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A Hebrew Report Card

Many topics could be the ‘come back’ post after three-week vacation with my family in Israel. A silly story somehow wrapped around the title of “Tooth Fairies Don’t Work on Shabbat” or something deeper reflecting on the surprisingly more vulnerable conversations my brother and I had in the car while he ran errands. Still, the answer of what to write became what it often is for me, proficiency with words.

My Hebrew language studies traveled the trajectory of COVID emotions over the past two years. At first, when my trip in April of 2020 was cancelled, language learning simply paused. My tutoring sessions were cancelled, a logistical reality wrapped in the feeling as if there was no reason to make the effort. Then, somehow about six months into the pandemic, those same minutes spent became the little thing that repeated, the step forward that I hoped mattered.

I was completely aware that the emphasis the online programs placed on reading and the lack of conversation practice would affect my ability to use the Hebrew words I attempted to store in my head. I pressed on anyway motivated by the memory of my own blank stares when I had visited in February of 2019.

Upon my July arrival, my progress was tested, and I was not prepared for the standards I was given. Due to unfortunate circumstances and family tragedy, I spent the first half of my time immersed in rapid fire family conversation. The blank stare returned, a sharp and brilliant flash of sunlight. The ‘does not meet expectations’ baked through my skin deeper than the intense July heat. The sensation blinded me to that what I had accomplished.

Halfway through the trip, I admittedly dragged my feet at the idea of another extended family dinner. It would be only another reminder, after all, of my current failure to be able to communicate. We sat at the table, and I listened to the dishes being explained, in Hebrew. I heard as my sister-in-law mentioned one patty had meat and the other potato.

This time the words, “I’m not totally stupid” escaped my lips as I looked pleadingly at my sister-in-law. The meaning of that phrase was not the truth I was attempting to convey. I knew I was again trying to add comments to those report card boxes and attempting to create belief that I did in fact try to do better this time. But, better at what?

Out of the corner of my ear, I caught my brother asking for someone to pass him the root beer. Another family member looked as surprised at my success responding to communication as I did. A sense of success rose. I was emboldened and engaged the toddler seated to my right in dinner conversation. Her sweet and trusting face motivated me with her smiles at my responses to her requests. She extended my initial attempt at conversation with all the belief in the world I could understand her every word.

Except, I was understanding her words. I was applying specific verbs, their tenses and vocabulary that I chose intentionally to improve my interaction from the previous trip. This past week, I had never been failing, but I had been using other imagined standards than the original ones I used to frame my study. I was my own teacher. I could decide my so called grade. And, I was able to do what I was not able to do over two years ago when I wrote I blog post about my language skills, “A Hebrew Lesson Plan”. While I could not reciprocate a lot of conversation points, I was following verbs, conjugations, starting phrases others can finish for me, hearing commands and recognizing vocabulary. My nephew was not frustrated with me in the same way my niece was forced to be. Throughout our time together, I was able to understand him and get him what he wants, as much as any adult could satisfy a toddler.

I read the original post the morning after the Shabbat dinner and laughed a little. In that post I celebrated reading the cottage cheese container and this trip I can read most of the children’s menu. I know my letters, if not the words they make. Words like house and heart had been insurmountable and put in perspective my recent battle with the word for watermelon. Also, the word for clothes appeared as gadim, when in fact it’s missing the ‘b’. And yet, the pronunciation of that word had also been a topic of language learning conversation the night before. My sister-in-law clumped language learners together in their difficulty to connect the syllables appropriately, even my brother, whose language skills far exceeded mine. There’s always something to pick at, to feel bad about, or less than. Once reframed, with actual objectives and not someone else’s standard or report card, the reasons to do so disappear.

I finished reading the post. Two years ago, my niece was convinced I spoke Hebrew when I didn’t. Now, she’s sometimes willing to support my low language ability and sometimes not, very much conscious of the divide. I flashed to my automatic comment about being stupid. I considered the boxes on the report card for which I wanted credit. Effort. Attitude. Some vocabulary. Not grammar, at least not for its own sake. The language learning after all was not meant to pass any tests, but to create connection. I wanted to illustrate to my niece and nephews that I understood language learning was hard, but that it would continue to unite us. It was, after all, the words said in their voices that somehow took root in my memory the easiest and stayed with me the longest.


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