literally “Good, what does it sound like?”
“Lo ra, ma kore?”, I answered. “Not bad, what is happening?”
George at bat. “Hakol tov, ma hamatsav” or “Everything is ok, what is the situation?”
“Beseder, ma chadash?, I deflected. “Alright, what’s new?”
“Sababa, main hainyanim”, literally “What are the affairs?” with a little Arab slang mixed in.
“Yofi, ma kacha”, usually a prompt to elaborate “What else is going on?”, I was starting to feel a little ridiculous.
“Ech olech, …”, George threw his hands up in the air. “Dai”, which I knew meant “enough” because my husband said this to my kids all the time.
It should not have come as such surprise that “What’s happening?” is such an important question in Israel. In Israel, there is always something going on, and a lot of it is not peaceful. In the years we have visited the country, we witnessed rocket fire, suicide bombings, and stabbings. I learnt to obsessively check the news, as things can change minute to minute. To be sure, my Israeli husband also phones his mother several times a day and his brother every other day.
One o’ clock. No bell rang, but Rachel dismissed the class with a simple “Yom Tov”. George and I walked our separate ways. While I still didn’t have any plans to immigrate to Israel, I felt more at home than I had during twenty years of fly-by visits. As I looked after George, I was looking forward to the conversations we would be able to have in three months.